I’m not a bad parent…right?

My beautiful boys

I’ve read a number of blog posts where the writer describes the ways that strangers or relatives make them feel that their parenting skills are inadequate. This post will not be adding to that number. It is about a recent struggle I’ve had in dealing with some challenging behaviours. My reactions to those behaviours led me to conclude (at least initially) that I was wasn’t being the best mother I could be.

Oliver had been displaying some pretty aggressive behaviour towards Owen: pushing him hard enough so that he would fall over, kicking him (usually once Owen was on the floor) and pulling his hair. The worst incident happened when Oliver pushed Owen off a chair and Owen fell on his head. It got to the stage that Owen would cower every time his brother came close.

Of all the challenges I’ve faced as a mother so far, this is the first that left me feeling… powerless, bereft and, to be completely honest, angry. Owen is the sweetest little guy and it hurt like nothing I’d ever experienced before to see Oliver behave that way towards him. (Don’t get me wrong, I know my Owen isn’t perfect – he can be incredibly stubborn (and passive aggressive!) at times.) But then there was also the fact that Oliver’s behaviour was so out of character – he’s normally really affectionate and caring. Seeing one of my babies hurting another of my babies was… very painful. Then there was the reaction of the boys’ father and grandmother. It took a lot out of me frankly, having to constantly explain that Oliver wasn’t being ‘naughty’ or ‘bad’ and that the right response wasn’t to shout at him about what he was doing and that he didn’t need to be disciplined or punished.

Then one day it happened; I cracked. I came out of the bathroom and Oliver was pulling Owen’s hair and kicking him. I shouted at Oliver to stop but then I found myself yelling “Why? Why are you doing this to Owen? I don’t understand” I was holding Owen and crying and then the look on Oliver’s face made me cry more. I’d hurt him. I held both of them and cried. I knew I couldn’t handle this behaviour effectively any longer and to avoid getting upset with him again I started putting Oliver into time out. Not because I thought this was the best strategy but because at least I wouldn’t shout at him and worsen both the situation and my feelings. But I felt like I had failed him.

Oliver has had recurring bouts of aggression which I’d dealt with in the past using planned ignoring. I didn’t feel that this was effective in dealing with this latest phase however, especially as the behaviour wasn’t being ignored by others, i.e. his caregiver, his father and his grandmother. I hated putting Oliver in time out but until I could speak to his supervising therapist and we could figure out a better approach I needed to be able to calm myself down when these episodes occurred. I confided in a good friend who is also an ASD parent about what was happening and their response was that they’d never used time outs but that their ex did. Given my friend’s opinion of their ex, this was less than a ringing endorsement of my strategy. I officially diagnosed myself as a bad parent.

I compiled some data on the behaviour and finally got a chance to speak to Oliver’s supervising therapist about strategies. I told her that I really needed her to be very specific and detailed with me. If she was going to recommend that I ignore the behaviour then I needed to know exactly what that would look like – how I could ignore Oliver while interceding to make sure Owen was safe at the same time. We came up with the following:

  • I would work on timed, specific, positive reinforcement with Oliver. I was separating the boys to avoid incidents but she wanted me to actively work on putting them together as much as possible – to sit them together during meals and on public transit, to get them to walk together instead of me being in the middle of them and so on. During those times I would tell Oliver how happy I was with how he was interacting with Owen. I would make sure I did this at least 10 times a day.
  • In terms of how to react when a problem behaviour arose I was not to say anything at all to Oliver, not to make eye contact with him and not to touch him if possible. Ideally I would put myself in-between the two boys with my back to Oliver and that would be sufficient but if I had to, I could grab his brother and Owen and I would go into “time out”.

Whether it was these strategies or if the behaviour has simply waned on its own I’m not completely sure, but Oliver is no longer aggressive towards Owen and for that I am extremely grateful. The behaviour had spiked when there were a number of changes to the boys’ routine and so it may have been simply a reaction to that – Oliver can be very rigid.

So, where did that leave me in terms of my feeling that I’d failed him as a parent? I realized what was really eating at me: not being able to understand what was going on with Oliver. I knew he wasn’t being naughty but it was so tough to explain to others exactly what he was doing. If I couldn’t explain it to others, well, that meant I probably didn’t understand it myself. I needed to understand my son before I could start to feel better about myself.

