My Parenting May Seem Strict, But I Have A Few Good Reasons For It.

The glares, stares, and judgmental glances. We’ve seen it all in our 15 years on the adoptive and foster care journey. Particularly as we’ve worked hard to parent children with major special needs. While we owe no one an explanation, we have some solid reasons for parenting our children the way we do.

Color Guard in Formation

It’s a mild September afternoon in Central Indiana where we live. My family and I have spent the past hour watching my oldest son play football for his 7th grade team. Another game, another victory. This team is so good it’s scary. As the clock tics down to the final seconds, we make our way down to the sideline to say hello to our sweaty, dirty mess of a child. He loves the game. Especially the hard-hitting aspect of it. The sun has gone down and it’s nearing 8 PM. He sees us waiting by the track and excitedly jogs over to us.

“Hey Mom, Dad, can I go to Steak ‘n’ Shake with the team? Everybody’s going and I want to go.”

“Not tonight buddy, it’s bedtime,” my wife replies matter-of-factly. “You need to come home and shower and head to bed.”

“Why?” he replies with a snippy tone and an irritated look.

“You know why buddy. Dad will be over to pick you up outside of the school in a minute.”

He argues for a minute but we stand our ground. We have to. Every night is the same, even on the weekends. At 7:30 PM we begin the routine. By 8 PM lights are out. It’s structured, it’s consistent, it’s almost without fail.

As I walk away from my son and head to the car, I catch a glimpse of a few parents standing nearby. Without even looking directly at them, I can feel their stares. I can feel their judgmental looks. They can’t believe we won’t let him go out with the rest of the team. By now, I’m sure their sons, who all look like a walking advertisement for Under Armor and Nike, have given notice of our decision. One mom even shrugs (but not the “Oh well” shrug. More like the “Wow, they’re mean,” shrug). Sometimes the suburbs drive me completely crazy. I don’t fit in here.

By now, though, I’m used to this. After more than a decade of parenting children with special needs, I’ve grown accustomed to the stares, whispers, and gossip. I used to get annoyed, even angry at them. Now, after more times than I can count, I know why they stare at us unbelievingly. They don’t understand our situation or why I parent my special needs child the way I do. My son experienced brain damage caused by drug and alcohol exposure before he came to live with us. More than a decade ago, we brought him into our home as a foster care placement, and then he was adopted a few years after that.

As a result of drug and alcohol exposure, the executive functioning portion of his brain is absent. His brain is always on overload and there is very little reasoning, if any. Logic and patience is trumped by irrational thinking and impulsiveness. Because of this, he must follow a solid schedule. A routine. A format. It’s almost night and day from the schedule or pattern of a child with normal functionality. A child who’s mother took all of her prenatal vitamins, and did not drink a drop of alcohol or abuse her body while her child was in utero.

So, I understand their misunderstanding. While I don’t owe anyone an explanation, here’s my logic…

  1. It’s not strict, it’s structured. My parenting is often chalked up to being strict, or unwilling to bend. But, it’s actually something different than that. It’s structure. Structure is built on purpose, intention, and logical reasoning. We have a very clear reason why our child follows a structured schedule. His body, his brain, only thrives when he knows what to expect. When time is left open, or a blank in the daytime routine is not filled in, he feels out of control and chaos ensues.
  2. We have to be consistent. The only way he grows within the structure is through consistency. One of the most valuable pieces of advice we received from a medical expert, who specializes in diagnosing and treating fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, was: “Repeat, repeat, repeat. Every single day must match the one previous. When he knows what to expect, his mind will be at ease and his body at peace.” We’ve never wavered. Again, this looks strict and unreasonable on the outside, but internally, we are achieving health and well-being.
  3. I’m working on a bigger picture. My vision supersedes the here and now. That’s one of the biggest things parents of normal functioning children misunderstand. I have to look past the present and into the future. Not only that, but I have to focus on a bigger picture. One that includes helping my child function in society, make wise choices, and navigate a sometimes tricky world that can be all-consuming. There will be a day (even now so) where my child will have to make choices apart from me. I will fail him if I drill down on a one pixel of the picture of life, as opposed to the bigger picture of the world he lives in. The real world. I’m not raising a child, I’m raising a future adult. One I hope and pray is able to relate to this society as normal as possible.

