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Eileen Devine, LCSW

Therapist & FASD Consultant

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July 31, 2019

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Parenting at the Intersection of Values and Behaviors

February 28, 2018

 

Anyone who has been a parent, or a caregiver of children, has likely found themselves uttering one or more of these phrases at some point:

 

“Stop arguing and asking why…because I’m the parent, that’s why.”

 

“I should only have to tell you once.”

 

“You need to look me in the eyes when I’m talking to you.”

 

“You’re 12, you should know better.”

 

“Act your age and take some responsibility for your actions.”

 

“What do you mean you can’t do it today? You did it perfectly yesterday!”

 

“I’ve told you a million times now, and I don’t want to tell you again.”

 

“Stop doing that! It’s inappropriate. You know that.”

 

“Sit down now and listen. We’re not going anywhere until we talk about this.”

These statements all stem from a system of values-- what we believe is good, right and appropriate. They are powerful contributors to the way we parent, in large part because we tend not to treat them as the subjective opinions they are, but as truth.

 

Children should listen to adults.

 

Eye contact matters.

 

Twelve-year-olds know better.

 

However, the intersect between the way we parent and our values gets complicated (and emotionally charged) very quickly. The tricky thing about values is that they are not necessarily consciously chosen or acknowledged. These deep beliefs are learned from our own parents or caregivers at an early age; we’re not always aware of them and the power they hold.

 

A quick Google search of “Values and Parenting” yields dozens of articles presenting exactly the values you should uphold as a parent, and thus work tirelessly to instill in your child. Things like: Honesty: Help Kids Find a Way to Tell the Truth. Or... Justice: Insist That Children Make Amends. You’ll find articles on The importance of children remembering to say please and thank you, and Why children should mind their manners (at the dinner table, in school, in public, with family, with strangers). There are guides to Transitioning to adulthood: developing a work strong ethic and taking responsibility! and How to Help Your Child Keep Perspective.

 

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with any of these identified values and, in fact, most parents would consider each to be noble, reasonable, and worthy of instilling in children as we strive forward in our parenting journey.

 

Why, then, is the recognition of our deeply-held personal value system, and our investment in it, so critical to the neurobehavioral parenting journey when there is nothing inherently wrong with that system? Why do we need to spend intentional time critically evaluating our deep-seated, rarely questioned values when we are parenting a child with FASD or any neurobehavioral condition?

 

The answer, of course, is brain differences.

 

Here are three examples of how this might play out in everyday parenting situations:

 

  1. When we are parenting a child whose brain works differently, their social and emotional development is not typical. Dysmaturity, the gap between the individual’s chronological age and developmental age can mean, in many cases, that the individual is half their age developmentally. This means they are not acting younger, they are younger developmentally. It will take them longer to master the social skills of negotiation, “making amends,” impulse inhibition, and the difference between truth and non-truths. Appropriate behavior for their developmental age is going to be different than a typical child whose development matches chronological age. Without this recognition of dysmaturity, there is likely to be a clash with values such as: Recognizing and admitting when we are wrong. Honesty. Acting and behaving appropriately. Taking responsibility for your actions. Being a good friend (skills like compromise, sharing, seeing another’s point-of-view).
     

  2. Individuals with FASD and other neurobehavioral conditions have poor memory and recall. This means they need repeated reminders about rules and expectations, and that our acceptance of the need to re-teach is essential to success. They also need to be retaught the same rule if applied to different settings, since the applicability of the information to different settings is frequently lost. Without recognition of these brain differences, there will likely be a clash with values such as: Remembering to say your “pleases” and “thank yous” (by a certain age). Remembering rules and expectations. Following the rules consistently. Recognizing that behavior “X” is unacceptable in one instance, even if allowed in another.
     

  3. We know that individuals with FASD also have “on” and “off” days. Their performance of tasks one day is not a reliable indicator of their capability to perform that same task the next day, for a variety of reasons, all related to the dramatic differences in brain function. Without this recognition, there will likely be a clash with values such as: You did it yesterday, you can do it today. If you don’t, then you must not want to and are therefore showing defiance and disrespect for authority.

 

There are many other primary characteristics (brain function tasks) that could be added to this list, each with a high potential for “value clash.”

 

When we experience a behavior clashing with our values, it is most often an immediate, knee-jerk, highly reactive, highly judgmental reaction that leaves little room to consider brain function.

 

Several years ago, I worked with parents who had a teenage son with FASD. They saw him as irresponsible, refusing to pitch in around the house. Lazy and defiant. One of their deeply-held values was “work hard and be responsible.” Their son’s behavior seemed to be in direct conflict with this value.  The result of this highly emotional “values clash” was additional lecturing, increased yelling, steeper and more serious consequences. Their son went from angry and explosive to withdrawn and closed off, seemingly uninterested and unmotivated to change. When we began working with the idea of dysmaturity (that he was developmentally closer to 9 years old than 17) and its implications for parenting expectations, they could see how applying steadfast values to parenting their son was interfering with a brain-first approach, limiting accommodations they might otherwise make so he could be successful.

