How To Discipline A Child With FASD.

Parenting children with FASD is an uphill battle. This is especially true when it comes to discipline. How do you balance necessary consequences with a child who’s brain lacks the executive functioning to understand?

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If you know a child with an FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder) you know that typical discipline just doesn’t work. In our home we are raising two sons diagnosed with ARND (Alcohol Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder). Our sons were exposed to alcohol before birth. FASDs do not go away, and there is no way to heal the damage that has been done. Typically, children who are exposed to alcohol suffer damage to their prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the command center for the brain. It controls emotions, problem solving, self-control and decision-making.

For a long time we parented these children the same way we parented our children who don’t have a brain injury. We wound up frustrated and hopeless and our children ended up confused and angry. We know our job as parents is to teach our children the skills they will need to be successful adults. We were tempted to throw in the towel in terms of discipline. I’m glad we didn’t. After a lot of research, and trial and error, we have come up with some strategies that have been effective with our sons.

  1. Keep expectations clear and brief.
    Let’s face it, I love to lecture. I have all kinds of wisdom, and I’m willing and ready to impart that knowledge on my children at anytime and for a long time if necessary. Lecturing is not typically effective for any children but for our children with FASD it is downright perplexing. When we need our children to understand an expectation we need to make our words as simple and brief as possible. Keep in mind that a child with FASD may have an emotional age that is about half of his or her chronological age. You must stay calm, brief and to the point.
  2. Choose battles with confidence.
    The other day my son was using my phone to text a friend (Our teens do not have phones of their own at this point). We go over the rules of texting each time he uses my phone. Texts are to be kind. Texts may go to people we know and approve. Texts may never be deleted. On this particular day, he got into an argument with a friend, and began to send her mean-spirited messages. After a bit, I noticed something was wrong and read over his shoulder. I reminded him that his behavior was hurtful and asked him to make things right with his friend. He quickly deleted as many texts as he could and became very frustrated with me for intervening. As he became dysregulated and angry, I considered sending him to his room for the rest of the night. I quickly realized that is a consequence that I cannot enforce (he is my size). Instead, I told him that he would not be allowed to use the phone for one day. I knew this was a logical consequence for the infraction and it was a consequence I could easily enforce. I’m the only one who knows the password to my phone, so all I had to do was not unlock it. Choosing this battle was important because it created an opportunity for my son to learn respectful behavior. The consequence was effective because I had full control over implementing it.
  3. Give ample time to change behavior.
    Children with FASD are often impulsive and lack self-control. When they need to change behavior it is much like trying to turn an aircraft carrier. They need time and space. When we give our children instruction to change their course, it is important to give plenty of time for their brain and their emotions to regulate, so that appropriate behavior can follow.
  4. Stay the course.
    Children with FASD can have an attention span that resembles a gnat. It is important to stay focused when trying to help a child change a specific behavior. Do not follow them down the rabbit trails of thinking. Our son will bring up at least 10 non-related issues whenever he is dealing with something difficult. It is our job as parents to stay the course. Redirect the conversation whenever it is no longer productive.
  5. Turn down the heat.
    We were honored to do a webinar interview this past fall with Dr. Ira Chasnoff and Gabe Chasnoff from NTI Upstream. Dr. Chasnoff referred to the fetal alcohol brain as a simmering pot. A child with FASD is at a constant simmer, even the slightest frustration can cause the child to boil over emotionally. It is our job to turn down the heat! I’m not just a lecturer, I’m also an admitted hot head. Once I realized that my quick-tempered responses were only multiplying my son’s frustration, I took the opportunity to calm down. I now talk to my son in a calm tone of voice and do not yell (even when I really want to). By keeping my cool, I allow my son to take a boiling situation back down to a simmer. He is much quicker to respond to my requests, end tantrums and even apologize now that I’m not the throwing logs on the fire.
  6. Blank Slate.
    Children with FASD have difficulty with long-term memory. While this can be very frustrating when teaching life-skills, it can also be a blessing as a parent. All people deserve to be forgiven and have the opportunity to start over. Consequences must stand but anger, resentment and frustration don’t have to. It is important to allow your child to have an opportunity to do better tomorrow without the reminder of yesterday’s failure looming over them. It is also important to allow yourself to face each day as a new opportunity. Forgive yourself for your own shortcomings and give yourself a blank slate too.

Question: Are you currently in this parenting trench? What would you add to this list? Share with us in the comment section. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Hello, I was wondering how they are diagnosed? We have a son with ADHD but meds seem a little lacked on working, we have seen some improvement but anger is still massive as well as frustration. We just started to see a new phyc but maybe he was miss diagnosed. Just a thought since I see my son in a lot of what you are talking about and I will research more myself but since he was from the foster system we are not really sure but we know Bios where alcohol and drug users. Do you know of any tests to diagnose this?

