I think my readers might tend to cringe, when I mention parenting. No one has told me they do. I’m just guessing because my posts about parenting tend to fall into three categories: 1. how blind people parent, 2. how not to parent and how miserable it can be, or 3. sarcasm and snark.
I really have read dozens of parenting books, actually implemented their methods, found them to work great with 90 percent of kids and occasionally to fail entirely. That has led to a lot of my cynicism.
It isn’t that the methods don’t work. If you are a frazzled parent and you don’t know about counting in an ominous tone, time outs, making everything out to be your kid’s choice when it actually means you are in charge, avoiding power struggles and teaching through your own example, by all means, go read the experts. I specifically recommend:
and depending on your circumstances Attachment in Adoption
However, my posts tend to assume you are like me—a parent who is obsessive enough to research and read books before the kid can even walk (or let’s be honest, before the kid is even born). That’s why I don’t generally go on about the methods in these books, which you should most definitely read and practice.
It’s the five percent of the time when they just plain don’t work that will kill you, cause premature hair loss and end your marriage or partnership. And I usually don’t have much beyond commiseration to offer those of you who have run into that wall with me.
But today I do actually have something worth sharing, a technique I have NOT found in any expert parenting book, which actually worked wonders on my out-of-control, neuro-diverse kid.
Bedtime is often a nightmare for parents of neuro-diverse kids. Some kids don’t run on the same schedule as the school bells or even the sun. Some kids can’t just tell their brains it’s time to calm down and go to sleep. Some kids don’t know what to do with exhaustion and instead of winding down, they amp up.
I have kept a very strict routine with my kids, ever since the day we brought them home. Routine helps. Like a train on rails, my daughter will often stumble from one part to another—with hissing steam and screeching noises but in the end shunted from the teeth-brushing track, to the pajamas track to the story track to the bed track. On a good night, the routine takes only an hour and a half, now that she’s ten.
But not every night is a good night. At age ten, my daughter still has frequent meltdowns and needs the kind of supervision usually reserved for the under-three crowd. By the end of the day, whoever has been dealing with her—and her load of homework assigned by the school in hopes of keeping her somewhere in the ballpark of grade level—is staggering on their feet.
There are nights when after all of it, after the hours of one-on-one attention and the lengthy, carefully designed bedtime routine, she won’t go to sleep. She is up and around the house after bedtime. She wants snacks and she shrieks in protest. Getting her into bed is a literal physical battle that we still win by main force but only just. And then nothing can hold her there and no one can sleep with the racket.
This strife goes on anywhere from one to two hours on those nights and they averaged about once a week, up until recently.
I want to be very clear here about what directly preceded this bit of creative parenting. That is I had two full days and two nights at home alone. My husband took the kids on a skiing trip, returning so drunk with exhaustion out of a snowy night that I shuddered to think of how he managed the two-and-a-half-hour drive.
I sent him straight to bed and prepared to do battle alone, well rested as I was.
I got both kids out of their tight, damp skiing clothes and fed them. My eight-year-old son was blinking and crying, he was so tired. I knew I couldn’t physically handle both, so I got his teeth brushed and let him fall into bed first. He was literally asleep within seconds.
Then I tackled the more difficult kid. My daughter was exhausted too, lashing out randomly and swinging wildly from glee to rage. Her entire body hummed with tension. I could feel it as I helped her undress and brush her teeth. I told her a brief story and settled her down with her audio book in hopes that physical exhaustion would do its magic.
But no such luck. Not that night.
Thirty minutes turned into 40 minutes beyond bedtime and even my two-day reserve of regenerated energy was starting to flag. She wouldn’t even stay in bed to listen to her story and when she was up, she was into everything, requiring constant supervision and making nerve-rattling shrieks every one to two seconds. A hand on her shoulder told me that her body still thrummed with pent-up energy.
On most nights, this would have been the point where I started laying down the law and rolling out consequences, “You can choose. Either you stay up and keep me up and you won’t be able to have audio book tomorrow night or you lay down and relax and go to sleep and you’ll still have audio book tomorrow.” And so forth. It only occasionally works anyway.
Many nights the chaos continues for another hour and finally ends in her being locked in her room until she wears herself out—not a stellar parenting performance.