 

They soon realized the household chores he was expected to do independently (appropriate for a 17-year-old, but impossible for a 9-year-old), were too complicated and needed adjustment to meet his ability. They understood he needed repeated one-to-one modeling of chore completion, to ensure he was clear on how it was to be done. By taking a step back and considering brain function, they realized he could accomplish household chores on the weekends, when he had more executive fuel to devote to the tasks, but could not do them after a long day of school when his brain had been working overtime all day. They also realized that due to deficits in his executive functioning, he was unable to manage the “typical” organizational responsibilities that come with being a high school student, and that he needed much more support to be successful.

 

They came to see that his “laziness” and “defiance” were a result of his chronic frustration over uncertainty on how to successfully meet expectations, a belief that nothing he did was right, and a conclusion that it was safer to simply retreat and do nothing at all.

 

“Work hard and be responsible” remained a deeply held value for these parents, one they still wanted to instill in their son. That did not change by taking a neurobehavioral approach to their parenting. He was still expected to do chores, help around the house, and take responsibility at school. What did change was their understanding of what it means to “work hard and be responsible” when you are a 17-year-old living with FASD. That process of slowing down to take a step back, consider the role of brain function, and then accommodate, was essential to their son’s success. If they continued to focus on the behaviors-– defiance, refusal, “laziness”-– it would have kept all of them in a cycle of deterioration.

 

In working with parents on this neurobehavioral, “parenting differently” journey, I’ve come to believe that spending time dissecting this sensitive combination of values, behaviors— and what it all means for parent and child— is essential to forward progress. Questions like, “What behaviors cause the strongest negative emotions or reactions for me?”, “What primary characteristic might be involved?”, “How is that behavior connected to my values?”, “Now that I know this is a trigger or hot button for me, what can I do to slow my reaction and make room to consider brain function?”

 

Still, some parents will understandably wonder— What if it’s on purpose? How do I know if my child is trying to pull one over on me, or if it’s really their brain functioning differently?

 

If you find yourself asking this very human question, feeling a deep-seated need to be certain of the answer, I encourage you to take what may seem like a leap of faith in an emotionally-charged moment. Acknowledge the clash between behavior and value. Assume it is brain function at play. Proceed with that assumption in mind, from a neurobehavioral approach, and brainstorm what creative accommodations might be implemented. See how this shift in perspective changes the situation, the dynamic and most importantly, the relationship. I can assure you that you will not lose parental power in doing so, and it’s likely you will gain more than you ever anticipated in connection and understanding.

 

When we take that step back, recognizing our values at play within the neurobehavioral framework, it makes room for greater understanding and opens possibilities for us as parents in working to support our children.

 

And when THAT happens, these familiar statements take on another meaning:

 

“Stop arguing and asking why…because I’m the parent, that’s why.”

(value: respect for authority) Consider: inflexible cognitive thinking leading to “stuck-ness” and inability to “let go” in an argument

 

"I should only have to tell you once.”

(value: self-discipline) Consider: memory gaps, need to re-teach many times

 

“You need to look me in the eyes when I’m talking to you.”

(value: acknowledgement of power) Consider: sensory overload, difficulty emotionally regulating

 

“You’re 12, you should know better.”

(value: personal responsibility) Consider: dysmaturity

 

“Act your age and take some responsibility for your actions.”

(value: independenceConsider: dysmaturity, executive functioning deficits

 

“What do you mean you can’t do it today? You did this perfectly yesterday!”

(value: truthfulness) Consider: poor memory, needing more repetition/practice, “on” and “off” days

 

“I’ve told you a million times now, and don’t want to tell you again.”

(value: self-control, follow through) Consider: need to re-teach, verbal processing difficulties, difficulty following multi-step directions

 

“Stop doing that! It’s inappropriate. You know that.”

(value: act politely, appropriately) Consider dysmaturity, difficulty with abstract concepts such as reading social cues/social situation

 

“Sit down now and listen. We’re not going anywhere until we talk about this.”

(value: accountability) Consider: slow verbal processing, poor expressive language, difficulty regulating emotion and needing space/time to calm down

 

Eileen Devine, LCSW works as a therapist and consultant with families impacted by FASD and other neurobehavioral conditions through her private practice, FASD Northwest. She lives in Portland, OR with her husband and two amazing kids, one who happens to live with FAS. For more information, visit fasdnorthwest.com.

 

 

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