I don’t expect every single person who reads this to empathize, understand, or relate to what I’m saying. I especially don’t expect this from a reader who may not be raising a child with the same special needs as mine. I’m just asking for a little less judgment and a little more compassion for my real-life situation. If you can choose that path, it helps me help my child succeed.

For those who are nodding right now, I’m going to guess that we are rowing in the same boat (so-to-speak). Hang in there. I get you. I know the struggle all-too well my friend. You are not alone. Keep doing what you are doing. Don’t apologize to anyone. You’ve been called to a great task. But called you are!

Question: Are you raising a child who needs structure, a schedule, and a solid routine? Share your story with us. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

[Editor’s note- This post originally appeared in Mike’s column on Disney’s Babble.com]

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  • Betsy

    I am totally rowing the same boat. I even second guess myself, often. Am I doing the right thing by adhering to the routine? When do we follow the routine and when is it time to let it go for the day. . Then later when the consequences of not following the routine come, I usually regret not following it. Thanks for this.

    • Betsy, you are most welcome. It’s our pleasure.

  • Sandra Zimmerman

    What the naysayers don’t understand is, the fact that your son can keep it together to play sports shows that he has great parents backing him up! Congratulations on the good work, I shared this on my blogs FB page because you are saying the exact same things I do.

    • Hey Sandra, thanks so much for your kind words. We greatly appreciate it. And thanks for sharing the post. 😉

  • Gonzalez Carmen

    My husband and I are fostering a brother and sister ten and eleven, we are close to the adoption termination plan. I relate so well with your post. It is difficult to overcome opinions from third parts because at the end of the day we are the ones who know exactly what’s going on, viewers get just snapshots, at home we and our kids run the whole show. Thanks God for His presence in our lives!!!

    • Yes, you are the ones who know best. So true. We’ve been in that place. Hang in there.

  • Jennifer Rysdam

    I could’ve written this myself. Thanks for writing it and letting us all know that we are not alone in doing what is best for our kids, whose futures could be horrible but hopefully we can prevent that 🙂

    • It’s my pleasure Jennifer. You are definitely not alone. 😉

  • Kim

    Our 9 year old son has just been home from China for three months. Right now, he goes to bed at 7 pm without fail to give him a consistent structure he can trust. Our next door neighbor (who is in his class at school) has come over asking him to play and he is already getting a bath or in his pajamas. She thinks we have a strange schedule, but we know it is best for him, giving him predictability and adequate rest as he adjusts to a new world. I have to admit, I still struggle with what others think, though!

    • Kim, you just described the same scenario that plays out at our house often. We’ve struggled with those thoughts too.

    • Katarina Tomšič

      Everyone is different. Each child is different. Ine need very structure enviroment. And some soft touch.
      I was adopted to with extra tough parents. No question about anything.
      Parent need to follow their child. Not books! Books are good if u follow your comon sense to see what is actually good for your OWN child.
      I am parent now I have my views straight but I also constantly adjust them to my child.
      I admit that was a various thing that I standed 100% on it but I change my mind. I saw that its not ok with my child. Routine is nothing bad,but yet we ll need to use common sense… each cloth you cannot put on everyone.
      Many failed adoption was because of gaining 1000% structural enviroment with actually good intentions but in wrong way.
      Your child need love. Thats for sure never its not enough…

  • t52665

    Yes! So very much yes! If you don’t mind, I’ll be sharing this in all the FASD circles I frequent.
    My (now-ex) husband couldn’t take the heat so he got out of the kitchen. He is actually the one who most tries to undermine my parenting. Thankfully, I have another special needs mom to remind that the Spirit can reach my child despite ANYthing my ex does and despite MY mistakes, too.

