When We Fall Short
I had an experience with my daughter this weekend that I want to share. It’s not one that I’m proud of; it is definitely one that highlights my shortcomings as a parent and, really, as a human being. It’s a story that reveals my flaws, and the growth I still need as a parent. And it is certainly not one that makes me look like a “seasoned expert” in this unique parenting journey.
And yet I think it’s still important to share, because I have met countless parents who believe they are not good enough, feeling as though they are always messing up at this “parenting differently” thing. Many of us have this belief that once we understand our child’s brain, how it functions, and the ways in which that makes our children different from neurotypical peers, that we should then be able to set aside our emotions and accept our children for who they are, every moment of every day. We should find joy in their uniqueness. We should be patient and loving and kind.
I absolutely believe this is all possible, but that it is a process — it happens over time. Putting this kind of parenting into practice day after day is a steep learning curve. And once we can accept that, we can forgive ourselves, make amends where amends are needed, and allow that forgiveness to propel us forward on this parenting path.
This weekend my daughter needed “things” from me. Nothing out of the ordinary— help with getting a snack, help retrieving a game that she wanted to play, help getting her music player turned on. I could tell you all of the valid reasons why being needed was hard for me this particular day, leaving me quite irritable: I was tired, I was hungry, I had a to-do list that had to be completed, with tasks that don’t bring my any joy (read: chores), not to mention the state of our world just being a generally stressful place to live at the moment.
None of this was her fault of course, but I wasn’t in a space where I was taking a step back to think about her and the unique ways her brain works.
My daughter’s energy is, at baseline, high. She has a way of buzzing around the house, wanting to be close to you and always moving at the same time. This day was no different. Her body was in constant motion, as was her talking. She had question after question after question, all asked in rapid fire, leaving no space for an answer. The questions were interspersed with mimicking various animal noises (howls, growls, and meows), another thing she does frequently. Her fragile nervous system clearly wasn’t in a state of balance, and she couldn’t hear anything I was saying, but again, I wasn’t holding this perspective. I was inside my own head and focused on my own needs and how my daughter and her behaviors were rubbing me the wrong way.
With that said, I did honestly believe in that moment that I was doing well “keeping a lid on it.” I thought I was actually maintaining a calm exterior, responding to her needs even as I was struggling internally. But this belief was blown completely out of the water when we sat down to each have a snack and my daughter said, “Why are you so frustrated with me?” Her question was sincere. Her face was confused and sad. And in that moment, the all-too-familiar wave of shame washed over me. I wasn’t fooling her. She could sense my frustration, but truly had no idea why I was having this reaction because she wasn’t doing any of these things with any sort of malice, she was simply being who she is.
Ahh, the journey to full acceptance. It is a hard one, fraught with many challenges.
I’ve come a long way over the years, but this moment made it clear to me how much farther I have to go. My daughter cannot help that she has a fragile nervous system with an outward energy that can be frenetic and exhausting at times. She cannot help that she gets stuck in verbal loops, unable to stop the talking even for a second. She cannot help the impulse to mimic animal sounds when she communicates with others. She cannot help that, well into her tween years, she still needs assistance with seemingly easy tasks that children several years younger have already mastered. She was joyful this day, and wanted to spend time with me, and I received this joy and desire for connection as an irritant and a daunting “neediness.” I did not embrace and accept who she is in this moment and she felt it. She knew it and it confused her and made her sad.
I always say to the parents I work with that this way of parenting is as hard as you think it is and that it is a life-long journey. We all have room to grow in our understanding of our child and in our connection to them, no matter how long we’ve been at this, how many trainings we’ve attended or how many books we’ve read. When I was able to emerge from my own emotional response and take a step back, and then gently work through the shame I was flooded with (because we all know how easy it is to get stuck here), it created the necessary space to repair with my daughter and reconnect. How that repair process looked, for me and for her, is another story for another day, but stepping back to gain perspective and clearly knowing what needed to happen to reconnect — and most importantly, because she is so forgiving — we were able to find deeper connection.
I’m grateful for this experience, what it taught me, and how it caused me to reflect on ways I can improve. It could easily have gone in a completely different direction, and that is not lost on me. It’s proof that even when we mess up, there are still good things that can come from the experience if we are vulnerable enough to recognize what's necessary in order to pivot toward a better outcome.
If you can relate to this experience, now you know you’re not alone. No matter how deep our understanding of the brain-based approach to parenting, how solidly affixed our neurobehavioral lens might be, we are human. Which means we’re perfectly imperfect. That means we will mess up, which means we also always have room to grow. I am choosing to practice self-compassion and see that opportunity for continuous growth as a gift. How you choose to view it and respond is up to you, but I can promise you this — from experience: how you choose to view the situation, and respond to yourself, will make a profound difference in how you feel about yourself and your relationship with your child.
Eileen Devine, LCSW 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.