If you think you broke your arm and needed an xray, and the doctor pulled out a lead lined xray sheet and placed it under your arm to take the picture, then went to have it developed, would your expectations be that a digital xray be taken that is instantly put into the computer system? If the doctor is still using lead lined xray sheets to take xrays and developing them, then how good could the care he gives actually be? If you are sitting in an ER in Chicago, USA, your expectations are appropriate. However, if you are in the rain forest in some part of the world most of us can’t even pronounce much less find on a map, your expectations would be very different. Your expectations might be, this is the most advanced place! He has an xray machine! Our expectations depend on the situation.
The same is true with our kids. If we’ve raised a bunch of bio, neurotypical kids, we know the traditional parenting techniques work when our kids are pretty young. Consequences of unwanted behavior do deter bad behavior. Rewards for good behavior do encourage good behavior. Your child really does, for the most part, want to please you. What you think matters to them (unless they’re teenagers). Then along comes a child that is not neurotypical, and everything is backwards. Nothing works the way it should. Negative consequences seem to encourage negative behavior. The child may even develop the attitude of, “Bring it on, I can take it.” The child doesn’t care a bit about what you think or what you say or even that you are looking out for him/her and literally trying to save their life. Positive rewards for positive behavior backfire. Nothing seems to work! And you, the parents, are stressed, fried, nobody understands, your other kids think you’re being too lenient, and nobody seems to understand why that child doesn’t learn.
Here’s the truth: The child can’t learn from consequences, at least not now. Having the mental expectation that after a certain number of time-outs or a certain number of groundings or weed-pulling sessions in the garden will deter the negative behavior is only going to stress you out as parents, make you angrier and angrier, and quite possibly interfere with the child’s healing as you blame “the child” for his broken brain. This doesn’t mean change the rules so that anything goes. This doesn’t mean that there are no consequences to actions, or anything like that. This is a mental change on the part of the parent only. The expectation is changed to “this child may or may not be ready to learn from these consequences, but I will not take it personally or get upset if it doesn’t work this time.” Another expectation is “this child will continue to lie and steal, or whatever, regardless of the consequences, actions, talks, etc. that I give to the child.” If you expect that (a) the behavior will continue, you can hopefully keep a handle on your emotions in the moment when it happens, and (b) if you expect the consequences to not work, again, hopefully you can keep yourself from getting stressed out or angry when it happens the next time. You can change the consequences or mix things up and try other strategies, I’m not saying don’t keep trying new things, but the bottom line here is that we are trying to teach our children survival skills for real life. In real life, if you steal from someone you have to pay it back and you go to jail, depending on the amount. If you lie, you lose trust with that person. I am not saying stop consequences. Real life is full of consequences.
At what point will the child be able to learn from these mistakes and not repeat them? At what point will these consequences work? I wish someone could tell me that. Until then, I have to keep doing what I’m doing, try to teach them survival skills in the real world, appropriate social skills, appropriate hygiene skills, whatever it is they need to learn, and keep repeating myself over and over and over, with the understanding that their brain hasn’t got it yet. I have to keep trying.
Another way to look at it is like this. If Stephen Hawking handed you a very complicated math problem, and you barely passed algebra in high school, and this was advanced physics and then some, you couldn’t do it, right? You don’t have the knowledge and understanding. Your brain hasn’t learned it yet. Your brain isn’t capable of making that jump at that moment. Does yelling and being angry at you for not being able to solve the problem? No. Does it help you learn the answer? No. Adding emotion and anger to the relationship at this point shuts down all learning ability on the part of the child.
Am I saying do the impossible? Yes, and no. I’m saying, do your best, as you are asking your kids to do their best, in that given moment. If you reset your expectations, your best may be a whole lot better than it’s been in the past. And, as always, hang in there. You are not alone.