Welcome to part 5 of this series of posts about Eve, short for Everyparent of an “Easy to Love but Hard to Raise” Child. Eve is an archetype who represents the experience of raising a child with ADHD or other invisible disabilities. She’s revealed in the upcoming book, Easy to Love but Hard to Raise: Real Parents, Challenging Kids, True Stories (which is now available for pre-order direct from the publisher, DRT Press . Get it 3 months early at 30% off cover price!).
In parts 1 through 4 of this series we explored the following quotes from Eve, all of which reflect the pre-diagnosis stage of the special needs parenting experience, from when our children are infants, through the preschool years. Eve says “The experience of parenting this child is nothing like I thought it would be.”
“I can’t enjoy playgroup, story time at the library, or other chances to spend time with other parents and kids, because my child’s behavior is too hard to manage.”
“I expected standard discipline tactics to work, but they just don’t. I seek out new parenting strategies, but they don’t work either.”
In this post we’ll explore the next quote, still representing the pre-diagnosis stage. Eve says “Other adults—family, parents of other kids, even strangers in the grocery store—believe I’m the cause of my child’s behavioral problems.”
Here’s how I describe this phase of Eve’s experience in the book’s introduction “Eve had expected standard discipline tactics to work with Eli, but they just don’t. She’s frustrated and angry, with Eli and with herself. She reads parenting book after parenting book, and tries strategy after strategy. Nothing works. And when they don't, Eve blames herself. Eve starts to question her ability to parent.
The idea that Eve is at fault is reinforced by others. Family members, friends, the parents of her child’s peers, his teachers—even strangers in the grocery store—are critical of her parenting abilities. Eve is far from a lazy parent; in fact, she has no choice but to work harder than most, but her efforts aren’t reflected in her child’s behavior for others to see. Some people express their criticism of Eve outright. Others show their disapproval through their expressions, their reactions.
Eve often feels shame in situations where other adults can observe her with Eli, and she starts to withdraw from her former supports. She begins to feel isolated. Being judged by her family hurts the most. They believe Eve’s leniency created her child’s behavior problems. It’s an age-old story—when children have problems, mothers, in particular, are believed to be entirely at fault.”
As is the case with each of Eve’s quotes, this sentiment was expressed again and again in the personal essays that are at the heart of the book Easy to Love but Hard to Raise. Contributor Delayne Ryms, who parents her son Jorin from a wheel chair, provides us with one example. She says this in her essay, “Anchored” “We moved from New Mexico to Georgia when Jorin was six months old and were able to spend more time with my mother in Florida, and with my father and step-mother in Georgia. I soon learned that even my own family members, operating from spare-the-rod child rearing positions, assumed that Jorin’s emerging behavioral problems were due to faulty mothering. Assumptions grew like mushrooms after monsoons. My mother said that I was far too lenient, from manners to punishment. Few people understood that with so many battles to fight, and with my body’s limited weapons and defenses, I chose my battles carefully. The behaviors they found offensive were, in the scheme of things, low on my list of priorities. Even those who understood how my physical restrictions contributed to Jorin’s misbehavior did so from a judgmental rather than supportive position.
The glares and stares I received in grocery stores, Cub Scout meetings, libraries, and parks oozed disapproval. I sunk under these unspoken judgments and a monolithic amount of maternal guilt.”
Judy Winter , author of Breakthrough Parenting for Children with Special Needs: Raising the Bar of Expectations, addresses the issue of blame in our book, via the expert Q & A that follows "Q. In Delayne Ryms' essay about her experiences parenting her son, Jorin, eventually diagnosed with ADHD and mood disorder, she says that everyone around her felt that her son was just a "normal boy" who needed more discipline from his mother. This made her feel judged and discredited as a parent. Is this a common experience for parents of children with "invisible" special needs: differences that manifest themselves in behavior but may not be evident by simply looking at the child?
