2 Game-Changing Steps In Parenting Children From Difficult Places.

It’s not easy to parent a child with FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder). Ask any one of us who are in this trench…keeping our cool when we’re pushed to the edge daily, is an uphill climb. How can we successfully parent our children when every day is a fierce battle?


The power of calm:

I’m standing at the kitchen sink scrubbing potatoes and enjoying the happy sounds of my sons’ giggles drifting through the open window. That’s when I hear the low growl of unhappiness. Undetectable to most, it is my first warning sign that something is wrong. I turn to see our 7-year-old standing on the driveway, just beneath the window. His arms and legs are ridged at his sides. His fists are clenched tight and his gaze is sternly fixed on something non-existent. I can almost reach his soft blonde hair from my perch but I know I must not reach out yet. I grab a dishtowel as I exit the backdoor.

Drying my hands, I kneel down in front of my son and drop the towel beside me. I look him in the eye and ask softly, “What’s going on?” I don’t expect an answer the first time but I pause anyway. “Are you hurt? (pause) Frustrated? (pause) Angry?” I know I must go slow and steady. Too quick and he will pull further into his frustration. Too loud and I will shut down his ability to hear me all together. When he’s like this, I must remember that his brain is trying to catch up. Self-regulation doesn’t come naturally for this little one. I don’t put my hands on him yet. I just wait. Finally he gives a low gruff response. “Frustrated,” he murmurs. “Frustrated about what?” I ask too soon. “This is STUPID. I hate my brothers!” He shouts. “Ok, ok,” I sooth, “what happened?” About 30 seconds pass (I count in my head to make sure I don’t interrupt him) and I notice he’s made eye contact. I’m careful to make only a slight smile. We are connected and this is when the conversation can begin.

When my son was a toddler, a small frustration could shut him down for hours. A bumped knee, an untied shoe or a misplaced toy would send him into a complete melt down. When our son was a baby, we had to be the thermostat for his emotions. We had to show him step-by-step how to calm down and how to re-regulate emotions. After years of practice, our son is now able to identify specific emotions. The turn-around time for a melt down is now around 4 minutes. When we recall the hours of unreachable emotion, 4 minutes feels like a miracle.

When we sense that our son is dysregulated we still come alongside of him when we can. We still set the thermostat of our own emotions. We model calm through mindful facial expressions, even tone of voice, regulated breathing and slow movements. By keeping our cool, we have begun to teach our son how to regain calm in his own life.

The power of firm:

For all children, structure and consistency are deeply important. For most children, flexibility is acceptable from time to time. For our son, flexibility is not an option. Our 12 year old goes to bed at 7:45 each night. Bedtime figures in, the obligatory stalling (3 trips to the bathroom, can’t find his toothbrush, wants to sleep with the light on etc.) By 8:00 on the dot, the light goes off and the box fan/background noise turns on. We cannot veer from this plan.

Each night as the bedtime routine begins, my son’s challenge parallels the simple structure his father and I have created. “It’s 7:15, it will be time to brush your teeth in 5 minutes.” I give the calm alert. “Why don’t my brothers have to brush their teeth?” he demands. Recognizing that this is not a real question, I refuse to answer. At 7:20 I remind, “Time to brush your teeth.” He counters, “I just need to finish this game.” I grit my teeth to resist giving the lecture and reply simply, “teeth,” as I point to the clock. I usher the younger brothers through their bedtime routine. My older son has had the same routine for 12 years and knows that we will not tuck him in if he is not in the bed at 8:00. He still likes to have me rub his back while we pray but he may or may not remember this currency as he pushes the limit of my patience each night. As I read a bedtime story to my younger sons, I hear my 12 year old brushing his teeth, he even asks for the floss.

I smile and take a deep breath, the night has the potential to go very well or very poorly. This night he’s going to push the limits. “I have homework, why can’t I go to the skating rink tomorrow? Will you buy me an iPhone? Ugh, why not!?” We can’t waiver for a minute. Calm and firm are the name of this game. “Do you want me to tuck you in, or pray with you out here tonight?” I ask. “I want to have a sleepover at my friends house, and I want a package of skittles,” he responds. “Hey kiddo, do you want me to tuck you in tonight or pray with you in the hallway?” Tonight he’s going to accept the routine and I’m thankful. “Tuck me in, I guess,” He whispers. I tuck him in and say the same thing I’ve said every night for the past decade, “Hey buddy, I just have to tell you one thing…” “I know, I know,” he groans, “You love me!” “Nope that’s not it,” I say. “Its…I love you.” He rolls his eyes and for a moment we’ve made it past impulsive need for contradiction and he is just a typical pre-teen.