From the data I’d been collating I knew the behaviour was mostly in reaction to not liking the things he was hearing. For example, if he was told to wait and he didn’t want to. Or if he requested an activity that wasn’t available to him at that point. Clearly frustration at his lack of control over circumstances was at play here so I had to be better prepared if I was going to give him “bad news”.  If something that he wanted wasn’t available then I had to offer him a choice of things he liked that he could have. Good old redirection! The problem for me was: this was a strategy to prevent a reaction. It didn’t get me any closer to understanding Oliver. Why was aggression towards Owen his reaction to feeling frustrated?

I started thinking about life for him in general. As I mentioned previously, Oliver can be inflexible, rigid and along with that goes some anxiety. He holds it together all day while he’s in IBI and so its understandable that sometimes he would lose it at home. I’ve looked into some ways that could help him manage his tension and I’m going to try progressive muscle relaxation and breathing exercises with him. These are after all good ways of coping with stress regardless so there’s no downside to him learning these skills. Again though, this is another strategy – helping him learn ways to self-regulate. It still didn’t explain why he was currently dealing with his anxiety and tension by being aggressive towards his brother instead of (say) throwing himself on the floor screaming – an alternate strategy he has deployed in the past.

I knew Oliver didn’t resent or dislike Owen. He will often talk about how cute Owen is. He’ll stroke Owen’s hair and tell me that its really soft. He cuddles his brother a lot and if Owen gets upset he’ll say “Owen’s sad”. Oliver is actually a good reader of his brother – when Owen is crying because he’s angry rather than hurting or upset, Oliver will say “Owen’s fussy!” (I have to say, it’s pretty cute!) So again I came back to the question – why is he beating the crap out of his brother?!

Just so we’re clear, I wasn’t reinforcing the behaviour by “giving in” – Oliver was not getting the things he wanted out of this. However, I understood what his therapist was saying – that the attention Oliver got as a result of the behaviour (me running over, telling him No, putting him in time out, etc.) had a reinforcing rather than a deterring effect. But this still didn’t explain to me why he was choosing that particular behaviour, especially given the fact that it did absolutely nothing to ease his frustration. Again and again I went over the same ground – I knew he didn’t like hurting his brother so why was he doing it?

The scales finally fell off my eyes as I was reading an article on behaviour. The writer was discussing “extinction bursts”. This is what can occur when you start implementing measures designed to extinguish a particular behaviour and in response the behaviour  suddenly and dramatically starts to increase. Wikipedia’s example of an extinction burst is as follows:

“Take, as an example, a pigeon that has been reinforced to peck an electronic button. During its training history, every time the pigeon pecked the button, it will have received a small amount of bird seed as a reinforcer. So, whenever the bird is hungry, it will peck the button to receive food. However, if the button were to be turned off, the hungry pigeon will first try pecking the button just as it has in the past. When no food is forthcoming, the bird will likely try again … and again, and again. After a period of frantic activity, in which their pecking behavior yields no result, the pigeon’s pecking will decrease in frequency.”

In explaining extinction bursts the writer of the article I was reading used an example that most adults will have some familiarity with – what can happen when another person ends a relationship and we are not ready to accept this. Typical reactions are crying, negotiating, getting angry (sounds a lot like our kids, right?). For a period of time these behaviours may worsen and we find ourselves continually thinking about and attempting to contact the person we still desperately want to be with. Some individuals will go to the extreme of threatening to harm themselves or even actually harming themselves.

I thought of how intense the pain is when a relationship ends and it suddenly occurred to me – what if Oliver feels pain that deeply when he doesn’t know how to handle a situation? As adults, what do we often do when we hurt so badly that we don’t know how to deal with the pain effectively? Well, we sometimes lash out at the people we love the most. We know its not right but we also know that its effective because those people love us and somehow this will result in us getting some help. We’re hurting but we don’t have the words to explain it – we just want someone to make it better.