    Thanks so much, you guys are a blessing for so many! ~hugs~

    • Hey Debra, so great to hear from you. Our diagnosis all came from a specialist who knew what he was talking about. Kristin may be able to fill in the blanks I’m leaving here. Feel free to jump on our About Us page and send her a direct email. 🙂

    • Kristin Berry

      Hi Debra, A great contact is NOFAS They can usually help you find a doctor in your area who can help diagnose. The fetal alcohol clinic in our area diagnosed our son. The doctor told us that alcohol is the cheapest legal drug, so it is safe to assume his bio parents were also drinking if they were drug users. We were able to contact our son’s birth mom and she confirmed that she was drinking while pregnant. We were so grateful for her honesty. We have not been able to find any medications that worked for our son but we know of other families who have been able to find a good combination.
      k

  • Allisonm

    I am in this trench, too. Great post! I would add explicitly what you covered implicitly, which is that your relationship with your child is the foundation upon which your ability to have a long-term affect and influence on his behavior and approach to life rests. When in doubt, do what will strengthen your relationship and enhance your ability to continue to speak into your child’s life in the future. It may look to those who don’t share this challenge that you aren’t being firm with or hard enough on your child in a specific instance. If we try to satisfy others’ expectations at the cost of damaging our ongoing relationship with our children, we have lost not only today’s opportunity to be helpful to them, but tomorrow’s as well. And our children with FASD need to trust that they will face those tomorrows with us in their corners.

    • Allison, so so true. We cannot parent our children fearing what others thing or say. Great words.

  • Kirsten Hughes

    I am right there with you, we got our little guy when he was 18 months old and he is now weeks away from 9… I love #3… so true and a good description. This is definitely a learning trip… everyday it’s something new. We are celebrating that this WHOLE WEEK has been great and he learned how to ride his bike! Keep up the posts, they are very helpful to our family.

    • Kirsten, that’s awesome. Celebrate all those great wins. We do the same thing!

  • Anna Lopez

    I love how these articles say that parents should never show anger or a lack of total calm with these kids that are so hard to manage, something no human being could realistically pull off. Then at the end of the article they tell you to forgive yourself for your own shortcomings. 🙂

    • Hey Anna, I don’t think we’ve ever said that you should never show anger or lack of total calm in any of our posts. In fact, we acknowledge the struggle with this openly.

    • Allisonm

      It is impossible for me, at least, to remain calm and cool under every circumstance. There is little that our son hasn’t done in the last eight years and nothing could have prepared me for what we have faced as his parents. But my goal is to be able to stay regulated myself, regardless of what he does. Things go better when I am able to do that. After eight years, I’m much better at it. It’s part of the learning curve for us as parents of any child, but especially when we have children who will relentlessly grind our last nerve into the kitchen floor. My anger and dysregulation may be completely justified and understandable, but they do not help the situation. Neither does the guilt I feel when I lose it. Recognizing those things and being willing to set aside my own feeling of outrage at my son’s behavior in favor of doing what is helpful has made a huge difference in both the effectiveness of my parenting and my feelings of satisfaction and hopefulness. I feel less overwhelmed and less like a failure as a mother. I detect God’s guiding hand more readily and feel more prepared and confident.

      And then I have my moments of weakness or illness or exhaustion when I don’t stay regulated and lose my cool–again. So I seek God’s forgiveness (and get to experience His grace again), forgive myself, make amends and try to move on so that guilt doesn’t lessen my effectiveness as a parent. It is also important to develop a support system where you can vent and let off steam, get support for learning how to be more effective, and celebrate all of those personal victories with people who get it.

  • Laurie Hetherington

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom and experience. I’m raising a child with FASD, so I know that each child is quite unique. #4 and #5 were great reminders for me on this journey!

    Your words, “We know our job as parents is to teach our children the skills they will need to be successful adults. We were tempted to throw in the towel in terms of discipline. I’m glad we didn’t.” ring so very true in the FASD community. I’m watching too many families completely throw discipline out the window with the “reasoning” that kids with FASD have neurobehavioral disabilities that make them unable to choose to make right choices. Thank you for your encouragement and insight. My child might be developmentally delayed from his peer group, but I still want him to be as successful as he possibly can, so I will continue to age appropriately train him with consequences and encouragement.

