Being married to a therapist, my husband has participated in his fair share of parenting strategy sessions.
Ok... maybe MORE than his fair share. (This would be an appropriate time to bestow a little sympathy on spouses of therapists everywhere.)
One of our initial co-parenting talks took place while I was still pregnant with our first child. While he sipped his beer and I sipped my hot tea, I explained that we were going to avoid using labels with our future kiddo. Instead of latching on to good or bad descriptors (like smart or uncoordinated) and putting our child in a metaphorical box, I encouraged my husband to give our kids good ol’ fashioned unconditional love. (I love you. Period.) We would focus our compliments on our child’s efforts and not on their attributes, I explained. My husband agreed. We shook on it.
I was going to prepare us to do this parenting thing, by golly.
The labels that I did not prepare us for are what I call the big box, or diagnosable labels, such as Autism, ADHD, allergies, learning disabilities and chronic illness.
I wasn’t avoiding discussion of these labels... it just didn’t occur to me to bring them up. I think I assumed (since I was taking my pre-natal vitamins, of course!) that we would never have to use any of these stigmatized descriptors. There was admittedly a bit of pride and stubbornness mixed in there. But ultimately, I subscribed to the “Why worry until it happens?” philosophy, which I strongly recommend to any expectant or new parent.
So I didn’t worry... until my son was about 3 years old. That was the age when we began to notice some troubling behaviors that we couldn’t ignore. Aidan had the loudest voice in the room, but couldn’t tolerate loud noises himself. He was downright violent with his new baby brother, but was extremely sensitive to touch and rough clothing. Teeth brushing, nail trimming, haircuts and doctor’s appointments were always accompanied by prolonged, blood-curdling screaming. His favorite activities involved burrowing himself into couch pillows or throwing toys around the house. I won’t even go into the bizarre toilet training challenges we were having.
At his 3-year wellness check, when his pediatrician asked, “How are things going?” I almost burst into tears as I listed off the struggles we were dealing with. That was the first time that I heard about Sensory Processing Disorder, a condition that is often diagnosed along with Autism and ADHD. I went straight home and dove headfirst into SPD books and the Internet. Within a few weeks, Aidan’s diagnosis was confirmed and he began participating in bi-weekly OT sessions, or what he considered to be fun gymnastics in a place we called the “Playhouse.”
No time was wasted — we were ready for some help. I surprised even myself with my rapid acceptance of the SPD diagnosis when I so vehemently rejected labels in the past. Looking back, there were three reasons why adopting a label for our son saved our little family:
It gave us understanding. Suddenly, Aidan’s extreme sensitivity to everything under the sun made sense. His explosive behavior and tendency to want to squeeze himself and everyone around him also had an explanation. Instead of feeling continually frustrated, we had a framework to understand our child’s behavior and we could offer more compassion and patience.
It gave us tools. Now we had more than time-outs and reasoning to help our son work through his challenges. When he seemed edgy and explosive, we threw couch pillows on the floor and let him dive in and channel his destructive energy. Massaging or “brushing” his body helped him to release the negative tension. Squeezing him between pillows or giving him weight-bearing exercises also helped his body to regulate. We bought sound-blocking headphones, softer clothing and made sure he got plenty of sleep and minimal sugar. The more we consciously regulated his environment and triggers, the more his body “toughened up.”
It gave us relief. My husband and I got to trade in our “Worst Parents EVER” badges for “NO WONDER We Were Struggling!” t-shirts. The more we learned about SPD, the more we realized that Aidan was dealing with a fairly common condition that could be managed and remedied. His diagnosis enabled us to let go of some of the self-blame and shame we were struggling with and reinvest our energy into learning about Aidan’s condition and helping him to recover. It also helped us to have more empathy and compassion for other parents and children who were living with a diagnosis, regardless of what that diagnosis was.
Most parents that I know feel SO MUCH pressure to get everything “just right” and raise kids who are relatively perfect. Sometimes letting go of our fear of labels and acknowledging issues when they arise can open the floodgates for support and information.
Today our son is a 6th grader who, for the most part, has outgrown his sensitivities. We still make sure he gets plenty of sleep, healthy food and consistent routines. We still throw in sound-blocking headphones when we’re going to see fireworks or a concert. Just like other parents, we limit his screen time and make sure he gets regular exercise.
If you asked Aidan about Sensory Processing Disorder, he would say, “Huh?” He doesn’t identify himself with that label. As far as he knows, he is a typical 12-year-old who occasionally drives his parents completely crazy. Mission accomplished in our opinion. The label we used to understand and help our child is the last descriptor he would use to define himself. And that is the kind of label our family can buy into.
Read more parenting-related tips, trials and tribulations on Kirsten's blog, Baby Proofed Parents.