I don’t know if this is how Oliver feels but it makes sense to me. Thinking of it in this way has helped me understand what could be going on inside my beautiful boy’s head. If “behaviour is communication” then this behaviour helped me understand what Oliver was trying to tell me. I did (and still do) feel badly about shouting at him and putting him in time out but a lot of positive things have come out of that heartbreaking period. I’ve discovered some strategies that seem to be working and that feel effective. I’ve got some ideas for more things I can do to help Oliver self-regulate. Most importantly I feel like I understand Oliver again.

I don’t believe that mistakes make us bad parents – its what we learn from those mistakes that counts. So – what do you folks think?

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18 Responses to I’m not a bad parent…right?

  1. Elise August 20, 2011 at 8:38 am #

    You should not feel guilty because you punish your son. If he understands then he will understand not to hurt his brother too. Time outs are negligible. That he doesn’t like them, well then he won’t hurt his brother. Depending on his level of cognitive functioning even more drastic consequences can be instituted. Society will not make excuses for his behavior and the sooner you teach him that he can’t hurt his brother and stop making excuses for him the better off he will be.

    Just as an aside if you continue to make excuses for Oliver to the detriment of Owen you will be destroying your relationship with Owen. There will come a time when Owen will not forgive you for not protecting him from an abusive brother. His older brother no matter his disability does not have a right to hurt him or to take his disappointments out on him. Owen has a right to live in a safe and secure environment, which you are obligated to provide.

    • OMum22 August 20, 2011 at 10:29 pm #

      Elise, thank you for stopping by my blog and for taking the time to comment. I know you have lots of experience to draw from having raised boys who are also on the spectrum and who are now much older than mine, so, thank you for sharing your thoughts. If my post gave the impression that I have a problem with time outs per se, then I apologize because that is not the case. Using time outs certainly does not equate to bad parenting in my book and I know they can be an effective strategy that other parents use with success. Different things work for different behaviours in different children. I felt badly about three things: yelling at Oliver because I’d never done it before, my inability to understand his behaviour and for putting him in time out when I knew it wasn’t an effective strategy for him. I was using time out for myself ,as a way of coping with the stress of the situation, but I knew that it wasn’t working to decrease his problem behaviour. Your statement that I’m making excuses for Oliver is not accurate. His behaviour was not acceptable and I’m fully prepared to use discipline to help him understand what is and isn’t appropriate. My two objectives were to keep Owen safe and to eliminate Oliver’s aggressive behaviour. I could guarantee the former if I succeeded in doing the latter. Timeouts weren’t effective and the other strategies I used were. I’m happy I went with what worked.

  2. Karen V August 20, 2011 at 9:31 am #

    Geez woman!! Quit being so hard on yourself. This has got to be extremely difficult. While imagining how you feel- I only have one child. I think I would be less thoughtful and holding it together with the two – one exhibiting the frustration on the other. Everything you did sounds completely inderstandable under the circumstances. Remember – we’re just parents – perfection does not come with that! I like your reasoning though. Makes sense to me. Miss you! Be back soon….Meanwhile, I send you (((hugs)))

    • OMum22 August 20, 2011 at 10:34 pm #

      🙂 Great to see you here Karen – miss you too! Of course you’re right, perfection is unattainable but it was a tough few weeks of feeling that I was getting nowhere. I do well when I understand a situation and have a plan for dealing with it. For a time there I felt like I was floundering and I hate that more than anything. Hope you and the family are doing well. Look forward to catching up when the trial is over.

  3. Lisa Gallegos (@lovelylicious) August 20, 2011 at 1:27 pm #

    Something you have to realize about siblings….they fight. Its going to happen, what you do about it is the deciding factor. Timeouts or intervening is working, but with SN kids you have to think about whats causing the behavior.

    Racer fights as well and I think its about as normal as he gets sometimes cause all the kids fight at some point.

    We are raising our kids to be as “normal” as possible, and sibling issues are one of those things. I agree with Karen….relax. Look at the bigger picture, use distraction tactics. I’m not always in the room with my kids but I can hear when Racers about to hit his boiling point, that’s when I usually pull him and give him something else to do.

    ((((hugs)))) my friend…you are an awesome mom!!

