My Big Mistake.
I messed up recently, and thought I'd share it with you.
Why? Well, I thought you'd appreciate this story because a) let's be honest, it's nice to know we're not the only ones who ever make mistakes, and b) it relates to parenting a child with brain-based differences, and how our brains are more like our children's brains, at times, than we realize.
About seven months ago, in the height of pandemic schooling-at-home, never-going-anywhere, I-am-so-tired-of-these-four-walls quarantine, I decided that we (my family and I) would all benefit from something to look forward to. We love spending time at the Oregon Coast; whether it’s putting on wetsuits and taking our boogie boards into the waves or riding our bikes through the nearby state park— there’s always fun stuff for us to do that we can enjoy together. So, I thought, "I'm going to make reservations at a great Airbnb, in our favorite little beach town, starting the day after school gets out, so we all have something positive to focus on when we're feeling tired and worn down."
So, that's what I did.
Fast forward seven months — about two weeks before we were scheduled to leave — and my husband says to me, "I think we have a problem with our Coast reservations."
And, it turns out we did. And it was all my fault.
Here’s what happened.
My two kids are in two different school systems. When I made our Coast reservations, I looked at my daughter's last day of school, found a reservation that matched, and plowed ahead. I did not even think about checking my son's school schedule because — well, honestly, I don't have any idea now why I didn't take that obvious step all those months ago. I can't remember. The other kicker is that this is the school schedule every single year. For the last six years, our son has always started school a week earlier than his sister and ended a week later. I truly know better.
Adding a bit more sting to my mistake, my son (who is 13) was disappointed to hear that he'd be missing the last week of school with his friends — you know, that week where they don't do any work and just "have fun." I get that. It’s an understandable reaction from a teenager who hasn’t had the chance to have much fun at all in the last year with his friends. I feel terrible that my mistake impacted him that way, especially when I couldn’t provide him with a sufficient explanation as to why I missed this obvious piece of the planning.
The fact that our kids struggle with certain cognitive skills is not unique to our kids. We all experience lagging skills from time-to-time.
Several days after the realization, I was still beating myself up mentally, thinking things like: "How could I have gotten that wrong?!" and "What was I thinking?" It was incredibly frustrating to know I'd made this mistake, and put a damper on the excitement our trip would have otherwise generated.
As I’ve had more time and space to reflect on it, I keep coming back to what a humbling experience these kinds of lapses can be, especially when I relate it to how my daughter, who has significant neurobehavioral challenges, must feel every single day of her life. It’s in these moments that I’m reminded of something I frequently tell parents with whom I work: the fact that our kids struggle with certain cognitive skills (and challenging behaviors that result when the brain aspect of the situation goes unrecognized) is not unique to our kids. We all experience lagging skills from time-to-time. What's unique to our children is the frequency (how often it gets in their way) and intensity (the gap between their skills and external expectation) of the lags.
It’s a weekly occurrence (if not more frequent) that my daughter experiences lags skills similar to the one I did in this singular instance. Those moments almost always lead to her feeling like she’s disappointed others, letting people down without any intention of doing so. When it happens, it’s usually a result of two distinct challenges: an inability to connect the dots between actions and outcomes, and a lack of impulse control — two executive functioning skills that many kids with brain-based differences find challenging.
There are also daily experiences of our daughter falling short on completing “easy” tasks or meeting “reasonable” expectations that “should be” fairly effortless for a 12-year-old, and thus making mistakes that impact others. This is when her deficits around learning and memory, along with executive functioning skills, come into play. Her perceived need to apologize for things that she did do, but had no intention of impacting others in the way she did, leaves her feeling like she's always saying I’m sorry.
I can see how, over time, this is taking a toll on her self-esteem, even when we assure her that we know she didn’t intend to set that particular series of outcomes into motion. Our daughter’s experience of living in this world with brain differences is even more frustrating for her when she’s unable to hold onto the lesson of doing it differently next time (again, learning and memory skills), even with all the regret layered on top.
She simply cannot give an adequate response to, "What were you thinking?" or "But you know this!" — the same phrases I was using to berate myself when it came to the beach reservation — because she really doesn't remember why she did what she did.
She literally wasn't thinking.
Which leads me back to the reason for sharing my big mistake with all of you. It's not just your child's brain that works differently, it happens to all of us, and I was reminded of that truth through this experience. The difference is that for many of us, it's only when we're tired or stressed (or living through a pandemic!) that these kinds of lagging skills really manifest or get in our way. For our kids, it's non-stop, all day, every day, even under the best circumstances.
Can you even imagine what that must feel like for them?
Admittedly, I find it hard to wrap my own brain around that reality sometimes. But I can tell you that when I slow down, take a step back from the challenging behavior, and try, instead, to wrap my brain around their experience of living in this world, I am more understanding and more empathetic. Which always leads to better outcomes for everyone.
So, we're back from the beach now.
My son missed his last week of school (he's since forgiven me and really enjoyed our getaway), and we had an important chance to relax and celebrate making it through a pandemic school year... no small accomplishment. And, as I think about that frustrating scramble to check the school calendars once we realized our error, I will continue to work each day to approach my daughter with more empathy when her brain fails her, remembering it's not just her — and it's not her fault.
Interested in learning more about how your child’s unique brain works differently and what this means in terms of helping them experience fewer challenging behaviors? You can visit eileendevine.com to learn about the Brain First Parenting program and The Resilience Room membership community.
Eileen Devine works in Portland, OR as a therapist and coach supporting parents of children with special needs. She is also a consultant for families impacted by FASD, PANS/PANDAS and other neurobehavioral conditions through her private practice, working with families nationally and internationally. She lives with her husband and two amazing kids, one of whom happens to live with FASD. For more information, visit eileendevine.com.