Last night I really lost it with our boy for the first time in a while. I’d had a stressful meeting at work and was feeling worn down. I’d picked him up from school, we’d been to his swimming lesson, and all was well apart from the usual management of everyday symptoms that are always there and can grind me down at the best of times. My partner had taken over for a bit and I was lying on the bed listening to the background noise of screaming, swearing and defiance that my partner was being treated to downstairs. As so often is the case, I felt the bristling hot anxiety of being witness to horrible behaviour but feeling helpless to do anything about it. I’ve learnt that intervening is never a good plan and I’ve recently found it easier to let go of the impulsive craving to wade in.
And then I heard what sounded like exasperated angry sighs and the sound of my partner banging or throwing things around. And I reacted. I screamed at our boy from the top of the stairs and it went up like wildfire. We both escalated in to a familiar rage which didn’t stop there. I stayed seething and shouted at him more that evening, culminating in a shout too many at bedtime which led to him stuck in fight mode, raging in his bed and head butting my partner in the process of trying to get him off, eventually, to sleep.
In my usual remorse state afterwards, I reflected on what had triggered me to lose it. And a huge recurrent factor is when our boy is behaving horribly, whether physically or verbally to my partner. This is surely understandable. To hear or witness the love of your life being attacked by your other loved one is so painful and scary. And trying to escape and discharge the groundless fear, helplessness and powerlessness of not being able to do anything about it can quickly become an explosion of anger.
But there’s more to it than that. As ever, the considerable challenges of parenting a child with FASD are also providing me with a strangely stretching/galvanising form of therapy! The extremes of emotion that are inevitably experienced push me to my limits and edges. And I’ve started to see more and more how much I take responsibility for other people’s feelings. Like the writer of this inciteful piece, I can see how my upbringing has shaped me to find it really hard not to want to try and fix other people emotionally. I feel strangely guilty and anxious when someone I love seems to be feeling or experiencing something negative.
And it’s also about trying to control situations and other people. I want to believe that there is a right way of doing things that will mean that violent attacks wont happen. And if only we do things just so we will be able to achieve this. Accepting that, although we might be able to help reduce behaviours, we can’t stop or fully prevent them can feel impossible.
But the idea that we are only responsible for our own emotions and behaviour is a potentially liberating one. Trying to control others is inevitably disempowering for them! I have to learn to trust that my partner would ask for help if she needed it. And it doesn’t work to try and shoulder other people’s emotional regulation. Next time I want to wade in, I will try to pause and remember to let go.
But what then are the boundaries when it comes to responsibility for our children? FASD makes it harder to regulate emotions, to take responsibility for actions, to make healthy choices and to understand the consequences of behaviour. It’s a huge job of us parents and carers to try and help our children with all this. It can make the difference between keeping them and us safe, or not. So where does the line get drawn?
One of the most burdensome, distressing aspects of parenting my boy has to be that weight of feeling responsible for his behaviour. It’s easier now he’s at a specialist school where they expect challenging behaviour and can deal with it. But I’ll never forget those early experiences of walking up the nursery path with a fluttery dread of the report of his day. That shameful feeling that when my son had been hitting children, or throwing and breaking toys it was somehow my fault, that it reflected on me. And then at his mainstream primary, when a teacher would take me aside with that dreaded ‘can I have a word’ to report on him swearing in the classroom, with a tone of admonishment, as if somehow I’d encouraged him to shout shit! Or at least failed to stop him.
There’s also my son’s need to be in control and control us to feel responsible for. He’ll demand we sit in a certain way, that we don’t talk or even that we don’t breathe! And when he’s like that, I feel I should be showing him in no uncertain terms that his behaviour is unacceptable. But then it can so easily become a battle for control, of who’s ‘in charge’. And underneath it, I think we’re both feeling similar anxiety.
Logically I understand this underlying anxiety. I know that my son’s condition means he’s mostly in a state of heightened arousal and his emotions and behaviour are often dysregulated. I know that although I can do some things to help with this, I can only do so much. It’s easy as an FASD parent to constantly feel a sense of shame, like the symptoms of FASD are somehow signs of our failures as parents, that we’re not doing or being enough. But I’m recently seeing what a difference it makes to move away from blame and shame. It is neither of our faults. I know I’m responsible for trying to support my son with his emotions and behaviours as much as I can but I can only do so much. Neither he nor I can control brain damage.
But although I can tell myself this, I still don’t feel sure what the limits of my responsibility are. I’m not responsible for others emotions and behaviour, but what about when it comes to my child?