    • It’s our pleasure Laurie. 🙂

    • Allisonm

      I agree with you. To throw in the towel is to condemn our son to a future of hurting others and being hurt in return. Our son actually has a pretty strong moral compass. It gets overridden by his lack of impulse control, but that is getting better and better as he matures and through a lot of hard work by all of us. Like so many with FASD, his challenges are complicated by trauma and attachment issues. The safer and more strongly attached he feels, the more he is able to control his impulsiveness, so much of which has been driven by fear and anxiety. He does feel empathy for others when he isn’t in survival mode. Even if his capacity to choose the right thing is impaired, it is not nonexistent. It must be nurtured. One of the ways we do that with our son is to work hard with him on social skills–not just politeness, but reciprocity and thinking about people’s motivations. Understanding more about others helps him both feel safer around others and nurtures the empathy that acts as an internal “no” to hurtful or inappropriate behavior. There is behavior that will never be acceptable and he needs to become someone who can not do any of it. We aren’t there, yet, but have made huge strides.

      There is some good material put out by Boys Town that gives step-by-step directions for teaching and learning a large variety of social skills, like how to accept criticism, how to join a conversation, and how to make an apology. They start with very basic skills and work up to more complex ones. My son’s teacher has these directions posted on the wall all over his classroom. I find them so helpful in trying to teach things that I don’t remember having to learn because they came more easily to me. Some I may not have mastered yet! 🙂

      • Kristin Berry

        I’m going to check out the Boys Town info. Thank you for the resource!

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  • MB

    I just came across this post. Very interesting. I am a single parent of two brothers that are FASD. Everyday is a struggle and I am always searching for ideas to help. I really like what you had to say. My biggest issues I have besides the impulsiveness is their language. They have picked up just about every cuss word out there. I do not cuss and it is very difficult to manage. I cannot seem to get a handle on it. Do you have any suggestions of how to deal and maybe get some control of it? Thank you for your time.

    • Kristin Berry

      Hi! One of our sons is doing the same thing. We are trying to address the behavior as it happens by just saying, “please don’t say that it hurts my feelings” or something like that. Then we are talk about it later as well when all is calm and removed from whatever prompted the bad language. However, we are having a tough time curbing the language here too. I wonder if anyone else here has a great strategy they have used?

      • MB

        Thank you for sharing. It was a rough weekend with bad language and huge outbursts…I am open to suggestions any one has.

    • Allisonm

      I was at an Empowered to Connect conference recently, featuring the work of Karyn Purvis at Texas Christian University. They demonstrated an approach that has been helpful with traumatized children, even those with FASD, that you might find interesting. If you google empowered to connect, you can find their website. They have a number of video and printed resources available. We have been using similar approaches with success and have done even better (and felt much better about our parenting) since the conference gave us a refresher course. I found the whole conference very encouraging and comforting.

      • MB

        I have heard of Karen Purvis. I know she has written some books. I may have to read her book. Thank you for sharing.

  • Jeannie Marie

    Hello,

    I am a single patent who adopted two girls, sisters, about three years ago. One is diagnosed with ADHD and both are diagnosed with attachment disorder. We are in the process of trying to get them diagnosed with FASD.

    I having been struggling for quite a while with getting them to follow the rules. It seems that no matter what I’ve tried, their behaviour does not change. Loosing my cool doesn’t work well (and really isn’t the type of patent I want to be), but showing patience and keeping calm works even less well. There has been no consequence, natural or otherwise, that has made an impact and no consequence either.

    I guess my questions are these: have you experienced this with your children and if so, have you found anything that works?

    Thank you.

  • Tammy Herbert

    I needed these reminders today. I’ve read all this but hearing it again has been an encouragement, especially the part about focusing on the long haul to change behaviors. I’m exhausted and worried we’re not getting anywhere, and maybe we aren’t, but then again, maybe we are! I want to raise a child who is respectful and kind, and able to make good decisions or at least the best decisions he can (considering impulsivity, dysmaturity, difficulty processing) with support from us.

    • Jennifer

      Hi Tammy,
      My daughter almost never swears – she knows the words but never uses them, BUT calls me every name imaginable and doesn’t stop! “You idiot! You moron!” I am constantly “cut the nasty name calling!” and she comes back “no! You jerk! You are so stupid! You suck!” You name it and I have been called it. I guess she doesn’t swear because she has estrogen more than testosterone, and that does make a difference!

      • Michelle Sackett McKinney

        Us too. Our daughter is 6 and she says awful things to me. Whatever “bad words” are on Disney movies or any kid shows, she uses on me.

        • Jennifer

          One time two adults were arguing on directions in our car, which way to go, to get to Wal-Mart, and Tanicka shouted out “RACIST!” she had no idea what a RACIST even was! And no one was discussing anything except the way to Wal-Mart!

          • Michelle Sackett McKinney

            LOL!!

