Content Warning: Description of Animal Abuse in Historic Experiments
I recently ran across a meme with a troubling message. It said, Never do for a child what he can do for himself. A “dependent” child is a demanding child… Children become irresponsible only when we fail to give them opportunities to take on. I bristled immediately. “Never” do for a child? Absolute statements like this make me uncomfortable. I understand that the point is to be decisive and firm, but then there is no room for children to be imperfect or to have needs. Yes, giving children age-appropriate responsibilities builds competence and self-assurance. However, we should be open to children refusing responsibility in an effort to have their other needs met. Seems a lot of us misunderstand why children might be “irresponsible.” There’s a great fear that we’ll foster learned helplessness if we don’t demand that our kids fulfill their responsibilities. But, is that really true?
In the 1960s, psychologist Martin Seligman conducted a series of experiments to better understand why depression was so defeating. The first experiment involved three groups of restrained dogs. The first group was restrained and released. The second group included dogs who received an electric shock which they could stop by pressing a lever. Dogs in the third group were paired with dogs in the second group and also received an electric shock. However, their levers did not stop the pain. Instead, the paired dog from the second group controlled the only working lever, which meant that the dog in the third group had to suffer the pain with no control over it and, therefore, little hope of ending it.
In the second experiment, the dogs were presented with a similar scenario, except that Seligman introduced an escape option. The dogs in the first two groups, having either not experienced the shocks at all the first time around or having had access to a lever to stop the pain, fairly quickly escaped when the shocks began. However, the dogs in the third group made no effort and were able only to cry out pitifully when they were shocked. That presumed inability to take action is learned helplessness, and it results from hopelessness in the face of failure.
An especially important aspect of these experiments was the finding that “one cause of learned helplessness seems to be learning that reinforcers cannot be controlled” (409). For those who aren’t familiar with the term “reinforcer,” it means a punishment or a reward. So, the inability to control the punishment of these painful shocks directly contributed to the dogs’ acceptance that the pain was inescapable. No amount of punishments or rewards delivered after the learned helplessness had taken hold had any positive effect on the dogs’ behavior.
What you may find interesting is that Seligman did find a cure for the learned helplessness. He discovered that either picking up the dogs and moving them to safety or using a leash to drag them out of harm’s way provided enough motivation for them to take action. He called it “directive therapy” and it was simply an intervention wherein an outside participant showed each dog how to do what the dog didn’t realize was possible. He found that less and less force was required in pulling on the leash as the dogs began to realize that there was hope. The end result of this portion of the experiment was that all the dogs in group three fully recovered and were able to escape completely on their own (410).
…which brings us to helping. Put simply, learned helplessness is giving up because an obstacle is too insurmountable. For children, it may be sitting in the middle of their room unable to clean up, because they don’t know where to start. It may be accepting punishment for not getting dressed quickly enough because they feel that the punishment is inevitable, and they can’t do what’s expected of them to begin with. As noted in the experiment, the cure for learned helplessness is directive therapy, i.e. demonstrating a way to be successful. In other words, helping. When our children become overwhelmed with their messy rooms, we can intervene by helping them come up with a plan and working on the clean-up with them. Over time, they will gain more competence and the process will be less frustrating for them. When our children struggle to dress themselves, the easiest solution is to recognize that we need to take a few steps back and offer to help them dress. It may take a while for them to do things that seem simple to us, but the more we respond to their need for help, the more capable they will become.
There are three overarching lessons I learned from reading up on learned helplessness:
A little failure is good. Letting kids figure things out on their own is crucial for their development.
A lot of failure is bad. Leaving kids to become helpless in the face of challenge does no one any good.
Our responsibility as parents is to help our children learn from failure without losing hope.
Whether a child seeks our help because they don’t know how to do something or because they want to connect with us or because they are weary and need some support or for any other reason, we will always do right by them when we help them, especially when we don’t think they really need the help. In doing so, we invigorate qualities like learning, self-motivation, and confidence… the very things that combat learned helplessness. So, please, help your kids.
If you’re a visual learner, check out this video from therapist Kati Morton! Toward the end of the video, she provides some tools for helping ourselves (and our kids) release these thoughts of helplessness.
This post is a collaboration between Peace I Give and Unmasked. Tee Mone’t runs the page, Unmasked, on Facebook, and Unnmasked on Instagram. Diagnosed as an adult with substantial support needs, she works to help others understand what it means to be autistic. She is here to educate and most importantly, learn.
“My child just got diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. What do I do?”
If this question is on your mind right now, you’ve come to the right place. We’re here to help. It seems that when caregivers of newly diagnosed Autistic children start looking online for guidance, too often they’re bombarded with recommendations from people who understand autism purely from a professional standpoint. They can miss important posts like this one from Autistic Mama. Misinformation about autism is a quick Google search away, and this article is the antidote. If you want to know what you might really do for your Autistic child in plain language from two #ActuallyAutistic people, we invite you to read on.
Facing a brand new experience can be challenging and your feelings around this new diagnosis are valid. Let us reassure you and tell you that there is nothing to fear and nothing to mourn. Your child is not broken but is the same child you have loved all along. Autistic kids are just like any other child with the same very human need for understanding, support, and love. Parenting an Autistic child is simply parenting a child. All children have a unique composition of strengths, weaknesses, needs, and capacities that caregivers must navigate. The difference when it comes to Autistic kids is that you have the wisdom of an entire community of Autistic adults at your disposal to help you understand where your child is coming from. As you become better acquainted with how to connect with your child and address their specific needs in the healthiest way possible, you and your child will both be empowered.
Now, at the top here, we must include a disclaimer that Autistic people are not a monolith. We don’t all feel the same way or share the same beliefs. As the saying goes, “if you’ve met one Autistic person, you’ve met one Autistic person.” In this piece, however, we will describe how the vast majority of Autistic self-advocates wish to be understood. Neither Peace I Give nor Unmasked criticizes any Autistic person for choosing other forms of self-advocacy that diverge from the majority preferences. However, those decisions lie strictly within the Autistic community. If you are not Autistic, it is not your decision to make.
Autism is a natural neurological variation in humans. Autistic brains are different from allistic brains. Autistic kids are not allistic kids waiting for someone to break them out of a mental prison. They are born as whole and dignified human beings in need of the same care and attention as all children.
When we say “the autistic community”, we mean everyone who is autistic. We mean:
Autistic people who need a lot of support in their day-to-day life, and autistic people who need very little support.
Autistic people who can speak, and autistic people who are nonspeaking.
Autistic people who also have an intellectual disability, and autistic people who don’t.
Autistic people who have other disabilities besides autism, and autistic people who don’t.
Autistic people who were diagnosed by a doctor, and autistic people who figured out they were autistic on their own.
We are all a part of the autistic community, and we have to work together to make sure all of us have our voices heard. Every autistic person belongs in the autistic community. There is no “wrong” way to be autistic. Trying to separate certain groups of autistic people from the autistic community hurts all of us.
What is the Autism Spectrum?
A lot of people who first encounter autism assume that the spectrum is a linear progression from “mild” to “severe.” Please understand that functioning labels like “mild,” “severe,” “high functioning,” and “low functioning” can be extremely harmful to Autistic people, including your child. Autism is a spectrum, but that spectrum looks a lot more like an equalizer than it does a line.
Neuroclastic does a great job of explaining the autism spectrum in this post, but in short, the spectrum encompasses a handful of domains including but not limited to social aptitude, intensity of interests, motor control, and so on. Autistic people are measured against allistic people in each domain, which is inherently ableist. It’s like assessing a computer programmer’s untrained singing voice against professional opera singer, Maureen McKay. The computer programmer may have a fine voice, but it certainly won’t be as polished as McKay’s. Each person needs to be embraced for their inherent worth and appreciated for the gifts they bring to this world. Autistic people bring so much good to humanity.
Sadly, in most areas of the world, societies do not operate in a way that is inclusive of Autistic brains, so Autistic people are largely viewed as deficient. In contrast, the neurodiversity paradigm changes the perspective, declaring that a diversity of neurology among humans is normal, necessary, and natural. And, the social model of disability helps to challenge the idea that disabilities must be limiting in and of themselves. The social model demonstrates that, with acceptance, inclusion, and adequate accommodations and technology, nearly every disabled person could have equal access to social spaces. It’s a lofty idea and we can all help to improve the quality of life and access to shared spaces that disabled people deserve.
Disability is not a bad word and, for the majority of us, autism is disabling because society disables us. Functioning labels are part of the way society oppresses us. For example, some of the people who read this article may say to themselves, “the authors of this piece can’t be Autistic” because of the narrow view of autism they have encountered culturally. This is the kind of mindset we want to gently challenge.
Autism as an Identity
Much like other disabled groups that have developed passionate self-advocacy within their ranks, many Autistic people capitalize the “A” in Autistic in recognition that it is part of our identity. It’s who we are. It cannot be separated from us and it cannot be treated or “cured” without destroying us.
If you happen to see someone on social media with an Âû in their name, they likely consider autism to be a critical aspect of their identity. Âû is a reference to the Autistic Union, which has a list of 10 Points describing its ethos. And, Âû is a helpful way for Autistic people to recognize each other quickly in virtual spaces.
Autism as an identity is one of the reasons that Autistic people overwhelmingly reject person-first language (child with autism) in favor of identity-first language (Autistic child). It’s why you’ll notice that Autistic adults often dislike euphemisms like “on the spectrum.” It’s why many of us despise puzzle piece mentality, a position you may be surprised to learn is backed up by science. And, it’s why Autism Speaks is considered a hate group by most within the Autistic community.
Autism is an identity that deserves to be embraced, understood, and accommodated by our greater culture. By the same token, Autistic people have every right to vent about how difficult and painful it is to be Autistic in an oppressive environment.
Many of us engage in a coping technique called masking. If you’ve ever presented yourself differently from the person you really are in order to avoid an argument or get ahead in your career, you probably have an idea of what masking feels like. For Autistic people, it can be a constant requirement in order for us to navigate a world that was not made for us. We pretend to be neurotypical as best we can, so we can avoid uncomfortable situations, “fit in” more readily with others, and go unnoticed. It’s a survival mechanism and it is costly for us. Many Autistic adults must go to great lengths to undo the damage that masking has done to us. So, if an Autistic person lets down their mask around you, consider it a compliment. That means you are trusted to see us as we really are, stims and all.
Check out this post from Tee Mone’t of Unmasked about the raw truth of what masking really is:
Allistic caregivers are crucial to the wellbeing and safety of their Autistic loved ones. A positive, affirming relationship with a caregiver is not only helpful, it may even be life-saving. Caregivers can uphold the dignity of their Autistic loved ones by getting consent before talking about them, limiting the personal information shared about them, not complaining about autism or Autistic people, and taking their needs very seriously. This excellent infographic from the Therapist Neurodiversity Collective provides a snapshot of ways in which to embrace Autistic identity by refusing to pathologize us:
It’s important to note here that there are some Autistic people who are more discreet about their autism, perhaps because they have experienced substantial discrimination or because they view it primarily as a medical diagnosis or because other aspects of their identity are more pronounced. It is up to Autistic people ourselves to decide how we will move through our lives. The best thing our families can do for us is to support us in whatever way we need. Some of us are out and proud about being Autistic. Others are just living life. There’s no shame in any of it.
Generally speaking, it is considered bad form to tell people your child is Autistic without the child’s consent, in the absence of a seriously compelling reason. For instance, you’d likely want to tell medical professionals and your child’s school, so they can better understand your child’s needs. You’d probably not need to tell your family and friends unless they care for your child and require support in providing the best care. You definitely don’t need to tell random strangers or research companies trying to buy your child’s DNA for dubious purposes.
Use great care and discretion with the understanding that disclosing your child’s diagnosis is an extremely intimate and intrusive act. And, finally, consider what information needs to be shared. Do you need to state that your child is Autistic or do you need to let the person know what to expect? For instance, if you’re at a park with friends who don’t know your child’s diagnosis and you know your child tends to elope, you might say, “[Child] sometimes runs off unexpectedly. Would you mind helping me keep watch?”
There is nothing shameful about being Autistic or having an Autistic child. What we’re highlighting here is the importance of respecting the privacy of Autistic people and allowing us the dignity of controlling the way information about our personal identities gets exposed.
Now, if you’re wondering about disclosing to your child their own diagnosis, yes, please! From the moment you know, tell your child. Openly, talk about autism in positive, factual ways as they grow up. Help your child navigate the world by showing them how. Things like social stories (keeping in mind that social stories have a potential to harm) and role playing can be helpful tools to give Autistic kids a concrete view into the hazy, amorphous world of social interaction. Talk with your child and observe their behavior for clues into what you could be doing to better support them. Accept that Autistic is who they are. Not what they have.
Will My Child Ever Fit In?
Depends on who your child interacts with. It’s so important for caregivers of Autistic children to recognize how difficult it is for Autistic kids to make a way for themselves when they’re thwarted at every turn. Autistic children must be given opportunities to connect with other Autistic children as a basic human need. From crucial childhood relationships with both Autistic and allistic children, Autistic kids learn what it means to be a friend. And, guess what, Autistic relationships have been studied! Here’s what we know.
Autistic people ARE empathetic (more on this below).
Autistic people ARE social.
A study on Autistic kids aged 8 to 15 years found that they believed they were good friends to others and also that they enjoyed social interaction.
At least 80% of Autistic children have at least one friend and the majority enjoy their friendships.
Lack of supports is what excludes Autistic kids from social experiences, not autism.
Allistic biases against Autistic people disappear when impressions are based on conversation rather than audio-visual cues (meaning, prejudice against Autistic mannerisms keeps allistic people from having wonderful interactions with Autistic people).
Autistic people tend to be more invested in their social partners and prefer to have genuine conversations rather than small talk.
Autistic adults often prefer the company of other Autistic adults (so get your kids into Autistic social experiences early on).
A special note on empathy. The outdated claim that Autistic people lack empathy is a lie. What’s true is that Autistic people struggle with cognitive empathy when it comes to allistic people, meaning, we can miss certain social cues and misunderstand situations. On the other hand, our affective empathy, the ability to bear with others, is in full effect for lots of Autistic people. Sometimes, affective empathy is so intense and unmanageable that it can lead to meltdowns and shutdowns. Many Autistic people feel deep, genuine, visceral emotions. However, while hyperempathy is a well known Autistic trait, different Autistic people experience varying degrees of empathy, just as it is in the neurotypical world. And, our empathy may not look the same as an allistic person’s.