A. Unfortunately, what you’ve described is all too common for many parents of children with specific needs not readily visible to the eye—and yes, blaming the parent for poor discipline and less-than-stellar parenting decisions is often the resulting, often unfair judgment. People seem quicker to harshly judge children whose needs may involve acting-out behaviors and/or mental health issues, in part, because of fear. On the other hand, parents of children with more obvious physical needs face tough judgment of their own. Based on what’s seen their kids are often viewed as more disabled than they really are and less may be expected of them as a result. That was the case with my own son who had cerebral palsy and used a wheelchair. Whether or not your child’s needs are visible, it helps to understand that many people react to your child out of emotion, ignorance, lack of experience, or fear. Forgive them. Educate them. Move on. You become your child’s greatest advocate when you use such unnerving moments to help others see your child’s value, potential and yes, their challenges, more clearly and accurately. Our children are great teachers."
Kirk Martin, founder of CelebrateCalm.com , also served as an expert for the book. The wisdom that follows comes not from the book, but from a recent edition of his e-newsletter. Thank you, Kirk, for giving us permission to reprint it.
"You know what it's like. You just want to enjoy a simple, peaceful meal out together as a family. Okay, maybe not peaceful, but without incident. As the waiter brings your food and you pick up your fork, your son begins melting down.
Your anxiety and blood pressure skyrocket. You try the sweet, "Shhhhh, it's okay, Honey," but you know that hasn't worked the last 497 times you tried it. So your tone gets short—"Stop it. Now." People's glares stab at you. "Can't you even control your kids for a simple meal?" Embarrassed, you yank your child's arm and pull him to the bathroom. Now he's crying and you feel awful. So how can we change this situation?
Realize that there are three incontrovertible facts of life that you cannot control. The secret is learning to control what you can.
1) You are going to be judged. Get used to it. You are a terrible parent. Why do you come to the store/restaurant if you can't even control your child? You can feel the glares and hear the lectures in your head. What CAN you control?
Control your embarrassment. This is YOUR issue, not the child's. If you allow another person's opinion to cause you to snap at your kids, you are giving a stranger power over your emotions and how you treat your kids. Do not give anyone that power. When your child sees that you can remain calm and emotionally available to them, even when others are giving dismissive glances, they will feel safe and trust you.
2) Other people will say stupid things. Count on it. You'll get stares from people wondering why you have three multi-ethnic kids about the same age. In the presence of your kids, people will ask - "Where did you get them?" as if there's a Kids R Us to pick out children. - "What's wrong with their REAL parents? Drugs? Oh, that's a shame." - "They are so lucky you took them."
You can't control other people's ignorance, but you can control your response.
Make it personal. Brag about your kids' gifts and passions. "This is Tarik and he can play the piano and guitar beautifully. Jadyn has the biggest heart in the world and I wouldn't be surprised if she helps millions of handicapped kids one day. And this is Carlos, the best Lego builder in America and a future architect. I guess you can tell I'm really proud of my kids and blessed to have them in my life."
This should produce some shame in the people asking the questions—good! By controlling how YOU talk about YOUR kids, you change how other people view them. And boy does it feel good for kids to hear Mom and Dad brag about their specific gifts.
3) Your kids are going to have meltdowns in public. It's a given. You can be the greatest parent ever and it will happen. So the big question is: WHEN this happens, how are YOU going to react?
Control yourself, not your kids. Look inward and control your own anxiety. Get to a calm place first. Speak in a firm, matter-of-fact manner, like you've been through this before and it's no big deal. Calmly redirect your child—if you can, give him a specific job to focus on. "Could you please get us twelve napkins and seven packets of ketchup? That would help me a lot." Getting kids moving is a great way to extinguish the emotional fire. When you stay immovable, it gives your kids confidence. Inside they know, "I can count on my Mom when I'm at my worst."
Is it easy? Absolutely not. So practice it ahead of time. The next time your child gets upset, what specific action can you take? How are you going to calm yourself in that moment? Picture it and practice it. It gets easier!"
In my next post, Eve struggles with the following issues “My child’s behavior problems must be my fault. I’ve stopped trusting my parenting instincts. I’m not the calm, firm but loving parent I thought I would be.”
In previous posts, I’ve provided results from an informal “M & M Poll” that I conducted at a conference on children’s mental health, in order to show the degree to which the experiences of real parents of “Easy to Love, but…” kids match the archetype, Eve’s. Now, we have an online survey to refer to instead! (Take the survey!)
As of the time I’m writing this post, 172 parents have completed the survey. Here are the results for the quote that is the subject of this post:
(Image of woman pointing from fightingintheshade.blogspot.com.)