    • OMum22 August 20, 2011 at 10:37 pm #

      Thanks Lisa. You are definitely my go-to expert on siblings 😉 You are absolutely right about siblings fighting – I remember what my sister and I were like!! It is tough for me to sometimes realize what is typical behaviour because both my kids are on the spectrum. I’m glad I have friends like yourself to remind me that some of the things we see are perfectly “normal” 🙂

  4. Leah Kelley August 20, 2011 at 2:37 pm #

    This is an excellent EXCELLENT post!

    It is critical to remember that behaviour is communication. Your child was communicating with his behaviour – and while it may not be entirely possible to figure out exactly what he is communicating – your response behaviour also communicates something. I think the steps you took to take the focus off of the misbehaviour were well planned and executed. Your child did not get attention for interacting negatively with his sibling – and he was provided extra opportunities to be guided and practice successful interaction. Yay!!

    You did an excellent job, as well, explaining that the intensity of a problem can increase when we are changing out tactics, and trying a new intervention or strategy. In my work as an educator I really try to let parents know that sometimes the worsening of a particular behaviour (for a short time) can be an indication that you are on the right track. “What I usually do is not working… I must need more of this…” and thus the behaviour intensifies.

    I do think there needs to some distinction between punishment and discipline. “Discipline” comes form the word disciple – which basically means to teach. Removing your child from a situation which they are not handling properly is logical and is a huge teaching opportunity. While yelling at one’s child may not be the most productive behaviour – it is understandable at times – if not particularly useful. (I have done it too… C’mon, no one is perfect…) However there may be an opportunity after the fact – when all involved are calmer – to find some elements in the interaction that allow you to teach your child something new.

    This may be as simple as explaining that you were frustrated, and exploring your reaction and possible alternative reactions to you child. Because kids with autism have a difficult time with Theory of Mind or understanding the perspectives of others, there may also be an opportunity for them to examine how they felt when you yelled and explain that that is how others feel when they yell or have a melt down. Something like “This is not a behaviour that makes others feel comfortable – what can we try instead??” is a good place to begin this kind of exploration with your child. If we come at things from a certain angle, there is always a learning opportunity… even when it is us who have the learning to do.

    and finally … RIGHT! You are NOT a bad parent… you are awesome!

    • OMum22 August 20, 2011 at 11:01 pm #

      I love you Leah – you write a comment that is longer than many blogger’s posts 😀 Seriously though, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. I love the insight about “behaviour is communication” not being a one-way street. Our behaviour is communicating very loud messages to our kids and honestly, that is SO true in Oliver’s case because he is a huge imitator. His speech is echolalic, he will imitate gestures, sounds (he’s a great mimic actually) and he learns things by modelling. I’m hugely aware that I’m a living breathing walking model for him (no pressure, lol). This also, I believe, supports my opinion that a “meet like with like” approach is not effective for Oliver. If he’s upset, then me getting upset is just going to escalate his behaviour. The other piece of context that I didn’t put in the blog but that is very relevant is – I am the sun in Oliver’s universe. He always wants to be near me, touching me, talking to me, etc. If I put him in a time out then I’m still giving him my attention – he’s not going to perceive this as a negative consequence especially because when he and I aren’t together he actually chooses to be alone. If I grab Owen and go away then I’ve just removed the two things he loves most (ok, its a close call between me and the iPad but you get the idea). This seems to me to be a far more powerful consequence of his behaviour. Lastly, I also liked the point you make about using these events as a learning opportunity. I don’t think Oliver’s at the stage yet where I could have a conversation with him about this but I hope I can do it in the future as his language improves. Thanks again. 🙂

  5. clairelouise82 August 20, 2011 at 8:58 pm #

    A fantastic post thank you. I really do relate except I am still trying to address the agressive behaviour little man Inflicts on his sister while trying to reslove the underlying causes. I’ve been there when it becomes to much and you lose your rag only to then beat yourself up about it. It really is something I know all to well. Can u imagine if all the mothers to children with ASD were in the same house discussing such issues, I’m sure we would all have some pretty good tips for one another. Thanks u have given me much to think about! Oh almost forgot, I find the planed ignoring hard too, especially when others are forever pointing it out!
    Hugs to you

    Claire-Louise

    • OMum22 August 20, 2011 at 11:04 pm #

      Thanks for reading and commenting Claire-Louise. It does help to know that you’re not on your own in having to deal with these issues doesn’t it? Oliver’s behavioural challenges tend to be cyclical, so I’m sure it won’t be the last time I’m dealing with this. I’m feeling a little better prepared to intervene early and with greater effect now though. (Fingers crossed). Glad you found some things to take away and think over and I will check out your blog too!

