In my clinical work with kids of all of all ages, I have come to appreciate the work of Dr. Ross Greene, a psychologist at the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
The following information is taken from his book, Treating Explosive Kids, co-authored with J. Stuart Ablon, PhD.
Unfortunately, children with Aspergers often get labeled as oppositional defiant, disobedient, rude, disrespectful. Dr. Greene has pioneered a different way of approaching the many behavioral challenges that children on the autism spectrum present.
Here are some of the most important ideas and assumptions that Dr. Greene presents for parents of children who tend to be explosive (this group often includes children with Aspergers):
- Explosive children are a heterogeneous group. (In other words, they are a very diverse group, and it’s hard to make generalization about them).
- One’s understanding of the factors underlying a specific child’s explosive behaviors directly influences the selection of ways to handle those behaviors.
- There is no “one size fits all” approach to the treatment of explosive children. Therefore, there is no “one size fits all” approach for you, the parent/s.
- The ways that you choose to approach your child’s behavior/s are most powerful and effective when they meet the needs of you and your child.
It’s helpful to know that there tend to be four types of ineffective parenting approaches to children with Aspergers when those kids are presenting with their temper outbursts.
Now, as a parent, I want to say that I am the first to admit I have had characteristics of every one of these ‘ineffective/inadequate’ parenting approaches. The first step to changing how we parent is to open our eyes to our blind spots. So let’s take a look at each of these styles:
- Inconsistent Discipline. When we are inconsistent with our discipline, we tend to react, rather than respond. We are not consistent in terms of how we respond to both positive and negative behaviors. We give in when our child argues. And we unpredictably change our expectations and consequences for rule violations.
- Irritable Explosive Discipline. When we use this type of discipline, we use a lot of direct commands. We frequently use high-intensity, high amplitude strategies (hitting, yelling, threatening, or making frequent humiliating or negative statements about the child)
- Low Supervision and Involvement. When we display this ineffective type of parenting, we are unaware of our child’s activities outside of our direct supervision. We do not know who our child’s friends are, not sure how they are doing at school, and do not often spend 1:1 time playing with our kids. When our kids get older and start associating with kids who may not be making very good choices, we tend to have a hands off approach.
- Infliexible/Rigid Discipline. This is when we, as parents, have a ‘my-way-or-the-highway’ approach. We tend to have a limited ‘toolbox’ of strategies for dealing with our kids. We don’t have an explanation for our child of why we are doing what we are doing, and we often do not understand the different reasons behind why our child may be melting down.
When we use any of these four discipline strategies with children with Aspergers, meltdowns will occur often and with intensity.
The reason for this is that there are “autism facts” that you need to know about your child with Aspergers.
You child with Aspergers, while having a host of positive characteristics, may struggle in the following important areas:
- Executive Skills. These skills include the abilities to learn from mistakes, organize and plan, and to be able to be flexible in one’s approach to changing situations.
- Language Processing Skills. When children with Aspergers struggle in this area, it means they have a hard time labeling and understanding their emotions; communicating needs and feelings to others, dealing effectively and patiently with frustration. When I think of this area, I think of Helen Keller, who when she was without any communication skills (signing), acted out in rage as a child. IT was because she was frustrated, scared, and angry, not knowing how to “be” in a very confusing world.
- Emotion Regulation Skills. I have written about emotional intelligence in another post. Difficulties in these areas leads to children having difficulty staying calm enough to thing things through rationally when upset; often appearing cranky/grouchy, grumpy, irritable (even when the situation doesn’t seem as though it would provoke these feelings). Over time, the child can be sad, fatigued, low energy, anxious, worried, and fearful.
- It would take too long, and will be covered in future posts, but children who are explosive often have difficulty with cognitive flexibility. In other words, they have difficulty thinking outisde the box: they have difficulty undertanding others’ points of view, and tend to be very black-and-white, and have difficulty with transitions.
- Finally, as you know, children with Aspergers often struggle in the area of social skills. They have a hard time understanding non-verbal social cues, have a hard time understanding how to start conversations/how to enter a group/how to connect with people. As a result, they may be inappropriate in how they seek attention. They are often seemingly unaware of how their behavior affects others, and seem to lack empathy about how their behavior or speech comes across to others.
So, to summarize, it’s hard enough to parent when you utilize any of the ineffective parenting styles mentioned above. Then, when you put any of those ineffective styles together with a child who is struggling in certain key areas, it’s like putting air, gasoline, and a match together: what do you get? Combustion! And plenty of it!
To summarize (Putting It All Together)
This post focuses on understanding what leads to ineffective parenting of explosive children. And because children with Aspergers often struggle in one or more of the areas described above (executive thinking, language processing, regulating emotions, cognitive flexibility, social skills), it’s going to take a creative approach to effectively parent your Aspergers child.