    • Definitely! Share it with whomever. 🙂

  • Ellen Sanchez

    Structure is super important with these guys! Ever notice that PE, lunch, and recess at school are the times these guys get in the most trouble? Ah, unstructured time….A schedule is a good thing! My David thrived in football, also. He didn’t necessarily like the hard hitting aspect of it, most of the time he didn’t really even understand the game (low IQ plus ARND) but he loved the structure, the drills, the physical part. It was like a highly structured, no nonsense PE class. He loved being with the guys but there was no time or place for those guys to make fun of him like in PE…. kids are pretty brutal, hard working teammates seem to be more accepting. Given that with the super structure of a team sport with a couple great coaches and you have a good chance of success! Yes!

    • Yep! Those are the times at school that our son gets into trouble too.

  • Nancy

    Thanks! I have not only felt the judgement, but it caused a very difficult rift in what had otherwise been decent extended family relationships. I’m still struggling with how to get past that, though as hubby says, things will never be the same. I’m working towards just communicating, keping the deep hurt and trauma at by. Those dark waters that flooded over both us and our kids when well-meaning but misguided family jumped in to “save” our child who never needed saving and now admits to that.
    Yes, I parented all of my other kids (read large number) similarly, always placing an emphasis on family time, limiting extra time out with friends. All but our last child were involved in sports and activities during high school, spending much time already away from home. So yes, I jealously guarded as much of the time left for family. But with our last two children, adopted at 10yrs and 11yrs, it seemed especially important that we give them as much family as possible. They’d already missed half their childhoods with us, their family. They were starting from scratch at a late age, learning what family even means. And not just any family, ours! Enter judgement from in-laws. I was also told by the one who is a teacher that “all the teachers know you’re hard on your kids!” Wow. I needed that, thanks. Yes, I can take from that what I may need to learn about myself and my parenting, but I also know none of them have adopted children or even considered what all comes into play when a child comes home as a preadolescent.
    Anyway, I just wanted to add that your comments apply also to those adopted kiddos with no real “visible special needs…only the special need of being adopted internationally, late in childhood, needing to integrate into their family in half the time allotted to a birth child or adopted child who comes much younger. We have some who came as preschoolers who were toted around to older siblings events, but at least were with us long enough to “get toted!” Our child’s very stubborn personality didn’t help, nor the fact they “reported” false information to same in laws and who knows who else at school? Things were never as “bad”as reported, though I admit they weren’t as they should have been. I’m stubborn, too! But I’m stubborn for teaching my child respect and family over getting their own way. Awful, isn’t it? In truth, we worked through much of the “bad” and said child came to me often for much needed advice (read naive questions stemming from adjusting to all the changes in language, culture, family structure as opposed to orphanage). No one…NO one saw or heard all those questions and doubts and the need for explanations in many, varied, and oft repeated words. Hubby, ever the optimist, rarely even saw it. Why is it usually the adoptive mom that gets the brunt? As it is, this child is now at a small Jr. College, seeming to be doing ok, loving their independence from mom, but still asking questions when needed, most of which would surprise parents of “typical” kids. But who do you suppose this beautiful but stubborn child calls? The relatives who emphatically announced their love for my child (they do love my child), who stressed they would always be there for my child (they have their own lives, and ironically, young, newly adopted children)? Um. No. It’s still Mom my child comes to, as always. I don’t mind at all. I said I’d be here, and I am…still here, willing and wanting to help my child mature and navigate the world that is suddenly even bigger and presenting so many of the issues I was working towards helping them navigate safely. Oh. Wow. Mom was right. And again, no one sees all that, or all that has gone on behind the scenes, even as my sweet stubborn child tried to paint it in their favor to gain what they thought was going to benefit them most…freedom to do whatever they wanted. But the Lord knows and sees always…even as I made and confessed my own mistakes in parenting. Even as I confess to sometimes parenting out of deep fears, for my child and for my own heart. But mostly, I’ve tried to parent out of deep conviction to help my children understand the total commitment and unconditional love of the Lord, of parents, and family. I alone know and see the fruits of my labor of love. My child knows I’m here for them and always have been. It’s been the roughest and loneliest road I’ve traveled on as a parent. I just wish I’d had some support from actual people, instead of needing to find it mostly online and in adoption blogs. Though that’s been my life saver, knowing I was not alone or totally going down the wrong path with my child! We’ve come so far, this child and me. I have no doubt we will go even further, as my child becomes even more brave and learns to explore their own heart and motivations and witnesses family through others they meet along life’s way. But it was we who claimed her, we who God asks to give unfailing, unconditional love and family to. We alone who know how hard our child fought and also worked to be at the place they are now. Sweet, sweet victory, along the road of life, love, and family! Thank you, Jesus! And thanks for voicing so well what many of us have felt or are still experiencing. Sorry this turned into my own journal entry of travels down this tough but rewarding and blessed road of adoption.