As a parent, it is so difficult to not let our emotions get the best of us, especially when we have children whose brains cannot sort these emotions on their own. In the end, we have the most success when we face each situation with a commitment to stay calm and stand firm.

Question: Are you parenting a child with FASD? What are you learning to do differently with them? Share in the comment section below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Robin

    This is so like our son! I appreciate your insight & advice of how to handle! Too often, we label his behavior erroneously, when what it really is is a processing issue. I will work on my “calm”!👍🏿

    • It’s so hard to do. Continued work in progress for me. Kristin nailed it with this post. So glad you liked it.

    • Kristin Berry

      I love this accountability of this group! We’re working to keep our calm here too 🙂

  • Melissa

    This is a great post, thank you. It’s SO easy to lose my temper with my son when he is screaming at me, or I have asked him 500 times to put his shoes on and he’s ignoring me. But I have noticed that calm and firm DO work well with him and bring him off the edge faster, so I will keep trying!

    • Kristin Berry

      Me too!

  • Murray Coulter

    This is excellent advice. It is so easy to get caught in th struggle, especially when the child in question thrives on reactions.

    • Kristin Berry

      Sounds like our son too! It’s so hard for us to keep our cool, but when we do it’s always resolved so much faster!

  • Theresa Siertsema

    Thank you for your posts! I recently found your blog and it’s been a blessing to me. Many of your posts mirror our life…it is hard to find people who understand what life is like with a child from trauma, but your blogs are refreshing because I know we’re not the only ones who dread bedtime and walk on eggshells hoping that this will be a good one…otherwise it becomes the 2 hour meltdown. Parenting these kids is different. Not everyone understands that. So thank you for sharing your life with others so we don’t feel alone. Thank you for sharing tips that have worked for you. It is so appreciated! Thank you! I will continue reading and hopefully listening as well!

    • Hey Theresa, we are so glad we are connected now! Glad you found us. You are definitely NOT alone! 🙂

  • Curt

    I’m not sure which is more difficult to deal with at times…. My 7 year old daughter, or the constant barrage of unsolicited advice from other parents that don’t deal with this on a daily basis. I’m getting better at being more patient with her. I’m more on the militant side when it comes to the kids listening and obeying so this causes me to be way out of my element. Fortunately, her mom is far ahead of me and able to handle her easier than I, but I am learning. One deep breath at a time.

  • Allisonm

    My son becomes dysregulated in response to every transition of the day, whether it be waking up, going to school, getting on or off of the computer, going out to play, eating a meal, running an errand, or going to bed. Transitions throw him off kilter, disturbing whatever regulated state he has worked hard to achieve. Calm and firm/intentional is a regulated state for me. It’s where I need to be if I am going to co-regulate for my son while he tries to get regulated again in the new thing we are transitioning to.

    Our transitions often mirror the stages of grief. We have shock, denial, anger, bargaining, and ultimately acceptance, which is really the regaining of emotional regulation in his new, post-transition world. When my son is dysregulated, he needs me to exhibit regulation that he can hold onto, like an anchor, while he goes through the storm of his own loss of control. It’s one of the things that helps limit the storm. If (when) I lose it, we are both adrift and it’s harder to get back to a regulated state. My son often tests my level of regulation, not to be manipulative, but because my regulation contributes so heavily to his.

  • Cherí Howard

    This sounds like my older son to a T. I do my best to practice calm and firm (and ignoring the questions that “aren’t real”), and I’ve seem some improvement in the number of meltdowns he has over the last year we’ve had him. I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who experiences this.

  • Nora Matthews

    This so illuminates the extent of commitment required, not only to changing one’s own impulses as a parent, but also how parenting children with special needs places such limits on one’s own freedoms at times.