Coping with challenging behaviours

challenging behavioursFrom the time our son David was about two years old we knew he was different from other children. He had an extremely limited vocabulary and any opportunity to play or interact with other children usually ended in an altercation or tears. After searching for answers for many years, David was finally diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome - an Autistic Spectrum Disorder – when he was 12 years old.

Even though I was relieved to finally have a diagnosis – and wanted to erect a sign on the local store saying- ‘It’s not bad parenting’, I was also heartbroken because we did finally have a diagnosis... and it was for life.

My emotions and our world began to spin out of control. One minute I felt on top of it all and then something would happen.... I would be called to the school yet again to deal with another incident, or David would do something at home that would create such drama and I would be once again pulled back into the reality of what Asperger’s really meant in our world.

I became angry - very angry. This was not how our life was supposed to be! I became trapped on a treadmill of blaming others, being angry with the world, and trying to make the ‘system’ wrong. I ploughed head on into a victim mentality and in the process lost my ability to trust my own intuition and judgements. It became a self destructive cycle that manifested in our lives with poor business decisions leading to severe financial problems that affected our relationship and our health.

It wasn’t until we reached breaking point that my husband, Gerry, and I finally made a decision: If we were going to be able to deal with the challenges that presented themselves to us with this diagnosis, we had to take back the responsibility for our lives; to understand who we really were and in doing so explore the depth of our own emotions and beliefs.

David didn’t have the necessary tools to understand emotion. So in order for him to understand his world, we needed to become the people we wanted David to become. It was a defining moment.

I realised there were four things I needed to do in my life to ensure I could cope with the challenges life had given me and in turn deal with the challenging behaviours that David exhibited, rather than reacting to them all the time. David reacted in certain ways when he was stressed or confused, because he didn’t know how else to react. So I needed to understand my emotions so I could teach him to understand his.

I needed to become a ‘wise’ mother, not a reactive one!

My keys to true ‘wise mothering’ are:

1. Physical Fitness. Raising children is hard work and you need to be physically fit in order to have strength to cope. You need to be exercising at least three times a week not only to give you more energy but also create the endorphins that help you to think clearly. Exercise is really non-negotiable because your children need a strong, healthy mother not one who is tired all the time.

2. Emotional Fitness. You need to spend time understanding your emotions. For me, I would lose it when I was overwhelmed by work, money worries and tiredness and often I would take out my emotions on those closest to me -because it was safe. Children will push your buttons, and if you are tired or are overwhelmed it is too difficult to think rationally and clearly. If your job is frustrating you – tell somebody. If you are feeling isolated or sad, speak to somebody. If money is an issue, look at creating a simpler life. Create a network of good positive upbeat people around you and talk things through. Emotional fitness gives you clarity and helps you cope with challenging behaviours, rather than reacting to them.

3. Spiritual Fitness. In a frantic world of school, after school activities, work, family, etc., it is important that you spend some time each day where you can just be quiet. Meditation, prayer, journaling, or just sitting looking at the grass is important. Quiet, introspective time gives you space to allow all the thoughts to line up and make sense in your brain! Get into the habit of focusing your thoughts on what you do want in your life, not what you don’t want. Spend time practising changing your vocabulary. See yourself as ‘wise’, see yourself as calm and in control, even if you don’t feel it! Your mind doesn’t know the difference and when you see yourself in control – you will come up with solutions that reflect the thought.

4. Intuitive Fitness. All children display challenging behaviours, when something is causing stress or discomfort in their world. To you, their behaviour may have absolutely no reasonable explanation, but it is here you need to learn to trust your intuition and listen to the words your children are not saying. Young children will react if they are tired, frustrated, in pain or for a myriad of other reasons. Older children may react because of fear, friends’ issues, stress or confusion. But as the parent it is important that understand their reaction rather than reacting to it and rely on your intuition to ask the right questions to get to the reason for the behaviour. When children feel understood, they feel valued and in most cases will then be very receptive to learning alternative behaviours.

When Asperger’s Syndrome first came into our lives it presented to us a challenge which, at the time, seemed sad, unfair and overwhelming. It is only now I can see it was in fact an incredible gift. Because the things we most needed to teach David were the things we most needed to learn ourselves. It was the gift David gave to us - a gift for which we will forever be grateful.

Sally Thibault is a wise mother of three children aged 24, 22 and 16 and author of David’s Gift – a true story about the gifts of living with Asperger’s Syndrome, written to help other parents going through their own parenting challenges.