Relating to Autistic people requires effort on the part of allistic people. Dr. Laura S. DeThorne wrote about this in her piece entitled, Revealing the Double Empathy Problem. In it, she pinpoints a most challenging barrier for Autistic people who are trying to relate to allistic people. She says,
Although the misunderstanding may be bidirectional, it disproportionately stigmatizes autistic people when their perspectives are not adequately represented within institutional power structures, like education, research, and medical systems. When autistic perspectives are not heard, it becomes easy for autistic behavior to be misunderstood and pathologized. Note, for example, much of the autism literature focuses on helping autistic individuals understand nonautistic perspectives, rather than the other way around.
As a caregiver, you can work toward understanding your child on their terms and showing them what a healthy and respectful relationship looks like. All Autistic people communicate. Sometimes it just looks a little different from what you might expect.
Is Early Intervention Necessary?
In the United States, children under the age of 3 are eligible for Early Intervention services when they aren’t meeting their expected milestones and/or if they have diagnosed disabilities that require support. When autism is suspected, many caregivers are pressured by medical professionals and peers to get their kids assessed and into some form of “treatment” as early as possible. We have even seen claims that Autistic children will never “improve” if their caregivers wait too long for “treatment.” That’s simply not true. Autistic brains don’t need treatment any more than neurotypical brains for the mere existence of a particular neurotype. If that weren’t enough, a recent meta-analysis found that there is insufficient evidence to recommend early intervention or treatment for children. Pressure to push children into Early Intervention can be wielded as a scare tactic and that helps no one.
Early Intervention is as embroiled in anti-Autistic ableism as any intervention offering “help” to Autistic people from an allistic perspective. The therapies offered generally seek to bring an Autistic child as close to typical expectations as possible, which is ableist. Autistic people do not need to be more allistic in order to move freely through and contribute to the world around us. So, while Early Intervention is not necessary, we do understand that it is a cost effective way to access services like occupational therapy that can help Autistic kids a great deal. Whatever you decide to do, we encourage you to brush off any pressure that comes your way about changing your child.
Autism is simply a natural way of being. That’s not to say Autistic people don’t need any therapy. There are various forms of therapy that can help Autistic people cope with living as strangers in a strange place without having to be subjected to behaviorism. Different people benefit from different things, so having an open mind can help you find exactly what will serve your child the best.
Occupational Therapy: OTs help identify gaps between a person’s needs and their ability to meet those needs. Autistic people often need support when it comes to motor skills (e.g. dressing/undressing and tying shoes), proprioceptive abilities (e.g. tolerating the taste and texture of food, and knowing when it’s time to urinate), and self-regulation. OTs have the knowledge and experience to recognize where there are disconnects and help Autistic kids integrate their senses and practice new life skills.
Speech Therapy: Speech is widely considered the superior form of communication. It’s not. All forms of communication are valid. Some Autistic people prefer speech, some prefer speech some of the time, and some don’t prefer speech at all. There are many reasons for these differences. What Speech Language Pathologists can do is give your child the tools to improve their speech and/or other modes of communication.
Physical Therapy: PTs specialize in human movement. If your child needs support with balance, motion, or spatial awareness, a PT might be able to help. There is some overlap between what OTs and PTs do for Autistic kids, so our general suggestion would be to start with OT and add in PT, if needed.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy: DBT is a cognitive-behavioral therapy that helps people practice regulating their emotions, relate more easily with others, and handle stress, all of which are skills every human person certainly needs. Given the strain of moving through this world as an Autistic person, DBT is often a great fit for addressing lingering traumatic experiences. Side note: Even though DBT and ABA contain the same word, they are NOT the same. DBT is a true behavioral therapy that is beneficial for many. ABA is a behaviorist therapy that is harmful.
And, finally, a note on comorbidities. Autism is a neurology unto itself with its own strengths and weaknesses. Oftentimes, people conflate other diagnoses with autism as though they are one and the same. An autism diagnosis is not dependent on things like IQ, aggressive behavior, hyperactivity, and so on. When present alongside autism, these things may or may not need to be addressed professionally. And, if they do need to be addressed, the supports may be beyond the scope of this particular article. (In other words, we can’t cover every possible therapeutic option, so please seek out support from Autistic adults.)
Will My Child Ever Be Independent?
Are we meant to be? Do you know anyone who is completely off-the-grid and self-sustaining? Seems like it would be a lonely life. We may wonder what the future holds for Autistic kids, but independence need not be a goal. We are, by nature, an interdependent species. We need connection to thrive. So, one of the things Autistic children need to practice is self-advocacy. Empower your child to ask for what they need. Reveal all the avenues available. Some Autistic people do need lots of hands-on assistance into adulthood (which is probably what most people mean when they wonder about independence). That’s totally fine. They are as fully human, fully worthy, and fully deserving of fulfillment as is any person. It’s natural to worry when you’re responsible for the care of a child, but put that nervous energy into helping your child build a network of support.
How Do I Discipline My Autistic Child?
You teach an Autistic child about the world in the same way you’d teach an allistic child, by figuring out how they learn best and presenting information in that way. There is absolutely no need for intrinsic motivation killers like rewards or punishments. Especially not physical punishment. There’s no need to control your Autistic child or force their bodies to do things that are uncomfortable for them (such as demanding eye contact or using hand over hand instruction). When you create an environment where your Autistic child can succeed, your child will have their best opportunity to grow in their relationship with you and to trust you.
As the caregiver of an Autistic child, your child will be best served by your acceptance that most Autistic children have specific needs around sensory processing. Autistic processing of sensory input is different from that of the allistic brain. Responses tend to be more pronounced and overload can be unbearable. Some things to know.
Sensory Seeking and Sensory Aversion: For most Autistic people, our experiences with external stimuli can be heightened. Sensory Seeking means craving input to address uncomfortable understimulation of the nervous system. Seeking may look like enjoying being extra loud, using our bodies to crash into the world around us, and generally filling up a space. Sensory Aversion means craving escape to address uncomfortable overstimulation of the nervous system. Aversion may look like extreme discomfort with anything touching our skin, blocking our ears to muffle a cacophony of sounds, and covering our eyes to shield them from bright lights. While many Autistic people tend to experience either seeking or aversion, given the right circumstances, we can all experience them both.
Meltdowns and Shutdowns: To understand meltdowns and shutdowns, think about the most upsetting day you’ve had recently. Maybe your car broke down, causing you to lose your job. Then you tried to take the bus home only to find that you left the gate open and your dog has run away. And so on. Just a rotten day. You can relate to jab after jab sending you over the edge. When the needs of Autistic people are persistently unmet, the descent into overwhelm is like your really bad day. You might go home and cry, call a friend, or try to relax in front of the TV. Autistics can end up so dysregulated that these calming techniques don’t help. The end result is an uncontrollable explosion of emotion and physiological tension (i.e. a meltdown) or a complete reset of capacity (i.e. a shutdown). Both are upsetting for Autistic people. No one wants to feel that way, so it’s helpful for our families to understand what we need in order to avoid getting to that point. Meltdowns and shutdowns are not necessarily a given. They can often be prevented by addressing our needs.
If you are interested in a gentle discipline approach to guiding both Autistic and allistic children, these articles may help you as you figure out exactly what your child needs most in order to feel safe, secure, and supported.
While this post is about how to proceed with a new diagnosis, we have included this response to those who may ask about how to obtain a diagnosis. Generally speaking, in the United States, autism assessments for children are conducted by developmental pediatricians and pediatric psychologists. Your child’s standard evaluation may involve questionnaires and interviews for the caregivers, observation of the child, and administration of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) and/or the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R), along with a review of observations from the child’s teachers and other professionals, if applicable. Be aware that masking (as described in the Autism as an Identity section) can interfere with a medical professional’s ability to diagnose your child. The very thing that helps keep us safe in other circumstances can end up making it more difficult to get the accommodations we need. Please let your child know they don’t have to hide who they are with the doctor.
If you are in the United States, be aware that your insurance company may require a referral from your child’s pediatrician or family doctor. If you cannot afford a standard evaluation or are uninsured, organizations like Easterseals may be able to provide you with discounted services. Be aware, however, that these organizations are not typically autism-forward and may recommend ABA therapy.
In order to be diagnosed, your child must meet the criteria set out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (current edition, DSM-5), which includes an unfortunate “severity” scale of 1, 2, and 3, each corresponding to an increasing need for supports and services. These numbers represent how burdensome the doctor expects your child to be and that is a problem. The severity scale also does not account for changes in capacities as your child grows up and it is heavily influenced by your child’s ability to speak. However, speech is not required for communication. Do not be overly concerned if your child doesn’t speak. Take note of the number your child is assigned, but don’t allow it to dictate your acceptance of your child’s capabilities.
Many caregivers question if pursuing a diagnosis is worthwhile. The Autistic community is somewhat split on this. A medical diagnosis can open many doors for your child to receive accommodations and modifications. It can also, sadly, present unwanted barriers, such as being barred from certain jobs, military service, and even being disallowed from emigrating from one’s home country. Despite the potential challenges, childhood diagnosis tends to be easier to obtain. It is incredibly difficult to obtain a diagnosis as an adult, which is why the Autistic community embraces self-diagnosis. We encourage you to read this beautiful post from Autistic Mama about the reasons why early diagnosis can be life-changing. If you want to wait or not pursue a formal diagnosis at all, your child may still be eligible for supports in school. In the United States, schools can conduct their own internal assessments to provide your child with appropriate accommodations and modifications while in school, even absent a formal, medical diagnosis.
On IEPs and 504 Plans
We promised plain language at the beginning of this post and we’re about to take a dip in the blistering world of federal law, so please bear with us as we keep this as simple as possible. We strongly recommend checking out Wrightslaw and the Wrightslaw books if you want to get the most accurate information about accommodations and modifications.
In brief, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees the right of your child to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). Part of giving your child a FAPE involves establishing a customized blueprint for their educational track via an Individual Education Program (IEP) or a 504 Plan.
IEPs are comprehensive action plans that detail precisely which combination of services will provide the ideal learning environment for your child in a special education program. The custodial caregiver (e.g. parent, grandparent, etc) is part of the IEP team and advocates on behalf of the child. The assessment process to be deemed eligible for an IEP can be lengthy and tedious. If your child already has a medical diagnosis, this is one of the times when it comes in very handy. IEPs are nearly limitless. If your child needs a solution, this is where you put it. The IEP is also where the IEP team declares the LRE for an individual student be it a specialized separate class or some form of integration into general education.
504 Plans are guaranteed under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Unlike IEPs, 504 Plans do not entitle children to the extensive services of special education. You can think of them as a less stringent counterpart to IEPs that are especially useful for general education students who have specific areas where they need support, such as dyslexia. Students can technically have both an IEP and a 504, but having both is not necessary. It’s important to note that IEPs can and usually do include everything that would be written into a 504 Plan, but the reverse is not true.
In order to obtain supports for your child through an IEP or a 504 Plan, the first step is to contact the school (typically a school/guidance counselor or an assessment coordinator) to request an evaluation. You’ll want to be prepared with as much information as you have about what your child needs. Check out this write-up for a detailed overview of the process.
ABA: Applied Behavior Analysis is billed as a “treatment” for autism, but it has widely been met with scorn due to its proclivity for causing post-traumatic stress disorder in Autistic children. It’s no wonder as the “father” of ABA had this to say about Autistic people, “You see, you start pretty much from scratch when you work with an autistic child. You have the person in the physical sense – they have hair, a nose and a mouth – but they are not people in the psychological sense.” For more information on why ABA isn’t welcomed by Autistic people, check out ABA Treats a Problem Your Child Doesn’t Have.
Asperger’s: In the United States, Asperger’s has fallen into medical disuse as a diagnosis as the DSM-5 rightly condensed autism into a single diagnosis. Many Autistic people who were originally diagnosed with Asperger’s continue to use this term. However, allistic people should be aware that Hans Asperger was a Nazi eugenicist who was responsible for the murder of hundreds of disabled children (warning: linked article contains functioning labels). Some people have pointed out that he may not have been a Nazi sympathizer, but rather a person who fell in line in order to save his own life. Even if that is the case, he still sent hundreds of children to their deaths and does not deserve the honor of being associated with Autistic people. Please use “Autistic” instead as a caregiver.
Autism is a Superpower: The belief that Autistic people have superhuman powers is a form of inspiration porn that dehumanizes and others us. We are as human as any other person. Our autism is often disabling, because it has not yet been normalized by the broader culture in which we live. Because of our different neurology, there are some areas where we might excel. It’s ok to celebrate accomplishments by virtue of our efforts. It’s not ok to celebrate accomplishments because we are Autistic.
Autism Parent: Curiously, many allistic parents of Autistic children proclaim themselves as “Autism Parents” but are often unwilling to adopt the identity-first language most of us prefer (i.e. Autistic person). “Autism Parent,” and the use of autism as a lead into any conversation about their kids, gives the impression that the caregiver is donning their child’s identity as a sort of uniform to showcase their experience caring for an Autistic person. And, worse, “Autism Parents” often say things like “Autism won today” to indicate they’ve had a bad day. Imagine saying such a thing about any other identity. Please use “Parent of an Autistic Child” instead.
Functioning Labels: “Mild,” “Severe,” “High Functioning,” “Low Functioning,” “end of the spectrum” and so on. These are functioning labels that are meant to communicate to allistic people just how much Autistic people diverge from neurotypicality. Even the levels assigned by diagnosing doctor’s that are meant to indicate anticipated support needs end up communicating how burdensome we are expected to be for our caregivers. Yet, Autistic people’s capacities can slide all over the place, even hour to hour. Functioning Labels provide no useful information. When talking about Autistic people, avoid discussing deficits. Instead, help us advocate to meet our needs. For example, rather than saying “my child is non-verbal,” try “my child uses augmentative and alternative communication (AAC).”
Person with Autism: Survey after survey demonstrates that Autistic people, on the whole, prefer identity-first language. Autism isn’t a feature. It is the very lens through which our brains process the world. Every Autistic person has an Autistic mind. We cannot be allistic. We cannot “age out” of autism and we cannot be “cured.” It is who we are, therefore, it is always appropriate to use identity-first language (Autistic person) unless you’re speaking about an individual who has specifically indicated that they prefer person-first language.
