Deconstructing an aggressive incident

I have spoken many times here about Charlie and his aggressive behavior. I have talked at length about all the ways it has affected him and me and our family, in general. But, at the heart of it is always just a little boy who is trying the best he can, in that moment, to let me know something. As always, all behavior is communication.

So, when I read Brenda Rothman of Mama Be Good’s wonderful post this morning about aggressive behaviors and Autism. It inspired me to get the post out of my head that I’ve had rolling around for a while.

It’s what I like to think of as my post game wrap up whenever Charlie has an aggressive incident with me. Since every social interaction by nature requires at least two people to occur, I like to review these incidents and see where I fed into it and made it worse. Please know, this is not an exercise in self-flagellation. I fully accept that I am not a therapy robot. I am human. I have emotions and reactions and get frustrated and tired and make mistakes. I’m fine with that, as long as I try to find ways to do better. I believe there are always ways that I can still be myself and express those very real feelings and at the same time create an interaction and environment that gives Charlie what he needs to feel safe and to learn.

The last time we had an issue was a few weeks back. I took both my boys to the home of a friend of mine for an afternoon play date with her two boys, one of whom is also on the autism spectrum. Despite a lot of apprehension on the part of my boys about going to visit strangers, it was a lovely afternoon. I got some much needed grown up conversation and both boys played very well. I felt a lot of pride watching them.

Then my friend’s husband arrived home. I realized with a little panic that it must be quite late and I felt a little embarrassment about being there still when they clearly must need to get going with their evening routines. I would add that these feeling were purely my own social scripts, or perhaps my mother’s social scripts of politeness. Neither my friend nor her husband gave any hint that they needed me to leave right away.

I tracked down Charlie in the backyard and called to him that it was time to go. He ignored me. I did this a few more times and he continued to ignore me. I felt a growing panic that I was being rude. I know Charlie usually needs several warnings of time before we can leave a fun activity. He needs time to prepare himself, to let go. Then he needs a count down to focus himself on the exact moment to let go. I know this. He was trying to tell me this by ignoring me calling him to come. But, I felt self-conscious that we should go. I wasn’t open to listening to his needs, only my own. So, filled with tension, I walked out into the yard to Charlie and said we were leaving right now and he needed to come to the car.

In reaction to this unexpected transition, he picked up a plastic bat he was playing with and hit me on the nose with it. That’s him telling me he is afraid and feeling a loss of control at being asked to transition so quickly and unexpectedly and he doesn’t know how to handle it. That’s when I should have put aside everything about me and calmly acknowledged his fear and gone back to the tools for transitioning I should have used at square one. It’s also, unfortunately, the moment when I made the choice to take my reaction in another direction.

I grabbed him by the hand and started walking him to the car while very firmly stating he was getting in the car and I was very angry with him and he would sit in his room when we got home. He reacted to this by screaming, running away, and hiding. It took me a 20 minute search through the neighboring yards, with a freaked out Tommy in tow, to find him. When I did, he screamed some more and threw anything he could get his hands on at me.

So, post game wrap up, what was so wrong with my reaction? It’s not so out of the norm of what any parent would do in that situation.

What’s wrong is it doesn’t work for Charlie. It doesn’t convey to him any of the things I needed him to learn to be able to act differently in the future. What’s wrong is that instead of creating an atmosphere of calm so he could work through his fears himself, I frightened him by becoming unpredictable and scary myself.  What’s wrong is I know all of this and, for some reason, I chose to do it anyway. That’s the post game piece I need to understand.

In that moment, when he hit me in the nose with the bat, it stung, of course. And I was really pissed at him for hurting me. But, that’s not the reason for my reaction. Those are all reasonable feelings and reactions I could have spoken to him about at some point later. I’m used to doing that. He responds well to hearing that, when he is ready.

But, this reaction? This was all about me feeling embarrassed. I was embarrassed that a friend saw my son hurt me. Never mind that she was one of us, that she got it, and wouldn’t judge. It’s really not about her either. It’s about all the voices that play through my head, that I have heard so many times before, that tell me I need to control my son. The voices that have told me it is my fault he is aggressive, that I allow him to be this way. The voices that have told me that he does not fit any of their stereotypes about autism and so he can’t really be autistic, I’m just trying to excuse his bad behavior. The voices that have told me I am raising a monster. My own voice that creeps in to say I am a bad mother, that I had no business thinking I could raise a child.

All those negative voices whip around through my head in a flash and I feel a need to show I am in control. I feel the need to put on a show. A see-I’m-a-good-mother-after-all look-how-I-take-control show.

It is when I understand this, that I have a point where I can grow. I can realize how much those voices still haunt me, no matter how confident I feel with my parenting. I can listen to them when they pop up. I can acknowledge they are there> But I can not let them control me.

I can not let them strip me of the tools I know work for my son. I can not let them take what would have been a great moment to teach Charlie about handling change and disappointment and instead teach him I am not a safe constant in his life.

