[This article was originally written by Mike Berry…It’s used here with his permission. Mike and Kristen Berry are raising 8 amazing children (photo above), all of whom have been adopted. Their blog Confessions of An Adoptive Parent exists to offer hope for families in the trenches.]
As adoptive and special needs parents, our style of parenting can be quite different from most parents. Because of our children’s traumatic pasts, there are reasons why we do the things we do, expect the things we expect, and redirect the way we redirect.
My son’s coach meant well. He really did. His fatherly instincts told him to comfort my son and try to remedy the situation by loaning him his gloves. The temperature at game time was a brisk 30 degrees. The sun was up, but slow to melt the frost that fell in the early morning hours when it was much colder. My son stood on the sideline shivering, crying, snot running down his upper lip, and looking as if he were close to death.
I stood on the opposite sideline, glaring at him as he did so, feeling absolutely no sympathy.
In fact, through my anger, I reflected back on the night before, when I was digging out knit caps and gloves in preparation for his game. And since I’m a college-educated person I paid attention to the evening weather report. I listened when the weather man said that the next morning would be below normal. He even went as far as to say, “If your son or daughter is playing soccer, football or fall baseball, you will want to dress them warm!” Ironic.
My son argued with me. He told me that he didn’t need to wear gloves, because none of the other kids would be wearing them. He shook his head and told me that football players are supposed to be tough and that wearing a knit cap would make him look like a sissy. Then, he obsessively walked around the house in his uniform pretending to be an NFL player who didn’t wear long sleeves in frigid temperatures. Big talk until he got out of the car the next morning and joined his teammates (who, by the way, were all wearing knit caps and gloves). He almost immediately started to shiver. I didn’t budge. “Life lesson learned,” I thought to myself. “He can freeze his ‘you-know-what’ off!”
Some of the parents nearby gave me nasty looks. Some tried to remedy the situation by getting involved. I’m sure I was labeled as a terrible father that day. But the highlight of this experience was the email I received from his coach, later that afternoon, saying “Next time we have a game with those temperatures please make sure to properly dress your son.” He then explained his strategy for making sure his son was dressed for chilly game-time temperatures.
And that’s when it hit me- This world will never understand how or why I parent my special-needs son the way I do, and that’s okay! Many would look at that experience and consider it normal 9-year old behavior. It was the farthest thing from it.
Noticed But Not Understood.
What people rarely see (unless they spend significant time with us) is the impulsive, illogical, obsessive behavior my child displays over nearly everything. He has a disconnect in his brain. It’s a permanent condition he inherited from the choice his birth mother made to consume drugs and alcohol when he was still in her womb. While other children may argue with their parents, push buttons, stomp their feet and demand their own way, my son makes it a campaign, battles us to sometimes violent levels, and refuses to listen to logic, even when logic is causing his ears and finger tips to turn blue and go numb.
- “I’m blunt and to the point for a reason.”
When you live with a child who has brain damage, or has gone through significant trauma, you can’t leave an ounce of what you say up for interpretation. My son will fill in the blanks and many times that equals disaster or very bad choices. I have to be blunt and to the point always. I know I sound harsh. I know I sound unforgiving and belligerent. But my point must be crystal clear with my child. I stick to a strict schedule with him. Bedtime is always the same. So are trivial things like brushing teeth, household chores, and homework. Without a routine, my son will melt down.
Most parents of children with normal brains usually have to give gentle reminders to their children (usually). Even if they mess up and forget, a gentle reminder or two will do the trick. Not so with my child. If I gently remind him he won’t get it, or he’ll move into a 2-hour tantrum. If I resort to doing the task myself he’ll never learn nor come back to the task in his mind. I have to bluntly state my expectations and be ready with a consequence if he fails to do what was asked of him.
- “I give the consequences I give for a reason.”
In his mind, he believes he is right and I am wrong all the time. Not only that, he can be extremely manipulative. This is a result of the disconnect in his brain. If he can get you to buy into his story, believe that I just didn’t want to give him gloves and hat for the freezing temperatures, he wins, and quite frankly, you lose. He doesn’t necessarily mean to do this but his brain has been damaged. He isn’t thinking logically and, although I reassure him and show him that moms and dads always take care of their children and are there for them, he reaches for something else. Many times, it’s a stranger or a person (like a coach or teacher) that he barely knows.
We’ve custom-designed boundaries because the only way he’ll learn how to live is through the structure I keep in place. Within his mind there is deep fear and anxiety that even he does not understand. This usually manifests itself through impulsive choices, and sometimes, obsessive-compulsive outbursts.
- “I have to keep going even though I’m extremely exhausted.”
When you parent normal children, with normal brains, who pull normal child-like stunts, you often fail to understand that I have to be vigilant around the clock. I cannot take my foot off the gas. I have to read labels for ingredients you never give a second thought to. I have to ask questions at doctor’s appointments that most parents never have to ask. I have to mentally and physically prepare for something as simple as a trip to the grocery store. I have to make sure my son is following the same routine day after day after day.
It can take the life out of us.
While “normal” children can go off-routine during vacation or the weekend, mine cannot. The consequences of this could take days or weeks to undo. I don’t expect you to understand the way I parent my special-needs son, but I am asking for respect and a little less judgement. Until you walk in the shoes of a parent with a child who has special needs you will never understand the reasons why we do the things we do, and say the things we say.
It’s What Moms And Dads Do.
In case you’re wondering, I secretly brought his knit cap and gloves to the game that day. After allowing him to live with his consequence for a while, and refusing to let his coach bail him out, I walked over, reminded him that I was his parent, and that moms and dads always take care of their children, then handed him his cap and gloves.