Puzzle Piece: Since the puzzle piece is ubiquitous, you might not realize that Autistic people generally do not identify with it. The puzzle piece was created by an allistic member of the National Autistic Society and it originally featured a crying child as a symbol portraying autism in contrast to the way “normal” people are supposed to be. It says Autistic people are a baffling mystery. That our minds aren’t complete. And, it garners such ableist phrases as “Until All the Pieces Fit.” Parents of Autistic kids – the group most likely to use it – go to great lengths to explain why they don’t see the puzzle piece as a negative thing. However, a 2018 study confirmed once and for all that the puzzle piece is harmful to the Autistic community. The Autistic community has embraced the gold infinity loop as a more appropriate representation of who we are. (The rainbow infinity loop is a positive symbol for neurodiversity.)
Sesame Street: In April of 2017, Sesame Street debuted Julia, an Autistic girl who would introduce children worldwide to autism. Many Autistic adults were overjoyed, especially given the fact that Sesame Street had spent years developing Julia with the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN). We knew she would be a genuine reflection of Autistic people. Sadly, in 2019, the partnership between Sesame Street and ASAN ended. In a devastating betrayal, Sesame Street elected to partner with Autism Speaks instead and promote their stigmatizing resources for parents of newly-diagnosed Autistic children.
Symptoms: Autistic people have traits, not symptoms. The way we think and behave is not the result of an illness. It is a manifestation of our neurology and our individual personalities. Use of the word symptom is an example of the pathologizing of autism. Because we are different, there is a tendency from a medical perspective to pinpoint and correct those differences and that tendency makes its way into the literature around autism.
Violence: An unfortunate stereotype exists that Autistic people are prone to violence. In reality, violence is not part of the criteria for a diagnosis. It is not indicative of autism. So, why do caregivers of Autistic kids talk about violence so much? It’s a misunderstanding of what the “violence” actually is. All of us, Autistic and allistic alike, understand what it’s like to be worn down by life and pushed to the limit. This stress is the root of much discomfort, frustration, and even anger. It’s something that Autistic people experience significantly more often than allistic people, because we are moving through a world that does not operate with our needs in mind. Some Autistic people, particularly children, become so overwhelmed that they lash out. It is a form of communication that tells everyone around them that they need help. Not censure. Autistic people are not inherently violent.
How Do I Best Love My Autistic Child?
This one isn’t just about feeling a tender, nurturing draw toward an Autistic child. We know you love your child deeply or you wouldn’t be here. This one is about loving an Autistic child for who they are. Not for who they might be if they weren’t Autistic. It’s about recognizing your child’s stimming and supporting them by providing stim toys and room to stim without judgment. It’s about engaging with, rather than pathologizing the great interest your child takes in the things they love the most. It’s about viewing Autistic people as creative communicators rather than awkward and socially inept. It’s about going directly to Autistic adults, and professionals who listen to Autistic adults, to ask questions about how to support your Autistic child. And, it’s about folding your Autistic child into your family life in the most natural ways. Full acceptance. Unconditional love. Exactly what every caregiver should do for every child. It’s nothing remarkable and it’s the most remarkable thing of all.
We’ll leave you with this video that sums up how we want parents of Autistic children to choose to view their kids in hopes that the more our world understands autism, the higher quality of life all Autistic people can enjoy.
Looking for More?
Our friend, Autistic Mama, is working on another resource she’s calling Autism Diagnosis Journal: A Parent’s 30 Day Guide to Confidently Process Their Child’s New Autism Diagnosis. Autistic Mama, Kaylene George, is an Autistic mother of 6 neurodiverse kiddos, including one Autistic child. Her life’s work is helping parents of Autistic children become better parents, advocates, and autism allies. Her efforts serve to make our society more accepting and inclusive to Autistics. Her newest project promises to be comprehensive and thoughtful, and we encourage you to keep watch for when it drops.
*Please comment below or message Peace I Give with any questions you may have. We consider this to be a living guide to be updated as new pressing questions arise.We are open to criticism as well. Thank you for reading!
Around this time last year, I wrote a piece called Squaring Santa where I dove into the myth and tackled the childism inherent in a cultural collaboration to deceive kids. Upon re-reading it, I’ve realized it comes across as strongly worded and for good reason. Learning the truth about Santa as a child shattered the magic of Christmas for me. No, Christmas was never about Santa or gifts. What hurt me was that my parents had lied to me and encouraged me to believe something they knew was untrue. Christmas was tarnished from that point and it took getting caught up in the excitement of my own children around the Christmas season to regain much of what I had lost. That’s just my story though. I know millions of people perpetuate the Santa myth because they had warm cozies about it as kids and that nostalgia can make it difficult to see the lie for what it is.
Last week, I was looking for matching pajamas for my family and I saw some with little Black Santas. As I considered the cost, I realized how strange it was that I had no problem with Santa PJs considering how I feel about the Santa tradition. Out of curiosity and a desire to explore, I asked friends if anyone among them chose not to participate in the Santa tradition and why. The most common response what that they didn’t want to deceive their kids and break their trust. Some noted that their children had expressed reservations about a strange man breaking into their homes while they were sleeping. Some went further to say they preferred to talk about the life of St. Nicholas of Myra. Others said they do participate in the Santa tradition in some form, but do not employ the behavioral tactics to pressure their kids into being “good.” And still others said their children understand it’s a game and not real, so they aren’t being duped, but they’re still enjoying the make-believe excitement of it all. Everything they said resonated with me.
There is no denying how ubiquitous Santa has become in the United States. He’s part of our cultural vision of Christmas, for better or worse. Schools really push Santa as well. It can be hard to be a child in this country and not wonder about whether Santa is real. So, first, I want to affirm everyone who does not wish to participate in the Santa tradition at all for whatever reason. Do whatever it is that makes sense for your family. I would advise against demonizing Santa or ignoring that the tradition exists at all, because doing so could create a major conflict for your children. It could also push them to condemn their friends or take up a position of superiority.
If You Don’t Want to Participate in the Santa Tradition At All
Decide what you want your child to know, making sure to recognize that you will not be able to completely avoid Santa during the Christmas season.
Give your child the words to say when people (especially other children) ask them about Santa. Specifically, work with your child to prepare responses to “What do you want Santa to bring you?” And, “Have you been good this year?” Children typically don’t want to get entangled in a lengthy discussion, so sidestepping the questions can be useful.
“What do you want Santa to bring you?” Response: “I’d love to get [gift] for Christmas this year.”
“Have you been good this year?” Response: “I don’t think kids should be rewarded for being good or punished for being bad.”
Explain that it is considered bad form to intrude on others participating in the Santa tradition. If you want your child to tell the truth to other children about Santa, that is your prerogative and it is the anti-childist position. However, if you’d prefer to encourage your child to extend grace, you can let them know it’s ok not to discuss Santa at all with other children (or simply use the canned responses you have prepared together).
If You Do Want to Participate in the Santa Tradition Without the Childism
Tell your child the truth. Santa is a myth. However, Santa is also a fun cultural tradition that your child can participate in with full knowledge of reality.
Teach your child the history of Santa, including the origins in St. Nicholas of Myra, as well as differences in the Santa tradition around the world.
Share other cultures’ holiday traditions, particularly the ways in which they infuse kindness and generosity into their holidays.
Introduce Santa images with a variety of complexions rather than perpetuating white supremacy in the form of white Santa only.
By now, the COVID-19 crisis has touched us all in some way. In the U.S., we’ve inched into the top spot globally for confirmed infections and, I don’t know about you, but I find myself watching the trackers and praying that those “serious” cases resolve into the “recovered” column instead of the “deceased” column. People keep asking when this will be over, but that’s an impossible question to answer. Everything is different now and will never be the same again.
This is a scary time for all of us, adults and children alike. I’m not doomsdaying y’all. Not at all. There is hope and joy both now and on the other side of COVID-19. It just looks different than anything we’ve known in our lifetimes. We’ve never experienced anything like this before and we’ve got to give ourselves grace. You’re not alone. You are seen.
May I ask you about your COVID-19 experience?
Have you yelled at, spanked, or otherwise dealt harshly with your kids?
Have you cried because you’re completely overwhelmed and you can’t see the end?
Have you felt your mental health slipping and/or are you on a medication that no longer feels like it’s working?
Have you backed off limits that you never meant to release and now feel your kids are overrunning your boundaries?
Have you snapped at other people because the situation with your kids is sending you over the edge?
Have you had thoughts about your kids or being a parent that secretly embarrassed you or made you feel ashamed?
Have you voiced any of those thoughts in front of your kids?
Have you become super strict or super lax or some confusing combination of the two?
Have you, at any point during the COVID-19 crisis, felt like a bad or failing parent?
If you answered yes to any of those questions and you’re feeling bad about yourself, I’m here to tell you that you are loved and worthy regardless.
I’ve got some ideas I hope will help and support you, but I truly do want you to give yourself grace. If something doesn’t resonate, please move on and release it. I’m hoping to refresh you, not bog you down more. And, I’ll be very honest. I’m feeling completely inadequate right now in terms of helping y’all when I’m right in the midst of this mess myself. We’re in this together, friends.
This post is separated into two big sections which you can jump to or read straight through. I know we’re all a bit short on time, given the circumstances, so take what you need.
It’s ok not to be ok. It’s ok not to have it together. It’s ok not to feel like your normal self. It’s ok to need more support than usual.
If you’re feeling more tired and unmotivated than usual even though the outside world seems to be slowing down, know that you are under an incredible level of constant stress. There will be moments of happiness, of course, but that overwhelming feeling of just not being able to manage runs like a dark current underneath everything you’re trying to do. It’s all real. Nobody was prepared for how much time and effort it would take to get through the pandemic. We have no experience on which to base our thoughts going into this.
In this incredibly vulnerable experience, you may feel your life resetting. Let it. Some good may be taking place in the background. Even as you worry for your kids, they are experiencing a desperately needed course correction. You are gaining insight into the things in the background that have been draining you. And, you are experiencing what people have experienced throughout time and catastrophe: a readjustment of values. It’s a necessary part of the human condition. As a result, you are bound to be exhausted and jittery and done. None of this is easy and you can’t just relax the days away. No, there’s still much to do but, please, take care of yourselves as you go.
To the essential workers out there, you are profoundly appreciated. We see you on the front lines. We know you can’t slow down and we pray that you remain strong. Bless you all!
You ARE Being Crushed Right Now
Don’t let anyone tell you how you feel or how your family has been affected. What you’re experiencing is absolutely real. I want to acknowledge that at the top and validate your suffering. We’re all struggling, some so much more than others. Some were struggling intensely before this crisis hit and, now… it’s utterly disastrous. There may be plenty of love to go around, but not quite enough resources or energy, so no one (including you) is getting everything they need.
In particular, if you’re a career parent, please understand, you may be feeling like some sort of combined Stay-at-Home/Work-at-Home/Teacher parent. But, you’re not. You are something way beyond. Something that defies definition. You aren’t meant to handle everything all at once like this plus all the emotional turmoil of a global crisis. I admire y’all so much.
I’ve seen some shaming messages floating around social media about how domestically productive we should be right now. Ignore all of it. Who could have anticipated this intense psychological burden, the loss of familiarity, or the feelings of walls closing in on us? Now’s the time to celebrate what we can do and brush off what we can’t.
A special note to my Asian American friends. Your experience in this crisis is different from that of others. Your heightened stress and fear are real and valid. Check out this piece from therapists who have been supporting Asian clients for some ideas on how to manage. If you need to take someone along with you when you go out, DO IT. Please, be careful out there.
Get Your Basics Covered
Prioritize filling your belly, bathing your body, and getting rest. It’s so easy to put our needs to the side when we’re so focused on our children. But, we can’t maintain this workload without making sure our basic needs are met.
If you’ve lost income and are concerned about making sure your family is protected and fed, do what you must and make no excuses for it. Here’s where to go get help:
This situation is directly challenging the American values of consumerism and capitalism. It’s revealing bleak disparities between the haves and have nots. And, it’s making us seriously consider our needs versus our wants. These are extraordinary times. We are face to face with a pivotal moment in history, and it’s painful.
There’s so much worry in the world as it is. Try not to get caught up in the fervor and hypotheses around COVID-19 if they negatively impact your mental health in any way. I encourage you to cut out the areas of social media that cause you distress, at least temporarily. Focus, instead, on what you can do and make that your goal.
Take Inventory of Your Stressors
And, put them in their proper place for the time being. A friend recently posted about no longer being able to hide from fears and stressors, because of the conditions under which we’re currently living. From her own experience, she writes,
Maybe being alone is uncomfortable for you and you’ve always avoided that feeling by socializing with others.
Maybe there are inequities in your domestic partnership that you normally brush under the rug but that aren’t sustainable now.
Maybe there have always been boundary issues with a person in your life (like a parent) that you can normally tolerate but that’s becoming increasingly untenable.
Maybe the ways you normally cope with an [eating disorder] aren’t available to you right now and you need to find new, more evolved methods.
Maybe slowing down is really difficult for you because momentum and adrenaline are how you’re able to get through the day and feel like you did enough.
As you encounter unavoidable, mental health-killing circumstances, take a few minutes here and there to write out what’s happening so that you can deal with these issues when you’re not in the middle a crisis situation. If there is any silver lining to this terrible cloud, it’s that we’re being brought face to face with all the things we’ve been running from. So, fortify your boundaries as you need and prioritize yourself. There will be time to tackle all of these things in the future. Now is the time to pare down and deal with what’s right in front of you.
If you know someone who is in danger due to the spike in domestic violence, the national hotline number is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). And, the child abuse hotline is 1-800-4ACHILD (422-4453).
Lower Your Expectations
No matter how prepared any of us might have thought we were for a major disaster like COVID-19, no one was actually prepared and nothing that’s happening is normal. If you’ve been beating yourself up because you haven’t been able to keep your house clean or because your children are spending too much time indoors on screens, stop. Stop right now. Do whatever must be done and let the rest go. If it would improve your mental health, consider planning out how you can accomplish the things you want to do, keeping in mind that your plan can include getting things done after the crisis is over. You don’t need to be everything and do everything right now just because the country is at an apparent standstill. If your mental health is off, and you can’t handle any more than you’re already doing, it’s ok. Ask for help where you can and let the rest go.
By the same token, do what you need to do in order to feel more in control. You may need more structure and routine or you may need less. Don’t feel guilty for scrolling right past all the advice for how to better organize your time or pandemic school… er “homeschool” your kids (Sidebar: No one is really homeschooling right now. Homeschool is an academic and social venture. What we’re doing is something much more strained.) Do whatever it is you have to do in order to get by.