16 comments on “Deconstructing an aggressive incident

  1. ((hugs, mama)) Big, giant hugs. I love that you were able to kindly, gently follow your emotions back to the source and figure out what happened. I love how our kids show us every day how much more we can grow. I love how honest and open you are in this post. ((hugs))

  2. This is fantastic! I have been exactly there… and you are brave and honest to share so openly and also to be able to get to the heart of it so effectively.

    It seems that those voices that we bring to the playing field – all on our own – can really throw the whole game sideways. You are so good at describing that the trick is – seeing a way to think about things differently and deepen our understanding so that the next time… and the time after that… or maybe the time after that… we get it better!

    You have explained this eloquently and it is such an encouraging post for all of us.

    Hugs and thank you!

    • thanks, Leah! I think much of the reason I am still blogging is that I get so much out of laying all the painful stuff out on the table and having someone like you pop up and say me too! Helps to neutralize those negative voices!

  3. It’s tough to keep your cool sometimes, especially when your child hits you. Jacob hits sometimes too and it’s always because he’s upset. And you did nothing wrong by forcing your hand. Sometimes our kids need to learn that they aren’t always in control.

    But your friends, as parents of a child on the spectrum, could have told you about needing to leave before hand. I understand that it can be rude to ask your guests to leave, but for the sake of your child, I’d hope a friend would understand. But as fellow parents on the spectrum, they might have realised the transition time that your son needed. I would have told you about our schedule right away.

    But I wouldn’t be too upset. The truth is, that I think that all parents of kids on the spectrum should be mother/father of the year. With all the ups and downs we face daily, it’s only fair.

  4. As I read this, I kept thinking, “Me, too! Me, too!” It’s so frustrating when the logical parts of us cannot get in sync with the emotional parts and the “voices” take over. It’s hard to break habits and reflexive behaviors. My therapist told me today to stop taking for granted the capacity to look back at you reactions and learn from them. that’s a tremendous skill that gives you a valuable advantage in raising Charlie. I admire what you did here, and I thank you for sharing it.

  5. Yep! – me too. With us there is also an issue that I am trying to understand around how much is lack of understanding on My Son’s part and how much is actually him wanting to be ‘in control’. He is 11 and very bright and sometimes it is hard to know when agression is purely a result of unplanned change or when it is anger because we aren’t doing things his way. Thanks for sharing. I love reading your posts.

    • thank you, we have a mix of needing to be in control in their too. For us it is the same thing though if I stay calm and talk things through with him logically, he is willing to cooperate usually, but it’s that staying calm and giving it the time it needs that i fall apart on.

  6. My son has difficulty with aggression as well. Everytime I deconstruct an incident, i see that I have either lost my calm or so focused on my own anxiety that I missed his cues.

    This is exactly it:

    “What’s wrong is that instead of creating an atmosphere of calm so he could work through his fears himself, I frightened him by becoming unpredictable and scary myself.”

    I struggle with this immensely, especially since I am on the spectrum too. The weight of all that anxiety sometimes sends me crashing down an path that triggers my son. It helps to know that I am not alone and that other mom’s remind themselves too. My son is doing the best he can.

    Thank you for posting!

  7. Sending big hugs your way. I can just feel the creeping up of that double-sided stress of sensing you have to get out of there & knowing that your kid isn’t going to be able to do it smoothly.

    Every now & then I try the “normal” parent reactions out of some kind of morbid curiosity. It’s amazing how spectacularly these attempts fail.

    I love this line – “I fully accept that I am not a therapy robot.” It’s empowering & I may remind myself of this several times per day now :)

  8. Great post! You are way ahead of where I was when my son was young. Good for you for being so on top of things and intuitive. My son is almost 18 and I “should” know better yet there are times when I still find myself in the same position as you described here. I’m getting better but I’m only human too. :D

  9. My new motto lately has been “feel the first emotion”. So, if my child hurts me, then I have to feel hurt. My tendency has been to translate most emotions into anger and/or frustration (they are so close!). Feeling ‘hurt’ makes me vulnerable. But it has been highly effective, if I stop my agenda and sit down to be ‘hurt’. It tends to give me some ‘think time’ too. Mostly, with my new motto, I still think of how I should have dealt with it – afterwards! But, now and then, I get it right ‘in the moment’ and it works! Thanks for your honest posting – I’ve been there with you so many times. Best wishes…

  10. I too have been there, proceeding in a way I know will not work for my asperger’s son, but all I can seem to muster at the moment. Transitions from fun activities are very hard for my son. I’d love to hear what typically helps you in these instances. We do the 10 minute, 5 minute warnings, but sometimes these are not enough.

    • Yes, the warning itself can be sort of meaningless to my son too sometimes. Sometimes I have to give the time warning with a detailed explanation of what will happen at that time. Like five more minutes, then we will put on shoes and walk to the car. Did you hear me? Please repeat what I said. Then two more minutes and we will……..
      And so forth so it sinks in better. Then at time up I will say time up now we will…….plus I will try to gently guide him physically like holding hands to focus him and immediately start asking him questions about a topic of interest as we walk. Sometimes it works sometimes not, always a work in progress here.

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