  • Debra Bryant

    Thank you so much for this page. My name is Debra B. I am the legal guardian of my great nephew who is now 10 but will be 11 very soon . I became his legal guardian when he was 10 months old. He was recently diagnosed in March with ARND. It has been an on going battle. Not just wit6hi but also with my own illnesses which makes hit that much more difficult. I am receiving some supports however because he is related to me we are limited. We started a program and are in the third week the program called families moving forward that teaches how to understand more of his diagnosis. I know I shouldn’t take what he says personally but Tammy couldn’t have explained it better! I couldn’t agree with her more. This morning he had a tantrum and said some really nasty and mean things to me. My daughter took him out of the house for a couple of hours but I have been crying all morning. He has called me since to apologize.
    Surfing over the internet I came across your blog and after reading everyone’s comments I do feel a lot better. And even though I was feeling guilty of seriously thinking of giving up I’m not because I know that I’m not the only one who feels this way. (Sorry for the length of this email.) Thank you again.

  • Jennifer

    The arguing and impatience is what makes my daughter who has FAS difficult to deal with. Argue argue argue and do it now, now, now.

    • Michelle Sackett McKinney

      We know! The constant demands they make. Not asks, but demands get to us!

      • Jennifer

        Hi Michelle,
        And my own twin sister (who has no children with or without disabilities) “advises” me that this massive arguing and massive impatience (and screaming at me calling me idiot, moron, etc.) occurs because I AM SPOILING HER. I. DO NOT HAVE THE TIME OR THE ENERGY TO SPOIL HER! And a nonmother is advising ME how how to raise a severely disabled child????!!!!!!!!!!

        • Michelle Sackett McKinney

          Oh no! Yeah, I agree. We don’t have the time or energy to spoil!

  • Julie Clark

    Recently adopted a 6 year old girl from Kyrgyzstan that has FASD trying to educate ourselves to best help our daughter. What are some good resources to read or watch? Thanks.

    • Congratulations on your adoption! Kyrgyzstan is always close to my heart because that was the country we started out in years ago. It ended up falling through but it still has a piece of my heart. Check this resource out: http://nofas.org

  • Noel Crowley-Bell

    A couple take aways I have in parenting 2 fasd kids is one, try not to take dysregulation breakdowns personally. Our daughter has worked hard and has made lots of forward progress in being able to say what she’s feeling vs acting it out but we still have our moments. When she walks away I let her. I know she is finding space to return to her self then we can talk about it. The other is nothing is written in stone. I’ve seen these two grow into amazing young children and evolve beyond the scores professionals have counseled me to “understand and prepare ourselves for.” The future is bright and remains to be written. Due mainly in part to the techniques you identified and we too have learned to implement. Thank you for your message.

  • Can meds help the boiling?

    • This is a great question. From my understanding, medication will not help FASD. But I just listened to a specialist explain how meds can help some aspects of trauma in certain cases which can help the child with FASD in general. If I’m even explaining that right. But it’s a lot of things to figure out with your doctor and communicate exactly what is going on. And a specialist is definitely needed. Are you a member of Oasis? It’s also from Confessions but has more in-depth resources and real-time support. That’s where I heard this doctor interviewed by Mike. And I think he’s going to be on the podcast soon too! If you’re not a member and would like to become one you can do that here or wait till the fall launch. http://confessionsofanadoptiveparent.com/oasis

  • Jessika

    In need of help my step daughter has been diagnosed with fasd and over the last month she has become so defiant. Every day it’s a hassle I’m so stressed out she doesn’t have any care for anyone or anything anyone says basically it’s her way or no way and the entire house hold is forced to be miserable?

    • Sorry you are struggling so much. Have you check out https://www.nofas.org/about-fasd/
      I’ve heard others recommend this site.

      • Jessika

        I’ve referred to websites book doctors and nothing seems to be helping!

        • My friend wanted to respond to you with this: I’m so sorry to hear your daughter is doing that right now – I know how
          hard it is. Kiddos with with FASD are often overwhelmed by all that is

          going on around them, and their go-to response is almost always “No!”

          It’s hard for them to cope in a world that moves so fast they can’t keep

          up with it. You didn’t say how old she is, so that makes a difference in

          how you will respond, but if there are ways you can adjust the situation

          so you don’t receive that immediate defiance, your interaction might be

          more successful. For instance, instead of saying “It’s your turn to empty

          the dishwasher,” you could say, “As soon as the dishwasher is emptied

          we’ll have time to . . . (do something pleasurable). Remember that she is

          probably not as mature as her age would cause you to expect, and if you

          respond to her as if she were a younger child, things might go better,

          also. FASD is so challenging!

          • Jessika

            She just turned 5

          • Then emotionally she’s probably 2. And remembering this will help you parent differently.

          • Jessika

            I treat her as she’s younger knowing that but doesn’t seem to matter I’m at complete loss