Find An Escape
“Silly” self-care ideas like bubble baths and long walks may actually be exactly what you need. And, for the record, they aren’t silly. You may be craving a long, hot shower. Take one after your kids go to sleep. Do it and don’t worry about anything else for a few moments. Just focus on yourself. The shower is a great place for a good cry if you need that emotional release. After all, tears can be healing. The same goes for taking a walk, meditating in nature, reading a book, taking a short drive, baking some cookies, and so on. Whatever small things you can do each day to stop hyperfocusing on what’s bothering you even if just for a few minutes can be the refresh that you need.
YouTube is rich with hundreds of thousands of hours of practices that can help improve your ability to manage your stress and anxiety levels. Here are just a handful of those videos:
This escape could also come in the form of therapy. So many therapists are doing telesessions right now. It’s entirely worth the effort to get real help from a real person. And, realistically, your therapist can do a whole lot more for you than I can in this little blog post.
Our children all know something’s up by now. Some seem mostly oblivious. Some seem curious. And, some seem concerned. These are all natural responses to such big changes. As parents, we can help our kids navigate this challenging time with some kid-friendly psychology in mind.
If you have about an hour to listen to a talk, I strongly recommend checking this one out. Otherwise, read on!
Turn Your Attention to Healing
You’re going to mess up with your kids right now. I can’t imagine a way we wouldn’t while our brains are swimming in a sea of stress. So, apologize. Often. Let your children know you will make mistakes and they will make mistakes and you can love each other through it anyway. Voice it. Tell them how important they are to you and how glad you are that they’re in your life. Tell them how much their presence lifts your spirits and that you’re grateful to have an amazing family like yours. Try to find moments to build them up because, in doing so, you will build your relationship and provide them with the connection they’re craving right now. And, perhaps, you’ll even soothe some of those big emotions that are responsible for the blow-ups you and your children are experiencing. There’s no downside to telling a child how much they’re loved. And, please remember, children are resilient and traumatic stress is not a given. So, if you’ve been worried that you’re “ruining” your kids during this difficult time, let those concerns go and look for ways to connect and restore. Heal together.
Hear What Kids Are Saying
Don’t be afraid to talk with your child. Listen to what they’re saying. Sometimes we can project our own fears onto our kids and misinterpret what they mean. Right now, we need to be listening carefully to what our kids are actually saying and asking us. When they ask questions, answer only the question that’s been asked. Listen and get at what fears underlie the things they say.
A friend recently told me about how her children were talking about their own illnesses from a few months ago. This is called generalizing which is when humans take a new piece of information and apply it more broadly to enhance understanding. If children don’t have a great deal of experience with sickness, they may try to recall the last time they or a loved one fell ill. Don’t be alarmed if your child does this. They’re likely trying to fully grasp what’s happening and you can use it to help them by letting them know that, yes, they were sick so they know what it’s like not to feel well.
Hear What They’re Not Saying
Children’s anxiety tends to manifest in ways that do not involve them saying frankly, “I am anxious.” Here are some of the things to watch for that could signal anxiety if they seem new or especially enhanced right now:
Appearing afraid in everyday situations where they didn’t before
Refusing to communicate
Refusing to eat or becoming neurotic about food
Stomachaches, headaches, and/or elevated pulse
Unusual irritability or lashing out
Increased question asking
If you aren’t a mental health professional, don’t worry. You can help counter some of your child’s anxiety at home. And, if it gets to be too much and you’re concerned for your child, many therapists are doing televisits, so you don’t have to leave your home to get help.
If you’re not already in a new routine, try getting your family on a schedule. For some families, an hour by hour schedule helps keep a good rhythm going. For others, the thought of a strict schedule shuts you down. Don’t panic! General guidelines for when the family will wake, eat, and do everything else in between would be perfectly ok. The goal is to develop a cadence to this new life we’re living temporarily. It’s important to maintain boundaries and expectations, and it’s also important to be flexible and understanding.
As for school, I absolutely encourage you to make sure your kids are keeping up with expectations especially out of respect for the work your children’s teachers are doing in the background, but I can’t stress enough that other things are also important. While the world is on pause, you may have a greater opportunity to connect with your kids (and other members of your family) in a way that you’ve literally never had before.
Get Them Connected and Proactive
I’ve seen some wonderful memes recently that remind us that we’re not socially isolated but rather physically isolated. Try to find ways to get your kids connected to trusted adults and their peers. Phone calls and video chats are great. Gaming that involves interacting with other players is another option. Your kids may have some ideas you haven’t even thought of, so ask!
And, remind them that they can help defeat this viral foe. We’ve likely all seen those memes about handwashing to various songs. They’re funny AND TRUE. Teaching kids about hygiene (handwashing, sneezing into the elbow, sanitizing doorknobs, and the like) is a great way to give them something concrete to do in response to feelings of helplessness.
Choose Family-Based Solutions
If your kids are at each other’s throats and angry with you at the same time, call upon the strength of your family to make a way. I was speaking with a friend who has really been struggling to meet her children’s needs. They all seem to need her at once and they’re taking out their pent up anxiety on each other in the form of aggression. She feels outnumbered.
We talked about this situation offering a chance to teach the kids about graciousness and empathy, not just for her as their mother, but also for each other. I suggested working with the kids to come up with a code phrase, like “Activate Empathy!” which would be a signal for everyone to either look around for someone to help or to stop where they are and ask their mother how they can help. Whatever works for the family.
Be Honest and Age Appropriate (But Don’t Reveal More Than Needed)
Make sure you know where your kids are getting their information about COVID-19. If they are becoming consumed with the news, try to find ways to reduce their information intake. For some kids, it may decrease anxiety to keep an eye on things. In such a case, you can work out how that’s going to look and what they should do if something scares them.
If you’re struggling to find the words to respond to your children’s concerns about COVID-19, start by trying to ascertain what your child already knows. From there, encourage your child to ask questions. Check out this video from the Child Mind Institute:
Work Toward Empathetic Reframing
If you’ve been practicing Peaceful Parenting techniques, you’ve likely had some exposure to offering empathetic reassurance without making promises you can’t guarantee. If not, click here to read a brief overview of how to provide reassurance in a healthy way. It may feel easiest to tell our kids they have nothing to worry about, but the reality is that they do. We all do. And we can do something about it! When your child gives you their version of a doomsday scenario or asks a difficult questions, reframe and de-escalate. For a fantastic explanation of this concept, check out this message from Dr. Tina Payne Bryson.
With her message in mind, let’s try fielding a few questions. Remember, there are no perfect responses. Just answers couched in our best effort to give our kids feelings of safety rather than fear.
For Younger Children: First ask, “What do you think is happening?” and see where your child stands. If you can use the information they are able to articulate, you’re well on your way to helping them understand. If you need a quick script, try this. “There’s a teeny, tiny little germ that’s making people sick with a cough, so everyone is staying at home to be safe and not get sick.”
For Older Children: If your child is ready for more information, I recommend choosing an existing child-friendly video to explain what COVID-19 is. Brain Pop has a section on their website that presents information about COVID-19 in the form of a school lesson, complete with vocabulary and a quiz plus other cool features. Allowing an older child to view this information in a simulated school assignment may provide some distance so it’s not as scary.
When will this be over?
For Younger Children: It won’t last forever! We’re going to do our part to be safe, so we can get back to normal very soon.
For Older Children: By keeping ourselves clean and giving people six feet of space from us whenever we go out, we’ll be able to conquer the sickness and this will be over very soon.
Is school closed forever? Are all the teachers sick?
For Younger Children: School isn’t closed forever and your teachers aren’t all sick. We’re staying home so we can keep ourselves safe and help doctors and nurses do their jobs.
For Older Children: The people who run the school have closed the building to make sure students stay safe right now. Some teachers might be sick, but not all. For now, we’re going to keep doing schoolwork assigned by your teacher to make sure you know everything you’re supposed to know.
Can I go to the park?
For Younger Children: Response: (Depending on your area’s social distancing requirements…) Sure, we can go to the park and walk around! The playground is closed, though, so let’s go see if we can find some ladybugs.
For Older Children: (Depending on your area’s social distancing requirements…) Yes, walking around outside is ok. You’ll see some areas sectioned off, since the city wanted to keep everyone safe from sharing germs on the equipment.
Why can’t I see my friends?
For Younger Children: I know you miss your friends a lot and you want to play with them. Just like us, your friends are safe at home for a while. How about we find a friend to video chat with?
For Older Children: I know it’s hard to be apart from the people who make you feel your best. In order to keep everyone as safe and healthy as possible, it’s important for us all to stay home for a while. How about reaching out to them?
If I hug you, will you get sick?
For Younger Children: Come get a hug! One of the reasons we’re sticking to ourselves right now is so that we can talk and cuddle as much as we want to.
For Older Children: You can have a hug any time you need! One of the benefits of staying home and practicing social distancing is that we protect ourselves from the virus, so we can stick together.
Is everyone going to die?
For Younger Children: Absolutely not. Everyone is not going to die. We’re helping everyone keep safe by staying home. Can you think of someone you love very much to call and talk to?
For Older Children: Absolutely not. Our entire country is taking steps to protect as many people as possible. Would you like to make some calls with me? I’m going to check in on family.
The goal here is not to lie or overflate any promise of safety, but to reduce fear by focusing on what we can do to be safer.
Some awesome folks have done a lot of the necessary footwork to help kids understand sickness and COVID-19. Check out these episodes for a positive spin on how to tackle this coronavirus, one kid at a time.
Last week, when I wrote about children’s rights, I was expecting some pushback. Members of a childist culture will obviously struggle to cut through their conditioning… and that includes me. However, I was not prepared for one subset of responses that popped up in several places where my post was shared: accusations that advocating for children rights equates to condoning pedophilia. I was floored. Why would sexual abuse be the first thing that pops into someone’s mind when they consider the rights of children? And, why would anyone put the responsibility on the child and not the adult predator? Clearly, I do not have the answers to these questions, particularly because nothing about what I wrote indicated that children should be left entirely without the guidance and protection of trusted adults.
I do, however, have a response to this incredibly disturbing line of reasoning. Child sexual abuse is happening already in the U.S. where children do not have anywhere near the number of rights that adults have. And, you’ll never guess one of the crucial things we should be teaching our kids to help protect them from predators: children can say no to adults. Many children have never had that opportunity without being punished, so they don’t realize they can use that word when speaking with an adult. Check out this post from the Child Mind Institute for more information on ways we can empower our children to escape from and report attempts at sexual abuse.
Why Childism Matters
Early in my Peaceful Parenting journey, I was debating spanking in a Facebook group. I said, “I don’t hit people” to which a commenter responded, “We’re talking about children, not people.”
Childism isn’t as simple as whether or not you like children. Some people don’t like kids and that’s ok. You don’t have to like kids to believe they should be assured human dignity. [EDIT: I was wrong. It is NOT ok to dislike kids anymore than it is ok to dislike any other entire group of people. That was a bit of residual childism on my part, and I’m accountable for it.] Unfortunately, in the U.S. alone, more than 3 million cases of child abuse are investigated each year and an average of 5 children are murdered every day of the year by caregivers. A sobering report from the U.S. Department of Justice states that, in the previous year, “60 percent [of children in the U.S.] were exposed to violence, crime, or abuse in their homes, schools, and communities. Almost 40 percent of American children were direct victims of 2 or more violent acts, and 1 in 10 were victims of violence 5 or more times. Children are more likely to be exposed to violence and crime than adults. Almost 1 in 10 American children saw one family member assault another family member, and more than 25 percent had been exposed to family violence during their life.” To be clear, THIS IS A HUMAN RIGHTS CRISIS.
Childism is the basis for the abuses children suffer, because childism says that children are not people. Our entire culture is complicit in the abuse of children.
Defining Rights and Freedoms
In my efforts to speak clearly and accessibly about childism, I neglected to anticipate a common concern many readers would have about the Anti-Childism Scale from last week’s blog post.
I received questions about how to balance equal rights for children with parental responsibility. So, I’ll begin with a very basic distinction between rights and freedoms.
A right is a privilege enjoyed by all members of a society.
A freedom is an absence of constraints.
The study of rights is so massive and so arguable that it’s difficult to pin down exactly what categories of rights exist. I will attempt to be brief and clear with the understanding that others may not agree with how I’ve broken these down.
Natural Rights: These are the rights we’re born with that need no special dispensation, such as the rights to life, liberty, and so on.
Moral Rights: These are the rights that hold societies together. They may or may not be enforceable by law. Moral rights may include things like the right to be treated fairly, whatever that may mean in the given culture.
Legal Rights: These are rights that are enforceable by law. They are typically moral rights that become codified. Legal rights include things like the right to move through life without being discriminated against, the right to own property, and the right to vote.
(Duties: Where a right is an entitlement, a duty is an obligation. I include this here as an aside to note that children’s rights advocates do not seek equality in duties, such as requiring young children to be subject to military conscription.)
There is tremendous interplay among these categories and rights vary from country to country. It is also important to note that rights can be limited by a society, as in the case of the famous prohibition against using the U.S. Constitutional right to free speech to justify the act of yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. And, of course, there is the matter of incarceration where many rights are suspended (but many remain).
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is a legally-binding collection of 54 articles detailing children’s rights. It was ratified over 30 years ago, so it is not new by any means. To date, it has been signed by 196 countries, including the U.S. (1995). Regrettably, the U.S. regularly violates the agreement, as a country, and does not hold parents to its tenets. For instance, the UNCRC declares that children must be free from violence, yet the U.S. government has not taken a stance against spanking. At the very least, children’s rights advocates would see every child in the U.S. guaranteed the rights dictated by the UNCRC, but there’s so much more we could do.
For example, we could embrace the youth suffrage movement and eliminate the voting age, especially given the fact that “the quality of these citizens’ choices is similar to that of older voters, so they do cast votes in ways that enable their interests to be represented equally well” (Source). And, perhaps surprising, a study out of Scotland that controlled for socio-demographic diversity found that “the newly enfranchised young people in Scotland indeed show substantially higher levels of engagement with representative democracy (through voting) as well as other forms of political participation (such as signing petitions and taking part in demonstrations); and they engage with a greater range of information sources about politics and reflect greater levels of political efficacy.” Kids are brilliant and observant if we give them half a chance to be.
