My heart sank as I walked through the front door. I had just enjoyed an hour and a half to myself (plus travel time!) at a writing workshop. Uplifted and challenged, I was keen to share my experiences and continue my writing. In my mind, I’d arrive home to mostly-fed kids and the hubbub of a Wombat family dinner. Instead, I was greeted by chaos and confusion, angry and arguing voices, the noise colliding off the hall walls and rushing out into the balmy evening air through the open door behind me.
I came into the family room. Littlest Wombat had flounced away from the kitchen table, shedding hot tears. Grabbing his school computer, he was set to escape into an orderly Minecraft world. Train Wombat was excoriating both him and his father about the unfair amount of screen time Littlest Wombat enjoyed compared to him at the same age. (He has a point, but people in glass houses …) My husband was loudly berating his youngest for retreating to the computer without having eaten. Dancing Wombat was already in her bedroom sanctuary, re-reading her magazines. Freerunning Wombat was prudently keeping quiet.
It’s hard, when things don’t go as planned. When your kids don’t do the basics. I mean, come on, just eat your dinner. You’ve been on the screen all afternoon – give it a break. Help clear the table. Please. Speak respectfully. If you disagree, that’s fine. Yelling about it is not.
For a tired parent, whose mind is also buzzing with the other things to be done before bedtime, it’s easy to get cross, to issue orders and threaten consequences. But when your kid has already zoned out, this will be completely ineffective and probably counterproductive, as my husband was finding.
That’s when you need to stop. It’s time for a different approach.
Time for Plan B
Everything gets reassessed. It’s back to basics. What are your key goals? For me that night, as I rapidly surveyed the scene, was it getting my child to eat? Enforcing screen time limits? Pointing out that the Train Wombat pot is as black as the Littlest Wombat kettle? Was it having a long and boring discussion about the impossibility of things unfolding the same way for the youngest as they did for the oldest?
Or is it simply restoring calm, so my kids can sleep before facing the social challenges of school the following day?
For me, re-establishing calmness is key. Followed by food! No-one functions well when they’re angry or upset, let alone kids with ASD. They shut down. There’s too much going on and it’s too difficult to process, so the “fight or flight” response kicks in. Forget logic. Which leads to a second, and important point.
When your child is upset, they need a safe space and time to unwind and recover their equilibrium. I know from bitter experience that this is easier said than done. But you have to try. It could be a bedroom, cosy armchair, quiet corner in the garden or even a bath.
Finally, often multiple people are suffering. Who do you help first? You have to go with your gut on this. That evening, I chose the one I could still carry!
I sat beside Littlest Wombat on the couch and spoke gently. “I can see you’re upset, sweetheart. Why don’t we go and sit on the verandah for a while? It’s much quieter outside. Just leave your computer here for now.” Still sobbing, he put his arms around me and let me carry him out, angry words still echoing down the hall.
My strategy? I approached my boy in a non-threatening way, by sitting next to him, speaking gently and not referring to the BAD choices he was making! I suggested going outside together – that suits him. For others, being by themselves is important. I didn’t refer to confiscating his computer, but just suggested that he leave it aside for a while.
With my husband and Train Wombat still at loggerheads, we escaped to the relative tranquility of the front verandah with its views of our overgrown garden. Littlest Wombat loves nature, especially spiders. If I could just get him outside for long enough, I was certain he’d start to calm down.
I cuddled him on my lap until I could feel some of the hurt and upset leaving him. Some kids don’t like to be cuddled. Others do. Then we sat in silence for a couple of minutes before I started commenting on the insects that I could see flying around the garden.
Then I asked him about dinner.
“I’m not hungry.”
“Oh, okay, but you’ll be hungry later. Why don’t I just get you something?”
“No, I said, I’m not hungry.” Voice rising. Okay, Jennie, time to back off.
“Sure, sweetheart. Tell you what, I’m starving! So, if you can just wait here a minute, I’ll get my dinner and bring it out here with you.”
I raced back inside, fetched my dinner and some for him as well, with two big glasses of water. I’m always thirsty when I’ve been upset. I brought everything out on a tray.
He looked at the two bowls. “But I said I wasn’t hungry!”
“Yes, I know. You don’t have to eat it. I just brought it out in case.”
I started eating my own dinner. He had a drink of water. Shortly afterwards, he picked up his bowl and methodically ate everything. You forget, don’t you, that anger tends to push away hunger. Talk about emotions getting in the way of things.
There’s a crepe myrtle in the front garden that Littlest Wombat likes to climb. I worry about its slender branches breaking under his weight, but so far it’s bearing up. He had another drink then headed for the tree, much calmer than he had been half an hour earlier. I fetched dessert. There were icy poles in the freezer – a rare treat, but perfect on a warm night like this was. Better still, they could be eaten in a tree!
By the time he’d finished his icy pole, Littlest Wombat was in a much better place. We could chat about what had gone wrong, why he was upset, why he kept retreating into his computer – “It’s hard when you’re the youngest – no-one wants to play with you” 🙁 And we could talk about tips to try and deal with it better next time. He came inside, changed for bed, then had a timed amount of relatively predictable, controllable Minecraft.
Modelling is hard work
Caring is hard yakka. There’s no single instruction book for being a role model. Rather, there are so many books on parenting that it’s overwhelming.
Sometimes we simply run out of patience – the glue – to hold everything together. Anyone who has ever made a model can tell you that if you don’t use your glue judiciously, you run out, and your model just doesn’t work out.
However, getting angry about this isn’t going to conjure up the desired result. Instead, we need to take a different approach. Find something that needs less glue! Or accept that maybe the model doesn’t look quite how we were hoping, but unless we can do something about it, we’re stuck with the result.
Later on, I chatted to my husband about the steps I had taken. He voiced his frustrations about the whole situation. They were completely valid. But he did acknowledge that the “Speak more loudly so they’ll hear you better” approach didn’t work. In fact, I think that the louder we speak, the less our children hear. Littlest Wombat shrinks when he’s yelled at – it scares him, so he shuts down even faster. Besides, if that’s how we try to get our children responding, that’s the behaviour we’re going to get back from them.
Remember, there’s more than one way to get into a house. Sometimes it seems like we need the fiendishness of a career burglar to find our way in, and the patience of a saint while doing so. But strip down your goals to the basics. What’s really at issue? What’s most important?
And remember, if Plan B doesn’t work, there’s always Plan C, Plan D, Plan E…
Until next time, Happy Wombatting!