You can’t unsee, you can’t unhear and you can’t unparent

“I treat all my children the same,” my friend said to me.  “There’s no difference.  I don’t have favorites and what goes for one, goes for all.”  I held my tongue, but inwardly I winced.  There is not a chance in hell I could do that, I thought.

I didn’t always think that way.  The myth that we treat each child the same way as the other ones has a firm hold on many of us.  We see ourselves as fair, dispassionate dispensers of goodies and discipline.  What’s more, we think that if we parent in an undifferentiated way, we have taught our children fairness, equality and some sort of justice.  It’s hard to let go of that idea.

And then you have a child like my first, the one with outsized mental health needs.  I had to parent him in a way I never imagined.  And when his brother came along, I just kept on doing things the same way.

For starters, my oldest son couldn’t soothe himself from day one.  Oh, he tried.  He sucked his thumb well into childhood.  He didn’t give up his teddy bear until almost middle school.  But that was for the small hurts.  If something sent him into a tailspin, including yelling or anger, he couldn’t get back to calmness by himself.  There would be a meltdown or a long, shuddering crying jag until he exhausted himself or I sat with him, often for a long time and talked him through it, guiding his mood and thoughts away from anger and pain.

When he was older, the meltdowns could lead to self-harm.  Taking a tough stance, yelling or even a firm voice often led to him bruising, scratching or cutting. It reduced the pain inside, he’d later explain. That sure put a stop to a bunch of tactics.  The point of setting a limit or giving a consequence is never to increase the odds of self-harm.

He was also impulsive and couldn’t apply what he’d learned in one situation to the next.  When we went to Target, I’d have to lay out the plan in advance:  we are buying this, you can have gum (or not) and then we are going home.  Things needed to be predictable, we couldn’t mix things up.    I could never ask, “What shirt/socks/sweatshirt should we buy?”  Having lots of choices kick started his anxiety.  Instead I’d say, “I like the red one and green one.  Which one do you like?”  And if that worked at Target, we’d have to begin all over again in the grocery store.

None of these things were true for his younger brother.  Sure, he would cry or have the occasional temper tantrum as a small child.  But they lasted a short time and they vanished as he grew older.  He was confident about trying new things.  Once, I remarked in wonder to a friend that he had no problem choosing a t-shirt.  She said, “That’s what’s supposed to happen.  That’s what regular kids do.”

But I approached parenting him using the lessons I had learned with his brother.  I didn’t know how to unparent.  I couldn’t unlearn the way I’d learned to parent already. I didn’t know how to wipe clean the experiences I’d had with his older brother. I usually gave him two choices when picking out shirts.  I was careful to set limits in a way that didn’t trigger a tantrum.  I over-explained.  I drew a map of how our excursions would go.   Maybe it didn’t hurt him, but he didn’t need it.

Like many parents, I drew on how I was raised, remembering how my own mother did things.  Problem was, my older son wasn’t like me, so that was a bust, though later I circled back to those strategies for son number two.  As a child, I picked up on the nuances and followed the rules without complaint (for the most part).  I didn’t need things spelled out and navigated childhood pretty well.  One parent in a support group I led was the same way.  Her daughter had changed in one year from an easy going, high achieving teen to one whose default setting was defiance.  She told this story to our group and said, “My mother used to say, ‘someday you’ll have a child just like you.’  I only wish I had!” I felt the same way.

A friend of mine used to say that we raise only children these days, no matter how many siblings are in a family. The way it used to be, she says, is that the Jones kids would all be in choir and the Smith kids would get swimming lessons.  It was a lot easier on parents who do the scheduling and shuttling.  Now, one child takes guitar lessons, another goes to art class and a third plays soccer.  She’s right, we encourage our children’s individual interests and passions. Maybe that’s what’s fair and equal.

Being a parent is a hard job.  Parenting a child with mental health needs is 100 times harder.  Each strategy we find that works, we hang on to.  Each routine that makes things a little easier, we incorporate.  Every unorthodox approach and each new way we phrase things is our new way of parenting.  Maybe we shouldn’t unlearn them.  We worked hard for them.

 

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3 thoughts on “You can’t unsee, you can’t unhear and you can’t unparent

  1. holy crap..you just described me! I’m 38 and people always ask why I do things sometimes. Because to them they are obviously not the right thing to. All I can ever tell them is that “hey, if I could change it I would. I try everyday. Some days are good, some are bad. But I’m not doing it on purpose”
    I’m looking forward to reading your blog

    Jasmin

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