There are certain rights that are extremely sensitive and uncomfortable to debate, like marriage age. In some states in the U.S., there is no statutory minimum age at all with parental consent. In our current, childist culture, allowing parents to marry off their children can be disastrous. However, in a hypothetical anti-childist culture where children are treated with respect, taught appropriate boundaries, and included in all facets of society from childhood, the option to marry at a younger age to a peer would make a lot more sense than it does now. And, when I say “younger age,” I mean teenage. I do not believe young children should have the freedom to marry whenever they please as the risk of harm is far too high. So, their right to marry would need to be limited in this hypothetical culture.
Here’s the really touchy part. Where is the line between a right and a freedom drawn? Freedom is the absence of constraints. Even adults do not enjoy unlimited freedom and children much less so. While a child may not be free to get a tattoo, they have the absolute right to consent to being circumcised or having their ears pierced. And, a tween might be permitted to go on a group date with peers, but should not be permitted to date an adult.
I think that, perhaps, the simplest way to respect a child’s rights while fulfilling our duty as parents to protect and guide our kids is to put ourselves in their shoes. Would we allow someone to rip our clothes off and force us into a bathtub? No? Then, we shouldn’t do that to a child. Would we allow someone to hit us when we make mistakes? No? Then, we shouldn’t do that to a child. Would we allow someone to force us to eat food we don’t want to eat? No? Then, we shouldn’t do that to a child.
Yes, it’s a worldview shift which is what makes all of this so difficult. Most of what I do here in this space is to provide parents with alternatives to doing these things we do to kids but wouldn’t do to an adult. There are other, gentler options for children, including children who are resistant (which I’ve written about). And, until we get to the point where our relationship with our kids leads to mutual cooperation, there will very likely be times when we apply force. It’s far from ideal and it is certainly not respectful of children’s rights, but as a culture, we’re just not there yet. Individually, we may have more success or less success.
What Does Anti-Childist Parenting Look Like?
The reality is that we all come to parenting with a perspective that has been informed by our upbringing, our culture, our stressors, and our wounds. People have legitimate reasons for doing the things they do, including all the things I encourage parents not to do. What I try (and probably often fail) to do in my writing is to acknowledge the thought process and validate the parents’ needs while simultaneously advocating for children. I’m looking to help families heal whatever needs attention between parents and their kids so that, together, they can move forward in an enduringly positive bearing.
I can see a situation and grasp why a parent might react in an aggressive way toward a child. I want to offer the space to deconstruct what is happening in that parent’s life that led to the moment in time where they were at odds with their child. Is the parent struggling financially? Is the parent a member of a people group that experiences constant discrimination? Does the parent have a combative relationship with the children’s other parent(s)? Is the parent completely overwhelmed with no help? Are there other factors at play that make responding peacefully seem completely impossible? Does the parent honestly have no idea what else to do? Yes, often, and I’m empathetic to the struggle. It’s tough out here.
I’d like to share a little of my own experience here to illustrate why I am so deeply committed to the Peaceful Parenting philosophy. It’s a daily effort to choose a de-escalated response even when I’m barely holding it together. That part is so hard for me but the payoff is extraordinary. These are some common issues that frustrate many parents but aren’t a battle in my house (and I’ll explain why!):
Car Seat Safety
Trying new foods
Choosing clothes/getting dressed
They are not issues in my household, because we’ve never made them an issue. My kids have always had the right of refusal 99% of the time. It’s just not a big deal, so they don’t make it one. They do these things willingly and without much effort on my part. That said, we do have other struggles and, as a Peaceful Parent, limits are a necessary aspect of my approach. So, please, understand that I am not saying children should, or even could, be given unlimited free rein.
Because I believe deeply in equal rights for kids, I work toward becoming a Subverter in every interaction I have with children. Here are some of the ways I acknowledge my children’s individual personhood and preferences:
I’m patient with my kids and I give them lots of time both to respond to me and to switch gears when we need to do something else.
I don’t tell my children how they feel (“Oh, you’re ok”).
I don’t mandate manners.
I assume competence and I don’t jump in to save the day while they’re problem-solving.
I invite my children to handle delicate things, work on a hot stove, and use adult tools (all with supervision of course) because involving kids helps them build skills and understand safety.
I include my kids in my daily life and expect them to share family responsibilities.
I don’t require my children to clean alone. This may seem an odd point, but I struggled so much as a child when my parents told me to clean my room because I didn’t have the executive functioning skills to figure it out. So, with my kids, I’m present to help them when they need guidance well before they become frustrated.
I acknowledge that the things they believe are important are as critical as the things that are important to me. If my child accidentally breaks a toy, I know their strong feelings about it are equivalent to how I’d feel wrecking my car. It’s a big deal.
I don’t manipulate (“I’ll cry if you don’t give me a hug!”), threaten (“If you don’t stop right now, it’s time out for you!”), or coerce (“Be a good girl and pick up your toys.”)
I encourage my children to say no to me and to negotiate.
I don’t want obedient children. I want wise and cooperative children who are self-motivated.
I don’t bribe or use rewards of any kind.
I respect my kids’ property, space, and privacy.
I don’t prank or laugh at my children unless they are clearly in on it.
I don’t force my children to eat anything. No “You have to try one bite.” No “You won’t get dessert if you don’t eat!”
I expect my children to have their own interests, have emotions, need time to rest without my interference, and resist my agenda/schedule for their lives.
I don’t relish time away from them because they annoy me. I don’t blame my children for my emotions. I do appreciate self-care and time to myself because it’s good for my health.
I don’t make excuses for my behavior if I treat my kids poorly (“You made me angry, so I yelled.”). Instead, I readily apologize and make amends.
Now, read back through that list but imagine I’m talking about my husband. Wouldn’t it be pretty much a given that I shouldn’t treat another adult any other way? Of course! Once I understood that, seeing my kids as equals in my humanity became easy. Kids are people, y’all.
Last week, many readers saw the line under the “Subverter” description on the Anti-Childism Scale that says, “children deserve equal rights as adults,” and missed, or didn’t understand, the part that says, “children have varying capacities to manage freedoms.” I hope everything I’ve explained here helps to clear up any misconceptions about the Anti-Childism Scale and my position on children’s rights and freedoms.
If you’re not familiar with childism, you aren’t alone. Most of the people I talk with aren’t familiar with it. Some even scoff at the idea as though the concept of prejudice against children is so preposterous, it could not possibly exist. If you’re struggling to see how we systemically discriminate against children, consider the following ways, as described by Happiness is Here, in which we treat children differently from adults:
It’s every time a parent is asked ‘is she hungry?’ or ‘does she like strawberries?’ instead of the question being directed at the child who is very capable of answering.
It’s every time a child’s emotions elicit laughter instead of empathy.
It’s withholding food/water/affection until a child says ‘please’ to satisfy an adult ego.
It’s adults believing they have the ‘right’ to physically punish people because of their age.
It’s countries where hitting children is legal and there are guidelines as to where and how you can smack them. Guidelines for hitting your wife would be abhorrent, but age somehow changes perspectives.
It’s a general intolerance for childish behaviour interfering with an adults desires, and the view that children should be ‘seen and not heard’.
It’s adults making decisions about cosmetic alterations to their child’s body such as circumcision, ear-piercing, haircuts, without consent.
It’s forced affection or ‘give me a cuddle or I’ll be sad and cry’, sending the message that a child does not get to make decisions about their own body.
It’s whenever a child’s photo is posted online in an effort to shame them as a way of getting them to submit to an adult’s will.
It’s adults who believe they deserve automatic respect (most often defined as ‘obedience’) for nothing more than their greater age.
It’s children’s emotions being dismissed or stifled for adult comfort.
It’s every time children are talked about in a conversation as though they are not even in the room.
It’s rejoicing in their absence when it’s back-to-school time.
The term childism was coined in the early 1970s after which it remained a relevant concept within the realm of children’s rights. However, the term didn’t really enter mainstream discourse until the late psychotherapist and children’s rights activist, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, wrote her groundbreaking work, Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children, which was published posthumously in 2012. Her mission in proposing that our culture adopt the word childism was not to “launch an inquiry into prejudice against children” but rather to establish a term that would “have political resonance, something that [could] operate as sexism did to raise our political consciousness” (page 8). According to Darcia F. Narvaez Ph.D., Young-Bruehl’s solution to childismcan be summarized in four actions:
Understand the ideas and institutions that perpetuate childism. See how it is manifest in individuals, families, institutions and the wider culture.
Educate society about the causes and meanings of these prejudices, and the harms they have done and continue to do.
Create program [sic] to repair the damage of childism, secure the progress that has been made and continue to work to eradicate the prejudice.
Demand full and equal civil and political rights for children.
Here, I need to pause and explain a disagreement among children’s rights advocates. Some people take issue with the way Young-Bruehl defined childism. They prefer the term adultism to mean “prejudice against children,” and they view childism as akin to feminism in that it is a term of empowerment for children. While I understand the arguments for using childism in this way, my fundamental disagreement rests in the systemic nature of childism which I use as akin to sexism. Children can both reinforce and internalize prejudice against themselves in addition to that prejudice being levied by older people. I believe that the term adultism risks suggesting that the issue is adults disliking children. That is not the case. Childism requires a cultural breach of humanity and is bolstered by harmful influences like White Supremacy Culture. You may disagree with me and that’s ok, but I do want to make clear why I use childism in the way I do.
Origin of the Scale
I’ve been thinking about developing an anti-childism scale for years. It’s been a long time coming. I initially got the idea from the work of Dr. Barnor Hesse, Associate Professor of African American Studies, Political Science, and Sociology at Northwestern University, who produced a scale of white identities that increasingly cultivate genuine anti-racism. For a text version of this list of The 8 White Identities, check out this post.
Based on Dr. Hesse’s work, I set out to form a similar scale toward the neutralization of childism that borrows from the Transtheoretical Model to foster growth and behavior change.
My scale is meant for personal reflection and self-improvement purposes only. I would be disappointed to see it used as a weapon against people who do not agree with my belief system. My hope is that it will get people thinking and give them an idea of where they stand with respect to embracing or rejecting childism.
The Anti-Childism Scale
The following six identities increasingly represent an anti-childist worldview and indicate the level of action a person is willing to take in opposition to childism.
The Dominator: Believes children must be controlled by adults and must be respectful of adult authority. Grants only minimal rights to children.
The Dominator aligns with traditional cultural values in which children effectively live their lives at the pleasure of the adults around them. This person has no insight into their own childism. Moving from this stage may prove the hardest as such movement requires a significant worldview shift.
The Inquirer: Questions the power dynamic between children and adults and is open to discussion. Continues to behave as Dominator-lite.
The Inquirer has realized something isn’t right and works to determine if childism is worth investigating or if it is nonsense. Moving through this stage may be frustrating as it sits on the cusp of full understanding.
The Convert: Accepts that children face discrimination at the hands of adults. But may be uncomfortable taking action beyond discussion.
The Convert is the first stage of intentional anti-childism work. This person is convinced that childism is unacceptable but is either uncertain or uncomfortable taking action. This person likely discusses actions and attitudes toward kids and validates the reality of children’s lived experiences.
The Critic: Regards children as deserving of protection from discrimination. Expresses beliefs when safe, but may not speak out when the cost is too high.
The Critic wants to help and is willing to speak up if doing so will not result in blowback. For instance, Critics may debate childism online but may not speak up in real life even when they know something is wrong. Moving from belief to action can be scary, but this person is making progress.
The Embracer: Recognizes children as equals in humanity and chooses inclusion whenever possible, even in the face of open criticism. Retains unexamined childism.
The Embracer actively advocates for kids and speaks up no matter who is listening. This is a transitional stage where we learn how to do what needs to be done and gain the courage to do it.
The Subverter: Elevates children in word and deed, believes children deserve equal rights as adults, understands that children have varying capacities to manage freedoms, meets children where they are, and encourages others to do the same. Seeks out and actively resolves internalized childism.
The Subverter is a powerhouse for kids, working alongside children rather than in place of them. This person understands that children are not helpless or unaware. As such, the Subverter seeks out the needs and wants of children and works toward true allyship. This is the person who speaks up when others don’t and boldly treats children with respect even in the face of chastisement from other adults. This person works to change societal views toward children and undermine institutional childism. This person is capable of starting a chain reaction up The Anti-Childism Scale and effects change through discussion, action, and activism to help others achieve elucidation.
Working Through the Scale
The Anti-Childism Scale is not strictly linear nor is it neat. There is transmutational space between each of the identities where we work through the discomfort of growth and struggle against our fears. Even as we take big steps, we will have moments when we slip back into a more comfortable state. It’s crucial to remember that this is not an all-or-nothing metamorphosis. Our choices matter, moment-by-moment, for life. Each new stage we enter brings us self-awareness and self-improvement, and it elevates children at the same time.
Some of the things we can do as caring adults to ensure the rights of children are:
Read and understand the 54 “Rights of the Child” as adopted by the United Nations. These are children’s most basic rights. We can do even better with a little effort.
Share the 54 “Rights of the Child” with our children so that they understand the standards to which they should hold all adults.
Consider how our choices affect our children and ask them for their input.
Respect our children’s names and avoid using them as a threat. (Most of us know what it means to be called your full name by a parent.)
Accept our children’s unique identity and genuinely see who our children really are.
Listen to our children’s opinions and be open to negotiation.
Recognize that children are intelligent. Assume competence and protect our children’s freedom of expression.
Give our children adequate privacy and access to information. Where issues of safety arise, work it out with the child, not for the child.
Find ways to teach and coach our children that do not involve punishments.
Provide our children with ample opportunities to play and rest.
I hope I’ve given you something to think about. You can expect more posts from me on childism and how to root it out. For now, I’d love to find out where you see yourself on the scale. And, of course, please feel free to share it to give others the same opportunity for self-exploration.
Recently, I was talking with a sweet friend about her energetic son. We’ve had many discussions about his behavior, her responses, and steps moving forward. She lives on the west coast of the U.S. with her husband, her teenage daughter, and of course, her little boy. The family is experiencing quite a bit of turmoil due to the strain of interacting with the healthcare system as her husband lives with a chronic, degenerative condition. But, together, this family is making it work and growing in gentleness.She writes:
I have always considered myself a peaceful parent, because I refuse to use physical punishment with my kids. It hasn’t been until recently that I learned how much more there is to being a peaceful parent and have started trying to make changes. I have a teenager and a kindergartener. I’ve had a lot of struggles with the younger one. My son is strong willed and very hyper, and I am not as patient as a wish I was. I get frustrated quickly, which makes for a hard time in our house more often than I would like.
