Today ended well. We went to a potluck with our fellow Bible Study families and for the most part, it went well and our children behaved. For most parents, this would be a no-brainer. For me, I am almost crying, I am so relieved and the emotional fall-out after the event is over is almost like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Why? Because I have a nine year old with extreme social anxiety and behavioral issues.
What does that mean? It means my oldest son is very unpredictable in social settings (well, he is almost predictably badly behaved, but it is unpredictable how badly he is going to behave.) In social settings, he gets very anxious. He worries about what people are going to think about him. Then he gets himself worked up and any perceived slight or insult will trigger his anger. He calls names, he swears, he hits, he throws a major fit. At best, he is just sullen and rude and leaves everyone alone to sulk in a corner, muttering to himself and we just hope no one gets close enough to hear the awful things he is saying.
This has been my life with him for about three or four years. Sometimes it has been better than this. Sometimes it has been much, much worse. School has been a nightmare. We have him in therapy with a psychiatrist and he’s on his 2nd counselor. He sees a counselor and a psychiatrist at school on a weekly basis as well. His school has created an action plan of rules just for him, because he doesn’t fit into any of their existing protocol for dealing with troubled children.
I hardly leave the house during the day, because I don’t want to get a phone call from the school telling me I need to pick him up when I’m somewhere that I can’t just drop everything and go get him. I spend every school day cringing with dread any time the phone rings, because so many times it IS the school calling to tell me something I don’t want to hear.
Social occasions are nightmares. I can sense the thoughts of the other parents as my child acts out. He’s behaving like a spoiled uncontrolled brat and I’m helpless. I feel their judgment on my shoulders. “Why does she allow that?” “Why doesn’t she punish him?” “That mother needs to have a firmer hand.” “She needs to grow up and control that kid.”
I just want to cry. So many of my fellow parents do want to offer support and understanding. But as much as I appreciate their support (and I do, it does help!), very few of them can really understand. It is one of those annoying circumstances where you can’t ever fully understand unless you are living it yourself (and I used to hate it when people would tell me that, but I’ve come to know that sometimes it is true). Only other parents of special needs children can understand. Leaving a party, restaurant, or other place due to a tantrum is something most parents experience. But for most parents, it is a limited-time phase a child goes through or a once-in-a-rare-occasion occurrence. For a parent of a special needs child, that phase can last years (or a lifetime). The frequency of occurrence is more like 95% rather than 5%. If your child acted out to the point you had to leave during a social function 19 out of 20 times, instead of once out of 20 times, would you be tempted to cut back your social calendar? I think so! The intensity of what we “special needs” parents are dealing with is so hard to explain so that a parent of “normal” children can understand. It is a bit like a person with a sprained ankle trying to understand what it is like for a double leg amputee to live in a world full of stairs.
Maybe none of the other parents are thinking judge-y thoughts about me, but I feel like they are, because half the time I’m thinking that about myself. I feel like a failure as a parent ALL THE TIME. But being firm with my son doesn’t work. Disciplines that are standard fare for most children (time-outs, grounding, taking a favorite toy away) don’t work. He’s not a spoiled brat – he has anxiety. His brain does not function the way a normal nine-year-old brain functions. His thought patterns are different. He gets locked into a cycle where he feels attacked and his only recourse is to attack back. His brain perceives little problems as huge life-or-death problems and then he’s at a point where reason just doesn’t work. He’s out of control and there is nothing he can do about it. There is little that I can do about it either, except to remove him from the situation.
Once he calms down and his brain unlocks and he can think and reason again, he’s almost always remorseful. The worst part is that he hates himself. He hates that he can’t control his brain. He hates that he embarrasses himself and us as his parents. That embarrassment just makes his anxiety that much worse the next time we have a social function to endure.
So really, it is no shock that we tend to avoid social situations. So much easier to just not go in the first place, than to go and have to leave partway through, humiliated and defeated, frustrated and angry, sad and despairing that nothing will ever improve – my heart exhausted for myself and broken for my son.
However, that won’t really help him in the long run, will it? He’s on two different medications, he’s been in counseling for almost two years, we’ve learned a lot as his parents. So we have been trying to increase our social life. Tonight’s venture to the potluck was a step in that direction.
We talked to him before-hand, explaining the timing of the event, who would be there, what his options for activities were, what we expected of him, what the consequence would be if he made bad behavior decisions, etc. We braced ourselves and prepared for the worst – we had a game plan in place in case he behaved his worst. Then the evening passed with only a few minor incidents. One of which got him a time-out on the couch, where he immediately started to get into fight mode, but we both sat down and were able to talk to him before he escalated. We were able to praise him for the good play he’d been engaged in with the little kids up to that point. We stressed that we understood how hard it was to be the biggest and oldest kid and not be able to play as roughly as they were because he was bigger and stronger. Then we gently explained how his behavior could be harmful and asked that if he didn’t feel he could play safely, that he could choose to draw with the drawing paper and pens we’d brought for him instead. He opted to come hang out with us and draw for a bit while he had dessert and within 15 minutes had regained his control and went back to play and the evening ended successfully (of course, we were the first ones to leave – we wanted to get out of there while we could still end on a positive note!) We told the kids how proud we were of their behavior (our 2nd son is high-functioning Autistic and so has his own set of issues sometimes!) and that we appreciated their good behavior because it allowed us to enjoy rare grown-up time with our friends.
Still, even as well as the evening went, I was an emotional mess once we got home and I put the kids to bed and had some down time to decompress. Even though our oldest behaved himself pretty well this time, I was still waiting the entire evening for the usual fall-out. Like a soldier returned from battle who hits the ground when a car backfires, my heart rate increased every time I heard a crash or a child cry. Even if it wasn’t my child causing the tears, my stress level was still zooming up with each incident – whether my child was involved or not. By the time we got home, I was emotionally exhausted. Just another side affect of living with and parenting a child with social anxiety and behavioral issues. I still count tonight as a win, though, and it gives me hope that there are more wins in our future.
I know that God gave us the children that He did for a reason. I know how much I’ve grown as a person in my tolerance, patience, and understanding. I am a stronger person for having parented my son and I hope to be even stronger by the time he’s a grown man and living his own life. I hope and pray that he will be stronger too, and in full control of himself, having learned how to live with his anxiety and anger. Most of the time, despite all the struggles and pain and worry and stress we’ve been through, I feel positive about the future. I trust God’s purpose for our lives so I have hope that what we are enduring today will be used for something great in the future. However, I am still human. This isn’t easy. There are times I want to cry. There are times that I do. But amongst the little defeats, the many set-backs, and the huge blowouts, there are sweet, precious moments of winning. I’ll take them.