    • Nancy, you are most welcome. We are in the trench with you. Hang in there!

  • RB

    Yep, You’re singing our song! Our oldest who has FASD is now an adult and out on his own, but this was our life for years. Consistency and structure. We too have experienced the shrugs and judgmental glances. I can gladly report that my son is an adult who loves God, isn’t and hasn’t been in jail, and doesn’t use drugs. He has a great deal more maturing to do, but we call this a win!

  • RB

    Also, looking forward to Roadtrip 2016! Looking forward to being with a group of Dads who “get it.”

  • RG

    Mike and Kristin, Just found your site and look forward to reading through your posts and archives. As a mother and adoptive mother, I very much understand and relate to the posts I have read. Our house was full with seven children, four of whom were adopted from foster care. The journey is a long one and many times a difficult one but I would not trade my life for anything. RG

  • Yes, rowing in the same boat. I had to have a conversation with family about this many times. Part of it is medical reasons as well – due to needing a constant sleep pattern. Almost five years home, and many areas the consistency has paid off. He has learned to self regulate in so many different areas and came so far, but there is still areas which need the constant repeat and structure. Thanks for sharing!

  • Glenda Schreiber

    I get this judgmental looks/speeches all the time. It starts with, why do you have him busy all the time, why can’t he go over to friends houses after school, why does he have a paper route etc.. because HE does better with structured time. He gets in less trouble with his siblings if I have him helping me with a project. He cannot handle the vastness or choices of the internet. Thanks for sharing and validating that, which I so often struggle to put into words for others.

  • Yes! We are raising children who need a very tight structure. Not everyone understands what we are doing and why, but we know it is for the best. Thankfully overall we have received much support.

  • Cynthia Gregory Parker

    I am “parenting” my grandsons, two of them ages 6, and 9. They had a parent who insisted they go to bed at 6:30 every evening because she deserved some alone time. they were not allowed to get up until 6:30 the next morning. These were children who were never allowed time to play outside. Who would be sent to bed before supper if it wasn’t ready, yet. They had trouble sleeping and were not tired so she got a doctor to suggest melatonin at bedtime. First one pill, then several pills as their bodies became accustomed to the substance. They now live with their father and I care for them before and after school and during the week if he has to go out of town for the week. (Not as often as was in the beginning.) I like a routine and we do function much better if we try to adhere to it. They come home from school, get a snack, do homework and play outside until bathtime. They no longer have trouble sleeping. We still have many issues on which we need to concentrate and it is exhausting more days than not. I wrote all of that to say I am not a foster parent, but am learning much from you wonder articles….Thank you!!!

  • Kelly O’Brien-Fairley

    Yes. Been there, done that and we just signed up for more. I would love to know what doctor or hospital you consulted who supported you. Most of ours just said read what Jean Streissguth said and pray for the best.

  • Christina Borges Pennington

    I am struggling with bio family not understanding these concepts. How unsupervised, extended or overnight visits are too dysregulating for my AD13 who also is dealing with the effects of prenatal substance exposure and was recently diagnosised with Executive Function issues.

  • Lucy Gardner

    This is exactly what I needed to hear today. Thank you.

  • Jennifer Dufault

    I used to worry so much about what other people thought about how strict I was, but God gave me a word when my mom, their grandma, judged our parenting and how strict we were. She and others only see a “snapshot” of our family. They can’t understand from that little picture. Two weeks after her judgement, she watched my son, and came back with “I understand now. I didn’t before, but I know why you have to be strict.” God is so good!