Lately, I’ve been trying new things that seem so simple when I think about them, but aren’t always as simple in practice. The biggest thing is when my son is having a hard time and I’m starting to get frustrated, I try to stop, breathe, and ask myself WHY is he acting the way he is. When I’ve been able to figure out the why, it’s made finding the solution to help so much easier. The other thing I’ve been doing differently is making sure I take the time to explain things to him rather than just answer yes or no. Sounds super simple, almost so simple I can’t believe I haven’t always done it, but better late than never.
Since I started explaining in more detail to him why things need to be a certain way, he’s responded a lot better. Here’s an example of that. A couple weeks ago I had one of those days, we all know those days. Super busy, dealing with way too much and not enough time. I was working on cleaning the house before family was coming to stay with us and my son comes up to me while I’m super busy and asks me to sit down on the couch with him for a bit. I explained to him I couldn’t because I had all this cleaning to do before family got here and that I needed to make sure everything was done so everyone would be comfortable and happy when staying here. He said ok and left and I could tell he was a disappointed, but I was so behind I figured I would make it up to him a little later.
About 20 mins later he came running into the kitchen and said “Mom I helped. Come see!” So I followed him into his bedroom and it was spotless. He cleaned his entire room by himself without me asking him to! He did a great job, so I was able to take break to sit with him and watch a show. Things are far from perfect, most days are still a struggle, but the more I have been following gentle parenting techniques, the better things have been going.
When my friend shared this story with me, I genuinely teared up. What a sweet, precious child she has who loves her so much, he will go out of his way to relieve her burdens just to have a few moments of time with her. And, he’s such a young child too! I can’t help but think about what a wonderful person he will continue to be as he grows up in this household. And, mom. She empathized with him and explained what was happening. Then, when he came to her, she stopped and took him seriously. When she saw what he had done, she showed him appreciation and she gave him her time knowing it was short supply. This is the way we build relationships with our children.
As you prepare to burst through the gate of a brand new year, your thoughts may center on firm resolutions or even just some loose plans for changes you’d like to see in your life. If being a kinder parent is on your list, I have some comforting news for you. One single change can make all the difference in your efforts to embrace peace and gentleness.
It’s so simple, yet so difficult. It takes intention. It may result in a worldview shift and will likely foster in a positive outlook that can carry you through the toughest parenting challenges. If you have limited time and energy; if you’re overwhelmed at the rigors of peaceful parenting; if you’d hoped you’d have more of a handle on becoming a gentler you but trials and tribulations made your path rockier than you’d ever imagined… if you need help but you don’t know what to help to ask for, I encourage you to do this one, precious, small thing: Reframe.
Reframing is a psychological technique wherein you mentally stand up and move to a different location to see your situation from another, more positive (or at least neutral) perspective. I urge you to watch this incredible 10-minute TED Talk before moving on:
When I talk about reframing in the context of parenthood, I mean choosing to see difficult situations in a new light. As peaceful parents, we know that children do well when they can and, when they can’t, they need our help. Not our wrath. It’s so incredibly hard to honor our own emotions around frustrating incidents while affirming our children’s emotions at the same time. But, that’s what they need from us. In those moments when it becomes too much to bear, taking a breather is always a good decision. It is not a failure. It is self-consideration. When you’re ready to gain new perspective in those tough moments, prioritize empathy.
A friend of mine recently shared with me a difficult interaction she had with her young teenage daughter. The pair were engaged in a mother-daughter clothing battle over cleanliness with the teen wanting to wear her favorite hoodies over the course of several days and her mother wanting to get those hoodies washed and in good order. As we talked, my friend recognized that her daughter was likely associating comfort and safety with her favorite hoodies, which helped reduce her anxiety. So, there was likely a genuine need for her to keep those items close at hand. My friend mentioned that she was planning to get some more hoodies to give to her daughter for Christmas, and I suggested getting two of each, which would make four as gifts and six hoodies in total including the existing pieces. Six hoodies would easily get her daughter through a school week with plenty of time for washing. Once she stepped beyond the conflict, the solution became clear.
When you’re under stress, reframing can feel impossible. It just takes practice and a little ingenuity. Your goal is to view your child in a positive rather than a negative light. With an open mind, you can peer into your child’s heart and see just what’s needed.
I asked friends to share with me some of the most stressful behaviors their children exhibit. You know, the ones that trigger something deep inside that could explode into rage at any moment? Whew! I know that feeling. Let me pause here to say that no one – not me, not you, not anyone – is a machine. Some triggers simply touch too deep, and we do end up exploding. That’s not a fail. We’re human. No way to get around that. We apologize and keep trying. And, that’s what makes us peaceful parents. With that said, I’ll note some of the behaviors that seem to really set folks off.
Children, especially very young ones, seem to be prone to using their bodies to communicate displeasure. They may hit, bite, kick, spit, and scratch, all of which can be extremely upsetting to the adults receiving this inappropriate treatment. It’s especially infuriating when our children hurt each other, especially when it’s an older, larger sibling beating up on a smaller one. Those interactions feel an awful lot like bullying, and that’s something many of us cannot tolerate.
Children use aggression when they don’t have adequate words to express their emotions and when they’ve reached a breaking point. There are certainly cases where some children are violent due to physiological or psychological differences, but most children will lash out at one time or another. This form of communication typically peaks around age 2, but can be present throughout childhood as a child’s (including teens) brain is working primarily off emotion and not logic.
It’s rough when “I won’t let you hit the dog” triggers a toypocalypse as your child slams all her toys onto the floor in a rage. As adults, we know the financial costs involved with destruction. Just walking through the doors of an emergency room costs several hundred dollars to start. That nice dollhouse Aunt Beverly gave your kids last Christmas? $150 down the drain as it becomes the object of a Godzilla-scale attack by a very angry little boy.
There are reasons not to get too caught up in the value of things when your child’s emotional health is on the line, but all the reasoning in the world won’t relieve the fire that burns in your gut when you see your child tearing up their belongings.
As peaceful parents, we want to be countercultural… to view strong responses from our children as natural and healthy. But, there is just something unsettling about a child blatantly doing something we’ve said not to, refusing to eat, throwing food on the floor, and the like. It hits deep and activates our conditioning to view children as subservient and ourselves as singularly worth of respect. Even the calmest among us have a breaking point where we get so fed up, we lash out.
Here’s how it works. When your child does something that sends you right over the proverbial cliff, stop for a moment and recognize that there is an answer. You CAN find a solution! Breathe. Slow down. Look at your child. What’s really happening? If your child is acting in a way that disconnects them from their social group – which is totally contrary to who we are as humans – recognize that there’s a barrier your child can’t overcome no matter how disciplined they might or might not be. Your task is to figure out what that barrier is and guide your child to the solution.
Give reframing a go! Make this your New Year’s Resolution. Once you start to see through the behavior to the need, gentleness will naturally follow. And, if you need guidance to figure out how to support your child through particularly challenging behaviors, I’ll be here all year to help.
That friend I mentioned earlier graciously previewed this post for me. Coincidentally, at the same time, her young son was experiencing a crisis. He had been playing a video game, when he began crying and saying he hated everything. Initially, his father considered taking video games away altogether, but my friend read this post to him and encouraged him to wait. While their son took a breather, they brainstormed why he was acting that way.
Once they put it all together, they realized he had gotten upset when he couldn’t progress past a certain point in the game. My friend’s husband checked the settings and realized they were at a level that was far too difficult for a little boy. After adjusting the difficulty to a more age-appropriate level, he invited his son back in to enjoy a fun father-son game together. The solution was there all along! There is always an answer. You’ve just got to find it.
Several weeks ago, a friend told me this story about an interaction between her tween son and her mother. Since many of us are gearing up for big family events tomorrow, this topic is something worth thinking about. My friend, a 30-something-year-old Black mother of two in Texas, had this to say:
So today she apparently asked my 12 yr old if he could help her get 2 gallons of water from her car and he said no. She came to snitch and I’m sure was trying to embarrass him and I just said “I’ll help you.” He seemed annoyed she interrupted our conversation to tell me that. My family has no respect for children. I honestly assumed he didn’t feel like it. He had just gotten home and rode his bike from school today and he was getting his snack together. I wouldn’t want to stop preparing food to get water either when it can wait. It wasn’t perishable food she was asking for help with but it honestly didn’t matter to me. I teach them ‘you can always ask but sometimes the answer is no.’
She explained further that there is some background between her son and her mother. It seems she oversteps her bounds and tries to impose her ideology on the children. My friend’s son receives her actions as judgmental. When she asked “Do you want to help me with something?” he answered literally “No” because he was busy.
I can almost see the pearl-clutching! I come from a very Southern, very authoritarian background where adults owned all rights to the labor of children and children had no right to refuse. It was considered the height of rudeness and deserving of quite a spanking. I’ll grant that a young boy who had the strength to ride his bike all the way home from school surely has the strength to go outside to grab a couple gallons of water. Plus, it’s perceived as rude not to be considerate of an elderly relative’s wishes.
Before we had our children, Peaceful Dad and I created family guidelines, and one of those guidelines is “We always choose to help.” We teach our children that we are the heart and hands of Christ to our world. We help out of love. Not obligation. And never because someone wants to assert a flawed belief that my children should be subordinate. I don’t entertain discussing my kids negatively like this grandmother did, no matter who the adult is. I will always ask the adult to speak directly to my child if there’s been a problem. I can be there for moral support, but my child needs to be part of the conversation.
Had this scenario happened in my house, I probably would have broached the topic with my son to understand his perspective while affirming that no one is obligated to help anyone. I would want my son to know that there are relationship consequences for refusing a request for help, particularly since there exists a social expectation that children are to serve adults. This is something children need to be aware of, and it’s something worth discussing as we guide our children through the trials of childism.
Her entitlement was completely inappropriate. No one has a right to anyone else’s labor. I imagine my friend’s son would have graciously agreed had his grandmother asked, “When you finish eating your snack, would mind helping me get some gallons of water out of my car?” So, let’s flip this around. Is it not also rude of an adult, knowing this child was tired and hungry, to demand assistance with a non-urgent matter while the child is in the middle of making himself something to help him recover from his long day and his long ride? Could the request not have been made in a more understanding and compassionate way wherein both of their needs could have been met?
The trouble here is that, for many adults, the outcome isn’t as important as the interaction. They say they like seeing kind, cooperative, and respectful children, but what they really expect is deference and obedience.
Rudeness is a matter of perception. In this case, the requester ultimately got the help she was requesting, so the problem was solved. I don’t want to suggest that kids be encouraged to break social “rules” for the sake of being controversial. I think it’s important for children to be aware of expectations and cultural consequences. But, at the same time, we also need to be holding adults accountable for how they interact with kids, and we need to instill self-confidence and self-worth in our kids so that they know how to navigate social expectations with grace and wisdom.
If a child is uncomfortable with a request being made of them, we can be there to help guide the conversation. Otherwise, we can give kids room to work out their own relationships and support them in upholding boundaries… even with elderly relatives. And, even at big family events.
I asked my friend what had changed since her own childhood that caused her to support her son in his interaction with her mother. She said:
In the past I would have felt pressured into forcing him to do something he didn’t want to do. When my daughter came along I realized that I was raising my kids differently than I was raised and than the kids in my family were being raised. One day my grandma asked my 1 year old for a hug at easter and my nephew who was about 4 said she “don’t do hugs.” My granny said “I don’t care, come give me a hug girl!” It was right then that I was like “oh hell no!” She is not about to force herself onto my child and traumatize her and then leave me with the job of cleaning up. So I stopped her in that moment and said “we don’t force physical contact on people,” and I looked at my daughter and said “can you wave bye bye to granny?” And she didn’t do that either and I said “maybe next time” and shrugged it off. That’s when I started looking into ways to fend off my pushy relatives because I knew there would be more situations like these in the future.
I went from spanking my son to not believing it was necessary I hardly ever took my kids out during nap time or would leave when they got tired because they just slept better at home and to prevent putting them in situations where they were over tired and would act out. Long ago, I decided that just because something is the way we’ve always done it, that doesn’t mean it’s not wrong.
Just because something is the way we’ve always done it, that doesn’t mean it’s not wrong. That is an entire lesson right there on its own! We can teach our children how to say, “I’m busy right now, but I’ll be with you as soon as I finish.” We can foster relationships in our children’s lives that meet their needs and those of the adults they care about. When the challenge in a child’s life is a social expectation, let’s allow genuineness and honesty to win out. It’s ok for children to say “not now” or even “no” to adults. Unclutch those pearls!
So, how do you instill a sense of selflessness in your kids? How do you foster the development of a human who enjoys being helpful whenever possible? I’m sure there are many ways families are doing this every day (and I’d love to hear from you in the comments!) I’ll mention one of the ways that has been invaluable for my family. We include our children in our everyday lives. Sounds pretty simple, but it takes planning and patience. It can be difficult to allow kids to help in their own developmentally appropriate ways. It’s messy and time consuming, but it is wonderfully affirming for your child! If you’d like to try it out, the key is to resist the urge to do things for your children. Don’t take over. If you want to insert yourself into the activity, help out! Demonstrate by modeling what’s expected. Openly speak with your child about the expected outcome, step by step. Children don’t know the process to get to an end result until they learn it. For example, including children in putting laundry away might look something like this:
Parent invites the child to help
Parent quickly explains what’s about to happen – “We’re going to take the clothes out of this laundry basket, fold them neatly, put them back into the basket, and then put them into their drawers. I’ll help you!”
Parent demonstrates how to fold an item of clothing and hands some clothes to the child
Parent and child go through the steps together
Many children will likely not be able to fold to an adult’s expectation, be able to open drawers and sort, and the like. Some direction is helpful, but allowing the child to try and accepting their effort as is goes a long way to instilling a love of helping in a child. And, start young. Thank your infant for helping you pick up toys even if it becomes a game. There are so many ways to include and appreciate kids. You and your child will figure it out together.
Want to know something pretty incredible about whining? Researchers have posited that it may actually be an evolution of crying at a time when children “switch from primarily mothers to greater care from other caregivers.” That means whining serves an evolutionary purpose in communication between young children and adults. Kids who whine when resources are limited tend to be heard and that means they tend to survive. Pretty clever, huh? But, stressful nonetheless.