  6. Teriann Morgan August 21, 2011 at 7:19 am #

    A bad Mum…No way. I would guess at exactly the opposite but so get where you are coming from! 🙂

    • OMum22 August 21, 2011 at 3:26 pm #

      Thanks Teriann, it helps to know that people get it 🙂

  7. Rhonda Logan (@pugariffic73) August 21, 2011 at 11:39 am #

    ” I needed to understand my son before I could start to feel better about myself.”

    This is my theory not just for Tommy, but for my (NT) daughter as well. I was taught, some MILLION years ago from one of Tommy’s therapists, that before you can EXTINGUISH a behavior, you have to first understand where it is coming from. Not just the cause itself, but the feelings that are involved in the child displaying that behavior. A precursor of sorts. But more in depth than just a precursor. I think you’re on that path. I sounds like Oliver lacks some coping skills. Currently that’s exactly what i’m working on with Tommy. I dawned on me last week while thinking about everything..
    Tommy has had to be TAUGHT emotions. PHYSICALLY taught. Pictures, social stories etc weren’t making the connection. Yes he could point out happy, excited, sad etc in pictures, but when it came to HIS emotions, he was lost. Over the summer, we’ve experience some quite, HELLISH stuff from Tommy. But, looking back, it’s how he’s LEARNED. He LEARNED what “out of control anger” is. Every time we are experiencing HAPPINESS, EXCITEMENT, SADNESS, DISAPPOINTMENT etc.. i stop and explain.. THIS is.. such behavior.
    Last week, I had a meeting at Tommy’s school that he will eventually be transitioning into. They asked me something, that made me speechless.

    “Has Tommy ever been taught appropriate ways to display anger?”

    No .. no he hasn’t!!!!!!! He’s been taught WHAT anger is, HOW it feels, but not HOW to display it appropriately. Over the past 5+ years, we have drilled into him that anger is bad. Its a negative emotion. It’s not good to feel anger, or mad. But the reality is, you ARE allowed to be MAD. You are allowed to be ANGRY at a situation. Its what you DO with that emotion that matters. Yes you can be mad and scream and cry into a pillow. Even punch and hit the pillow. But NOT PEOPLE. Hitting people is VERY unacceptable. He’s actually GETTING the hang of this.

    Yes Tommy’s a teenager, but had someone brought this to my attention years ago.. I wonder if we would have had to go through all that we have this year.

    I hope this helps your situation. <3

    • OMum22 August 21, 2011 at 3:25 pm #

      Rhonda, I was going to ask if you had time to give me your thoughts on this but you beat me to it! Your comments are incredibly helpful, thank you very much. *hugs*

  8. C. Marie Grady (@CMarieGo) August 22, 2011 at 1:04 am #

    You are LIGHT YEARS away from being a bad parent!! Your boys are so blessed to have someone as caring, introspective and thoughtful as you are to take care of them. What you are is a human being who has feelings and frustrations just like them. One day they are going to read these blogs and will have a journal of how caring their mom has been through it all. You are giving them a lasting gift not only now but one that will last for years and years.

    • OMum22 August 22, 2011 at 12:09 pm #

      That’s really sweet of you to say Colleen, I appreciate it a lot. Thank you.

  9. The Informal Martriarch August 31, 2011 at 2:36 pm #

    I think you’re amazing. I know all this stuff but I’ve slowly forgotten to use it all. Back to the grindstone, have to take away my human reaction and bring back the no reaction at all. Isaac is getting so angry from being hurt by his brother all the time. It’s been YEARS of this!!

    • OMum22 August 31, 2011 at 2:41 pm #

      Thanks Leah. Its wonderful to hear from people who understand. It’s so tough to keep doing this because its counter-intuitive in such a lot of ways, right? I think of it as a habit I just have to keep doing. Maybe at some point it will become second nature? Hopefully at some point it won’t be needed. But yeah, its hard.

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