What happens when you don’t proactively address stressors that arise in both yourself and
They continue, and in time if unaddressed, become worse. Let the following example of my morning be your cautionary tale…
We have three children, and two of them have ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). Each child brings his or her own strengths and challenges to daily life, with weekday mornings being especially tricky in our household.
Our eldest daughter with ASD, “J”, aged 10, often struggles in the mornings. Not every morning, but on the mornings that she wakes up hungry (and doesn’t notice her biological signals of hunger), had a disturbed sleep the previous night, or has a heightened state of sensory arousal, she can be particularly irritable.
On this particular morning, she appeared relatively even-keeled. She even lit up with an idea to draw a birthday card for a friend’s upcoming birthday. Knowing that she can get hangry pretty quickly, I slid her breakfast in front of her while she drew. All seemed well. Seated at the breakfast bar next to J was her “neurotypical” younger sister, “A”, aged 8. Diving into her waffle with extra syrup, she started to eat.
The next thing I heard were grumbling sounds coming from J. She let her poor sister know in no uncertain terms that she was annoyed and disgusted by her chewing. I offered ear muffs to J (couldn’t find the noise-cancelling headphones). That helped slightly, but J was now in a negative mood.
“Can’t you close your mouth when you chew?” she BARKED at her sister. “Mom, can you get
her to quiet her chewing?!”
I watched A’s face fall. She couldn’t help making the chewing sounds, especially when eating a delicious syrup-covered waffle! In response to this perceived attack, A got upset and started wailing and crying, the loudness only adding to J’s upset. The two girls started to raise their voices at each other (J in offence, A in defence) “Can’t you make it stop!”, along with, “I can’t help it!!!” were painful to my ears, and I felt my stress barometer start to rise, along with anger, realizing that I was losing control over the situation. All bets were off for reasoning with any of them, as everybody’s limbic systems were activated, and problem-solving in this moment would not work.
What is my go-to in such desperate times?
Well, on that particular morning, I dug into my “parent arsenal” and pulled out idle threats to take their electronics away for the week if they didn’t stop their yelling and negative words. That stopped things briefly, but still the negative mood prevailed. Kid A was now very self-conscious about her chewing and asked to move to the couch for her second waffle. I agreed to this, not realizing that I was setting her up for another round
of harsh words.
(Did I mention that I was still feeling the effects of flooded adrenaline and cortisol, which are part of the fight or flight/stress response, and which gave me tunnel vision in terms of my ability to think clearly and reason?)
In the meantime, I was also fully aware time was ticking on. I was trying to keep everyone on track, making sure lunches were made, clothes were laid out, and backpacks were ready. I tried to take some deep breaths, like I tell the kids to do. Still, my muscles remained tense, my heart was beating fast, and I was breathing too quickly. In other words, I was in hyper-arousal mode.
My son, “N”, also with ASD, (but newly diagnosed) missed the previous day of school due to a sore throat and cold. However, he had a good start to the morning with breakfast and time to relax on the couch with dad before he left for work. As A sought comfort on the couch with her syrupy waffle, N started in on her.
The second bout…
“Uuugh, why are you chewing so loudly?” and “Mom, why does she have to come over to the
couch and eat, it’s gross and disgusting!”
I saw poor A’s eyes widen, and her mouth drop open in disbelief. She got defensive (rightly so), and she started to cry loudly, while the other two told her to stop it. She gave a blood curdling scream of absolute frustration that I truly didn’t blame her for. I allowed her this moment to let it out, hoping to exorcise the bad feelings that were building up inside her. Across the room her sister yelled, “The police are going to come to the door, if you keep screaming!”, which only escalated A’s reaction. More crying, more hysterics! I felt the anger rising up in me again. I was seeing what this was doing to A, and I was also aware that we had only 10 minutes to get to school to be on time. Furthermore, I had the realization that I’d lost complete and utter control of the situation *sigh*.
In my head I said, “Can’t they see what they are doing to her? Don’t they see that their beloved, sweet sister is gutted by this attack and don’t they realize that it’s all their fault?”
In my utter helplessness, I took the low road and confronted her brother…
“You get so upset with the sound of her chewing, but when you make those terrible “snorking” sounds, she doesn’t get upset with you!”
It was too late to take it back. I had just wanted him to understand that he was notperfect either. Alas, he diverted the blame back to his sister. As if I was going to be able to have him come to some self-realization about himself in that moment. With Autism comes little to no self-awareness, and he does not make the connection that he also does things that are perceived as “gross” or intolerable to other people. So, I’d just scolded him, which left him feeling confused and badly.
For the third time *sigh*
On top of that, he realized that he was going back to school that day (social stressor) and was still not feeling 100% better (biological stressor). He got more and more upset and took it out on his sister, who was unfortunately the closest target.
I told them all to stop talking to each other, not one more word, not one scowl or dirty look. I take one precious minute upstairs to breathe and collect myself. Oxygen to the brain, that’s what I needed! When I came downstairs, things had slightly calmed, but my son was refusing his boots now *oh boy* , they were uncomfortable, he claimed. Off and on they went, groans of frustration increasing. The girls were calm enough to be sent outside to wait. He wanted to stay home now because if he couldn’t wear his boots, then he insisted he couldn’t go to school. I offered shoes.
“No way, Mom! What if I step in deep snow?” “Okay,” I said, “no shoes then. We have to get you to school, son. Your sisters are in the
van waiting, we need to go because mommy has things to do.”
In desperation to get us moving, I carried him out to the van in his socks, carrying boots in the other hand. We had a van full of hurt feelings. Two of them wanted the music on, one didn’t, there was bickering back and forth about it. I truly was ready to throw in my towel at this point.
Somehow, by the grace of God
As we pulled into the school parking lot, I caught a glimpse of their beautiful faces in my rearview mirror, and I softened. The absolute last thing I wanted to do was send my children to school feeling upset or feeling that I’m mad at them. This was still not a teaching moment, but a moment to start to repair. I explained that I was frustrated, and that it’s okay for Mommy to be frustrated, but it’s not okay to yell at them, and that I was very sorry.
I looked in my son’s face that before showed frustration, now replaced with sadness.
“Do you need a hug buddy?” I asked, and the tears welled up in both of our eyes. “Yes mommy”.
So we hugged and we hugged, and time just stopped.
“It’s going to be okay”, I said. “We’ll figure this out later, and make a plan to talk when we’re all calm”.
Now, I had a choice about how I was going to handle the rest of my day. I could wallow in my bad feelings, beat myself up for being a shitty mom, and just retreat into a non-productive task, or I could choose to dissect and analyze the morning, identify the stressors that triggered the behaviour in my children and myself, and make a plan to be more proactive so this does not happen the same way again. So that’s just what I did.
Tune in to the next blog to see the steps I took and the outcomes for us all.
Megan J Law, xox