I know my title mentions a “cure” for whining, but in reality, whining is good as far as I’m concerned. It signals that a child is emotional, under or over-stimulated, or just plain done. That kind of information can help you be an even more responsive parent. Whining tells you there’s a need waiting to be met and, if you can pinpoint what it is, you can avoid a meltdown. Before you do anything else, make sure your child’s basic needs are squared away. Hunger? Thirst? Discomfort? Tiredness? Sometimes, all it takes is addressing the underlying situation to resolve the cause of the whining.
However, when that’s not possible or when you can’t determine what the issue is, there’s another trick you can keep up your sleeve. The surprisingly powerful “First/Then” statement. It works in just about every context. Let’s say your child wants to go outside to play, but there are toys everywhere. You might say, “Not until you clean up.” That’s a pretty amorphous statement when you think about it. “Not until you clean up.” There’s no direction. No time frame. No, point a to point b.
Back in the late 1800s, Pierre Janet – a French psychologist who specialized in dissociation and traumatic memory – set out to explore the phenomenon wherein we feel like time passes more quickly as we get older. He came up with the “ratio theory” which suggests that the smaller proportion of our lives that remains, the more quickly we feel we’re hurtling toward the end. There are other theories about the phenomenon, some say it’s memory, others our biological clock. Whatever the truth is, one thing is for sure. Time moves at a snail’s pace for children. We can be sensitive to that even as we establish limits for our kids.
Back to cleaning up those toys. Giving children more of a clear directive without attempting to control their every move often helps motivate them and reduces their need to whine in order to be heard. In our scenario, you might consider saying, “First, I need for you to pick up your toys and put them where they belong. Then, you’re welcome to go outside and play until the sun goes down.” You’ve given your child a task list to check off, time-related landmarks, and the power to choose how long to do the task you’ve given. And, if you really want to level up on your Peaceful Parenting, offer to help your child clean up! The very best cure for whining is to meet your child needs.
Much of the information available about Peaceful Parenting assumes your child is neurotypical and is responsive to your relational overtures. But, what happens when your child resists your every attempt? What do you do when connection hurts?
I’ve collaborated with two dear friends of mine for this post. One friend is a mom who lives in Scotland and has a son with debilitating anxiety and psychomotor overexcitability. And, the other friend is a mom who lives in South Africa and has a daughter with an unofficial diagnosis of Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA). I’ll be using country abbreviations to refer to each with Scotland being SCT and South Africa being ZA.
Peaceful Parenting for Anxiety
We all three believe that Peaceful Parenting works for all kids, but we also recognize that a single approach will not foster connection with every child. The standard steps apply: create your own peacefulness, assess your child’s needs, foster your child’s emotional equilibrium, empathize with your child, and set gentle, reasonable limits. However, parents can stall out at that second step with their resistant kids. What are the deepest needs of a resistant child?
Kids with PDA, traumas, and other anxiety-fueled differences desperately want to connect with their caregivers, but the barriers can be insurmountable for these children to overcome on their own. Anxiety plays a massive role across a number of challenging childlike behaviors, and it’s something we can all understand. The trick is finding the unique approaches that can cut through the chaotic fog of anxiety and let your child know they are safe and wanted.
Anxiety can present in classic ways and not-so-visible ways. For many adults, anxiety manifests as talking incessantly about worries, overthinking and overanalyzing situations, indecision, being “wound up” and unable to relax, trouble concentrating, insomnia, sweating, gastrointestinal problems, and unexpected anger.
Kids often don’t know how to express their anxiety. They may complain of stomachaches or headaches a lot. They may be perfectionists. They may spend an inordinate amount of time doing small things and focus on minute details. They may delay beginning new activities. And, they may avoid social engagements. In small children, who are even less able to communicate their concerns, anxiety may also show up as things like stalling, becoming mean or aggressive, finger/toe/nail/lip/eyelash picking or biting, hair twirling, and inflexibility about their desires and/or their environment.
My friend, SCT, has learned the signs of her son’s anxious dysregulation and what she can do to help him. She says,
What I’ve found so far, and it seems to work at school too, is starting with a hands off approach. Redirecting him to go read for 15 to 20 minutes just recentres his brain. That’s if the anxiety is in the disruption phase. Funny noises, shouting, silliness, maybe something physical like jumping around. That’s usually come about as a result of being overstimulated and struggling to output it. The other little things are lip picking and adjusting his glasses repeatedly. After he’s had the quiet time, he’s more reasonable to talk to and have a cuddle.
In ZA’s case, she realized her daughter was different from infancy. She didn’t like to cuddle and would get stimulated quickly. As she grew up and became more independent, she also became happier. ZA and her husband gave their daughter plenty of respect and autonomy from a very young age, but she grew more and more resistant over time. At first, they tried common Peaceful Parenting techniques like naming feelings and hugging, but she would become enraged. They tried time outs which caused extreme separation anxiety. In their desperation, they even tried popping her on the hand, which inflamed the resistance further.
ZA learned, in speaking with professionals, that talking about feelings exacerbates anxiety in some children who can’t identify their feelings because that uncertainty is debilitating. However, it’s critical for anxious children to learn how to process feelings. It’s a very tough situation. If you’re experiencing what ZA did, she has a message for you.
Trying to explain this to the well meaning moms taking time to try and help me was either met with silence or a “Sorry, I don’t know then”, so for the most part our journey has been quite lonely as nobody understood what we were going through. It wasn’t until I found out about PDA that I’ve been able to get some advice that is applicable to us or at least some genuine understanding without raised eyebrows.
My advice for parenting a child like this is to study them and see what their tells and triggers are. Work on emotional intelligence as much as possible and teach them to recognize the signs when things are becoming too much. When they explode, dissect the hours leading up to it cause I can promise you it’s most likely been building a while. Listen if they tell you to leave them alone or to stop talking but check in and remind them you love them even when they are having a hard time. Read The Explosive Child by Ross Greene. Adjust your way of thinking how parenting should look, sometimes “giving in” is exactly what your child needs and isn’t seen as a weakness but as kindness. Be flexible, very flexible. Work on your own shortcomings and be kind to yourself when you stumble.
It is really tough parenting a child who doesn’t respond to the typical peaceful parenting strategies. It’s the toughest thing I have done in my life. In saying that, my daughter has driven me to become a much better parent and person. She’s challenged me in ways that I never thought possible and has made me grow immensely. She is an amazing, caring, insightful, funny, smart human being underneath all of her anxiety and I honestly wouldn’t trade her for anything. I can see everyday how she is growing and becoming a more confident little girl.
If you have concerns about your child’s behavior, and common Peaceful Parenting techniques aren’t helping, please consider seeing a professional for an assessment. Peaceful Parenting works for every child and every parent, but the approaches and techniques you choose have to be adapted to your child’s individual needs. Unless you figure out what your child’s needs are, you may both end up frustrated unnecessarily.
What You Can Do to Connect
Start With Empathy
Understand that your child isn’t being difficult, but rather is having difficulty. Respect your child’s feelings by not minimizing their discomfort. Rather than telling them not to worry or saying things like “You’ll be ok. It’s not that big a deal,” try to acknowledge the worry without amplifying it. Simply saying “I’m here and I won’t leave you alone” communicates a great deal to an anxious child.
As an adult and an onlooker to your child’s situation, you have a perspective that can be lifesaving. You can see if your child’s basic needs are being met and resolve any issues there. You can display empathy and let your child know you accept them as they are, anxiety and all. You can stand up for your child around other people. Instead of saying, “my child is just shy” or making other excuses, state what your child needs. “My daughter doesn’t want to play right now.” Period. Giving your child permission to boldly state their position is crucial to their ability to establish appropriate boundaries in their relationship with you and with others.
Create a Calming Area
When anxious children become dysregulated, they can’t ground themselves even if though they want to, and your efforts to intervene may escalate the crisis. That’s where a calming area can help. Create a kid-friendly space with a tent or even a blanket draped over two chairs. Put a pillow down and add in some chill out items like books about feelings, a sensory bottle, headphones or earplugs to quiet the environment, a compression or weighted vest, stress balls, sound therapy like a white or pink noise machine, or anything you’ve found that helps your child.
During calm times, before a crisis hits, ask your child if they want their calming area to be in a bustling family room or in a quiet, secluded room. It’s critical your child feels that this space is a refuge and not a punishment.
Respect Their “No”
Kids who are resistant often feel that they don’t have control in their lives, so they say “no” to protect themselves from becoming overwhelmed. It’s not meant as a challenge to you as the parent. You can respect their “no” while still communicating your requests. With my own kids, I typically set boundaries by saying things like “I can’t let you do that” but for a child with PDA, that simple statement feels far too controlling. Making requests as opposed to demands or other non-negotiable statements can help. “Would you [insert what you want the child to do]?” Or, “After you have finished what you’re doing now, could you [request].”
Model Cooperation and Appreciation
Use words like “we” and “us” to present tasks and acknowledge how difficult it is for the child to comply. “Let’s clean up together! Would you like to pick up toys or take these dishes back to the kitchen?” While you work together, offer affirmations like, “Cleaning is so much better when you do it with me. Thank you for helping!”
Social Stories are a social learning tool developed in 1990 by an educator called Carol Gray who came to understand that her Autistic students were missing information about common interactions and just needed someone to communicate that information in a logical way. It’s difficult being Autistic in a world where allistic people seem to automatically understand how things work. Social Stories help to bridge the communication gap between Autistic and allistic people.
However, Social Stories aren’t just for Autistic people. They help overcome all sorts of communication barriers and, because they involve pre-planning, you guessed it, they can help decrease anxiety too.
In this video, speech-language pathologist Carrie Clark delivers a comprehensive explanation of what Social Stories are, why they work, and how to create them. Please be aware that the very beginning of the video includes a mention of ableist functioning labels. Closed captions are available with this video.
The PANDA Approach
Consider the PDA Society approach, which helps to reduce resistance in anxious children. PANDA stands for Pick Battles, Anxiety Management, Negotiation & Collaboration, Disguise & Manage Demands, and Adaptation, and these tactics can be useful for other resistant children as well.
And, Here’s What ZA Does!
Read stories that highlight feelings
Verbalize your own feelings in front of your child
Share highlights and lowlights as a family every day
Adopt an anxiety-friendly framework to address anxiety around activities:
Use indirect requests (“It would really help me out and make me happy if you could do this for me”)
Tell your child exactly why what you’re asking of them is important
Point out the feelings attached to the activity
Ask if the activity is making your child anxious, nervous, unhappy, or scared but never in the midst of an anxiety attack
Ask your child why they think they’re having these feelings, if your child is receptive
Write social stories together describing step by step how the activity would go
Give your child space when it all becomes too much and give it plenty of time before you decide whether you should all move on or if you should address what happened
Your relationship with your child and your ability to ease anxiety can open the door to a genuinely fulfilling experience for both of you. For more tips on calming your anxious child, check out this Motherly article. And, for another fantastic resource, visit Anxious Toddlers (it’s not just for toddlers!) Please tell us what helps your anxious child the most and if there are any other resources we should know about.
How about $50? Less? I’m a numbers person and money motivates me. Not that I seek to hoard it, but that I’m careful to value it appropriately so that my family can stay afloat. I handle the family finances, so money is always on my mind.
This afternoon, my kids were having popcorn as a snack. It’s a choking hazard, but they love it, so I try to make sure they remain seated and calm so they can focus on chewing and swallowing. LL asked me for a treat that we didn’t have, and I tried to explain that to her. She flew into a rage (she’s so my child!) and knocked both her popcorn and her juice onto the floor. I ran into our adjoining kitchen to get cleaning supplies, all the way speaking empathetically to her. She really wanted that treat. She was tired. She lashed out.
In the 20 seconds I was gone, she managed to get onto the table, scurry across it, and toss her brother’s popcorn on the floor too. I came back and he looked shocked. I could see how far gone she was. She needed help. But, to be honest, I was irritated. My instinct was to snatch her up a little too hard and growl through gritted teeth. Something about wasting the food I prepared in this way seemed to touch something deep in me.
I angrily began cleaning up – normally, I’d have her help, but I was upset and I didn’t want to accidentally hurt her in my frustration. As I wiped up the juice on my hands and knees, I thought to myself, we have such a small food budget! This is such a waste. All for what exactly?? A little voice in my mind piped up, how much waste are we really talking here?
Well, let’s see:
Vegan Butter: $.14
Paper Towel: $.01
Cleaning Solution: $.003
Forty-one cents. For $.41, I had to hold myself back from yelling or being physically rough with a little one-year-old toddler who is less than 1/10 my size. It’s toxic. Plain and simple. A result of my culture, my upbringing, my inability to use the same logic center in my own mind that some part of me expects my kids to be able to use flawlessly.
This isn’t the first time I’ve sat down and worked out how much something cost that my kids wasted or broke, and whenever I find that number, it’s always heartbreaking. Earlier this year, my son accidentally broke a $200 TV when he was releasing after-school energy. I was in a great mental space that day, and I wasn’t angry with him at all.
I’ve been thinking about the difference between these two incidents. Why was I angrier over $.41 cents of popcorn, juice, and cleaning supplies than I was over a $200 TV? This is why.
Deep down, it felt like she was disrespecting the effort I had put into getting them cleaned up to eat, preparing their snack, serving it to them, treating them gently, and empathetically letting LL know why she couldn’t have the treat she wanted. Even though my logic tells me she’s not old enough to have any concept of what I was going through, those primal reactions still welled up in my chest.
In the end, I recovered without incident and sat down to cuddle with her. She was having a hard time and she needed me to help her regulate herself. It didn’t take long before she was ready to run off and play as though nothing had happened. Meanwhile, I was still reeling and working through what had just washed over me.
Maybe this technique will help you as it’s helped me in the past. When your child’s actions end up in a loss and you’re out some money, calculate the amount. Then, ask yourself, is the value of this thing worth devastating my child by yelling or hitting. I’d say 10/10 times, the answer is no.
Spanking carries serious risks of injury to children. Not only can it slow developmental growth, but there is no study demonstrating that it enhances developmental health. And, sadly, harsh spanking has been correlated with a physical decrease in gray matter within children’s brains. This year, the American Psychological Association issued a strongly worded statement about corporal punishment warning of the danger of “increases in children’s behavior problems, even after controlling for race, gender and family socioeconomic status.” The American Academy of Pediatrics also strongly recommends against spanking.
#2 Spanking Amounts to Bullying
StopBullying.gov defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” With the exception of the qualification that bullying involves only school aged children, this definition fits. Not only that, but there is evidence that spanked children are at a higher risk of becoming bullies themselves as a result of their treatment by adults.
#3 Spanking is Domestic Violence
In nearly every state in the U.S., spanking (i.e. corporal punishment) is specifically excluded from state laws against domestic violence and child abuse. If spanking weren’t violence against children, there would be no need to affirm a parent’s right to hit. Only one state, Delaware, has effectively banned spanking and, even there, lawmakers made a point to say that they were not limiting parents’ ability to physically punish their children. It then stands to reason that spanking may lead children to commit domestic violence themselves later in life and, in fact, there’s evidence that this may well be the case. In 2006, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child reported that “Legalized violence against children in one context risks tolerance of violence against children generally” and a study out of Canada found that most child abuse occurs during physical punishment.
#4 Spanking is an ACE
A study published in Child Abuse & Neglect, the official journal of the International Society for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, lays out the case for spanking being designated an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). ACEs are linked to myriad regulatory complications for children that are then expressed as undesirable behaviors. Watch this interview with Dr. George Davis, who served as the lead psychiatric clinician for New Mexico’s Juvenile Justice System for 20 years, in which he explains the connection between ACEs and interaction with the justice system. Almost all the children studied as part of the New Mexico Juvenile Justice program had experienced corporal punishment at the hands of caregivers. Spanking does not prevent incarceration and may, in fact, contribute to it.
#5 Spanking Affirms White Supremacy
Dr. Stacey Patton, child advocate, is a woman who understands the risks of spanking first-hand. She is an adoptee, child abuse survivor, and former foster youth who has become an impassioned voice against the ritualistic practices around spanking as punishment. In her research, she has discovered that “Europeans brutalized their own children for thousands of years” before colonizing the Americas and Africa; and therefore, that spanking is not intrinsic to every culture around the world. Instead, it is far more likely a practice with deep ties to colonialism and white supremacy.
#6 You Already Know It’s Wrong
Despite the very high levels of support for spanking in the U.S., many parents express regret at feeling compelled to engage in the practice. The widely identifiable sentiment, “This hurts me more than it hurts you,” reveals the emotional burden parents experience when they physically harm their children in pursuit of good parenting. A quick Google search of “spanking regret” reveals just how widespread the discomfort is.
The Good News
You do not have to spank. Period. You do not have to do it. There are effective alternatives. Even though Peaceful Dad and I don’t employ time-outs or any punitive measures, I have no qualms telling you that research shows time-outs work in the short and long run. Science has effectively proven that time-outs are more effective and less harmful than spanking. So, if you must punish, please use time-outs. If you are looking to move past punishments, I invite you to continue following this blog and/or check out the Resources section for more ideas.
The Bad News
Efforts are underway nationwide to ban spanking in the U.S. That, in and of itself, isn’t a negative thing. If spanking were made illegal, hundreds of thousands of children would be spared the negative long-term consequences of physical violence. If we took this step, we’d be joining 54 other countries worldwide, nearly 30% of the globe, in leaping forward into a new era.
But – and this is a massive caveat – given the racial disparities in our legal system, parents of color would be disproportionately affected by these bans. Black parents, in particular, spank at rates nearly double that of white and Latinx parents. Black people are also far more likely to be arrested, charged, and sentenced than any other group, and their sentences are substantially more extreme.
Furthermore, Black children are more likely to be removed from their homes and placed in state care than other groups, even for relatively minor offenses. It would be utterly irresponsible of us to advocate for blanket spanking bans knowing that people of color would be drastically impacted. If we do move to ban spanking, we must keep families out of the court system and away from child services.
I admit that I don’t have the answers here. I don’t know what to do. I know we have to protect kids, but I also know we have to protect their parents. And, this is a key reason I am so adamant about giving people alternatives and showing, through the experiences of my family, that gentle methods really do work.
So, what do you do when you encounter an undesired behavior after your child has already stepped beyond a limit? If not punishment, then what?
I’ll let you in on a secret. Here’s what you do: Say, “I love you no matter what you do.” Let those be the first words out of your mouth. Communicate to your child first and foremost that their behavior does not define your relationship. It doesn’t matter what the child has done. Say “I love you” regardless. Children tend to be binary thinkers. It can be difficult for them not to regard themselves as either good or bad without much gray area in between. They need to know that they are loved, no matter what.
After your child understands that your relationship with them is secure regardless of the outcome, the work begins. If their actions have resulted in harm, they need to be given an opportunity to rectify what’s happened. And, whether or not their actions have resulted in harm, they need the chance to create and implement a plan for the future. No punishment needed.
Children do not inherently know how to be in relationship with other people. They learn and they stumble… often. If your child has done something that has caused any sort of harm, incorporating restorative justice principles can help begin the healing process.
Give the aggrieved parties space to communicate their perspectives. If you are the aggrieved party, bring in a neutral arbiter to help.
Employ the CLAIM method to guide your child through this process.
C: Center Yourself. Draw in your fears of judgement and be brave.
L: Listen. Pay attention to what’s being said rather than preparing a rebuttal.
A: Acknowledge. Take responsibility for your actions (and apologize and/or make restitution if necessary).
I: Inquire. Ask how you can do better in the future. Keep in mind that this involves labor. The other party has a right to decline.
M: Move Forward. Change your behavior and teach others to do the same.
Enunciate the harm that has been caused, both tangible and intangible.
Confirm the resolution with all parties and establish an accountability plan with your child.
Support your child through their inevitable feelings of ostracization from those they harmed. Encourage them to give it time and to be kind.
Children of all ages and neurologies can benefit from modified versions of this process. The skills you impart through this process will provide your child with the tools necessary to become versed in conflict management and active listening, both of which are critical relationship skills.
Setting New Limits
Peaceful Parents try to get ahead of challenges and take proactive steps to avoid them. When challenges occur despite our best efforts, we regroup and work with our kids on resolving remaining issues and on solving the underlying difficulty before it happens again in the future. Our philosophy is that children do well when they can, and that we can equip them to do better by addressing their unmet needs and building skills.
When you learn about a challenge after the fact, try to resist the urge to punish. It can be extremely unnerving to feel like you aren’t doing anything, but I assure you, what you do instead will send ripples of goodness into your child’s future.
It’s important to talk with your child about what’s happened, opting for open-ended, non-accusatory questions like “What were you hoping would happen?” that garner a more developed response than “What happened?” Again, age will determine how far you can go.
Unfortunately, more often than we’d like, we learn disappointing truths about our kids. This can be hard for us and for them. Protecting your relationship in the face of missteps means choosing your approach carefully. Remember that children instinctively react when they are afraid. In order to reason with your child, you’ll need to keep them in a cognitive space by reassuring them that they’re safe with you.
Let’s consider a pretty common (and developmentally appropriate) difficulty for children: lying. If your child lies, you’ll be less inclined to believe what they say in the future. However, rather than undermining your relationship by saying, “I don’t trust you,” you can instead try to frame the situation in a way that can be solved. Speak factually and coach your child toward a resolution using “I” phrases to express your feelings. “I’m sad that you didn’t tell me the truth. I want to be someone you can always talk to. What can we do in the future to make sure you don’t ever feel you have to lie to me?”
In this reconciliatory space, you can help your child determine their own solutions for what to do, giving them ownership and power over their choices. Knowing that children aren’t hardwired yet for wise, measured decision-making, you can ask questions to better understand what your role will be in making sure limits are observed as part of a renewed plan for the future.
If it happens again, walk with your child through the exact same process. And, if that sounds too much like kids “getting away with bad behavior,” think about how many times parents have to turn to punishment over and over again because there is insufficient behavioral change. We’re working on moral development here. Not obedience.
Are they different words for the same thing? Does it even matter as long as children behave the way they’re supposed to? Let’s dive into this hotly debated topic and see if we can parse out the differences, the benefits, and the downsides.
First, I’d like to talk a bit about discipline. This term originated in Latin as “disciplina” and it simply meant instruction. Give a word a few centuries of cultural influence and you end up with a word that came to mean things like suffering, scourging, and chastisement in the late Middle Ages. If you don’t know what scourging means, beware because it’s nasty. It was used as a form of corporal punishment centuries ago (and, unfortunately, it’s still used in some areas of the world). A whip would be fashioned with knots or barbs to inflict the most damage possible on a person’s flesh and then the lashing would begin, mostly across the back, until the perpetrator was left bloodied and exhausted. Many people succumbed to their wounds, because they lacked the medicines they needed to treat and repair the torn flesh.
Given that trajectory, it makes sense that discipline is used today primarily to refer to physical punishment, in the context of child rearing. The steps we took to get from the intellectual pursuits of ancient Romans to the dark and brutal torture of the Middle Ages would be an interesting study. For our purposes at the moment, what I want you to know is that there is a spectrum of understanding when it comes to the word discipline and that Peaceful Dad and I land way over on the side of “instruction.”
While I can’t hope to encapsulate the entire meaning of these words in such brief statements, these self-penned working definitions will help you understand the distinctions I’ll be making later on.
Punishment: A negative, arbitrary ramification determined by a parent/caregiver and applied in an effort to correct unwanted behavior.
Consequence: A negative ramification stemming from a child’s action that occurs either without the influence of a parent/caregiver (i.e. “natural” consequence) or with the influence of a parent/caregiver in direct connection to the infraction (i.e. “logical” consequence).
Limit: A boundary defined by culture and/or family in the interest of safety, socialization, or education.
Parents punish because it works. It stops the behavior in the moment and shuts the child down, so the nuisance is gone. However, punishment doesn’t work the way most people think it does.
We know that the logic center in human brains doesn’t fully form until around age 25 and that regularly coaching kids on how to reason through problems is a crucial part of teaching their brains how to think logically. However, punishment does not rely on logic. It relies on fear and control to coerce children into compliance. Children may run away, fight back, shut down, submit, cry, or become overwhelmingly exhausted when faced with punishment, especially physical punishment. You might find it interesting that these are all instinctive survival responses to stress that we all have, children and adults alike. And, if these children are not reasoning through their experiences, they may be falling back on innate self-preservation measures.
Punishment is effective beyond the immediate moment of infraction only when the enforcer is present and the punishment is severe enough to elicit strong fear. This is why, sadly, punishment can slip easily into abuse when the diminishing returns lead to escalation. Punishment is demoralizing and hurtful from the child’s perspective.
Many parents shun punishments but desire a method of demonstrating to children that their behavior is unacceptable. Natural consequences can be a fantastic teacher. Pull the cat’s tail and you’ll get scratched. It doesn’t take a parent intervening to make that happen. Natural consequences are automatic and often unavoidable.
Children learn a great deal from natural consequences as they form relationships. When children are mean to their friends, their friends may not want to play with them anymore. That’s a natural consequence that leaves space for the child to learn how to repair a friendship. Natural consequences can be very useful, but they can also act as punishments.
Sometimes parents let natural consequences happen, knowing their child will be hurt. They want to “teach the child a lesson” (which is a surefire sign that indirect punishment is taking place). If you tell your child not to touch a hot burner on the stove and the child reaches for it, you have two choices: let the child be burned or intervene. One is cruel and the other is educational. Natural consequences don’t have to take full effect for a child to learn.
Logical consequences are selected by parents and may involve input from the child. In that sense, they are preferable to punishment. They are intended to be directly related to the unwanted behavior. For instance, a logical consequence for breaking a rule about running through the house and destroying a family heirloom might be helping to clean up the pieces and then having a time out to sit and chill.
Consequences can be effective and they can also be abused. To complicate matters further, you run into the trouble of children not recognizing the difference between a punishment and a consequence, which defeats the purpose of making the distinction in the first place.
Limits are respectful boundaries that allow all parties to be in relationship with each other and know what the guidelines are. It is possible to enforce a limit without adding on a punishment or a consequence. Limits define expectations and parents can then walk their children through how to appreciate and abide by that expectation.
The difficulty remains in terms of the child’s interpretation of a limit or a consequence. It may feel very much like a punishment to be reminded of a limit. That’s why it’s important to give the child power over the situation. Giving children power can feel foreign in a culture that diminishes the autonomy of kids, but hear me out.
Dr. Laura Markham has an absolutely fantastic primer on limit setting that I refer to often. I will try to do her justice in my explanation. For a limit to be most effective, it must:
be reasonable to the mind of the child (“When we throw dirt, it can get into people’s eyes and hurt them.”)
be explained to the child beforehand (“When we get to the park, please remember that dirt must stay on the ground and not be thrown at other kids.”)
be enforced consistently and with gentle firmness (“I see you’re having trouble not throwing dirt. Would you like to swing or go down the slide instead?”)
be under the authority of the child (“Looks like you’re still having trouble not throwing dirt. Let’s head home for now and come back tomorrow when you’re feeling calmer.”)
At any point in the exchange, the child may feel angry or coerced. Remember to remind your child of the expectations they affirmed and avoid using their behavior to assign a punishment or consequence. Your child doesn’t reason the way you do, especially if your child is under the age of six. Young children do not reliably have the ability to apply episodic memories to their future decision-making. Your young child is not considering the possibility that a consequence or punishment could result from their behavior.
What Do These Disciplinary Techniques Look Like in Real Life?
Imagine a boy called Caleb. He wants to walk to the park with his mom and his siblings to get some fresh air and play a bit. It’s a little chilly outside, but he’s all warm from being cozy in his house. He doesn’t realize that he’s going to get very chilly while on the walk and he will be unbearably cold by the time they reach the park. His mom checks her weather app and realizes it’s too cold to go without a jacket, but Caleb really doesn’t want to wear one and he tells her just that. What should mom do?
Punishment: Mom chastises Caleb for talking back and not obeying and declares that they won’t be going to the park now OR for the rest of the week.
Natural Consequence: Caleb and his family go to the park and he is absolutely miserable. He huddles down shivering while his siblings play.
Logical Consequence: Caleb and his family go to the park and he is absolutely miserable. Mom gives him a picnic blanket and instructs him to wrap up and sit on a bench while his siblings play.
Limit: At the house, Mom says, “I understand you don’t want to wear a jacket. However, I’m not willing to let you be cold. Would you like to carry a jacket or put it in a backpack to take along?” Mom won’t leave the house until she knows Caleb will be safe and warm at the park. The power to leave the house is in Caleb’s hands and the need for a punishment or consequence is avoided entirely.
Which of these techniques would you prefer to employ? What successes have you had with each?Have you run into any difficulties?