One of the more helpful things I had recently gleaned from rereading a few of the expert books was to focus on the concept of addressing the child’s deeper need. Clearly, my daughter needed sleep. She was exhausted, but she had no idea how to calm her dis-regulated brain and win some peace.
As a high-strung creative person, I do know what it is like to be exhausted after a long day’s work and to lie in bed with nerves jangling, a thousand thoughts whirling around my brain. Prominent among those thoughts is often the desperate need to sleep, in order to be ready for the challenges and trials of the next day.
So, I asked myself, how I get to sleep when I’m in such a state?
“Badly,” came quickly to mind. But also “quietly.” On such nights, I often lie awake in silence after it is clear that no audio book is going to help. I do relaxation exercises, deep breathing and progressive muscle contraction and release, which make me feel virtuous but don’t make me sleep. And then, more than anything I descend into a childhood fantasy and rehash versions of the adventurous and purposeful life I once dreamed of.
And that usually does help.
With that thought and the understanding that much of my daughter’s difficulty comes from an inability to regulate her own brain and do such things for herself, I came and sat on the edge of her bed and began to make up the fantasy for her.
At first, she was too jittery even to listen or lie down. I had to grab her attention mercilessly. I know what she obsesses over after all—preteen YouTube celebrity girls with shopping infomercials and flaunting conspicuous wealth. There isn’t much beyond kinky sex and hard drugs I would less like my child to be delving into at this age but desperate times call for desperate measures.
“Imagine you’re at the most beautiful park you’ve ever seen with all your friends from school and Everly, Ava and Jojo Siwa are there too, just to see you…”
She stopped jerking around and actually settled back on her pillow, her eyes wide and staring. I could still feel her muscles pulsing with nervous energy through the blanket but at least she was in the actual bed.
“It’s your birthday party,” I continued, “and everyone is there to wish you a happy birthday and play with you in the warm sunshine. There are fun things to climb on and the most beautiful cake you can imagine.”
The way my words came out made me think of those relaxation exercises I had so little luck with. I was originally taught those by an eccentric French teacher in my tiny rural high school in Oregon. She had the five kids in her class, me and four ranch kids, lie on the floor of loose wooden boards and do relaxation exercises.
She had also done guided meditation, which the boys had interspersed with rude comments. I had been cooperative but more because I felt a bit sorry for the teacher than anything else. I never did like guided meditation. I encountered it again at a handful of workshops and events over the years.
It didn’t work for me because my brain is entirely capable of paying full attention to the audio meditation, doing the visualizations and thinking of one or two other complex things at the same time. It isn’t relaxing because it doesn’t overwhelm me enough. It is not that other thoughts intrude on the meditation. They simply occur in a different place and the meditation continues without a hitch.
I did eventually find a form of meditation that consumes enough of my consciousness to work as intended but it requires memorized recitation along with practiced movements. Once the words and movements became automatic to me, the meditation worked because it was difficult enough that it took all the excess brain activity with it.
My daughter’s brain is probably the opposite of mine. That has been a large part of our miscommunication. For me, directing my mental attention to something or doing several mental things at the same time is no problem. The only significant problem is prolonged lack of mental activity.
So, it occurred to me that while guided meditation might be boring and insufficient for me, it might be immensely relaxing and freeing to her. Released from the need to try to control her brain, she could coast to sleep on a ready-made fantasy.
I could tell right away that the fantasy I had constructed for her, while successfully capturing her attention was too exciting to induce sleep. Slowly I shifted the focus of the words, describing more the surrounding natural environment and less of the celebrities and then even gently removing the other people from the picture.
“Your friends step into little boats on the lake and start to drift away over the waves. They float slowly up and down, up and down. And they wave back to you calling, ‘Good bye! We love you! Have a good rest!' As they drift away you sit down under the big oak tree. You can feel the warm, smooth bark on your back. You slide down to feel the soft, dry moss under the tree and lay your head on a soft, moss-covered root.”
I could feel her miraculously relaxing. Even her breath was calming. I included some deep breaths in the story and almost magically she took deep breaths as suggested, something that is usually impossible for her
Finally, I concluded the story with my daughter drifting into sleep in the beautiful park by the lake. The entire guided meditation took only about eight minutes. When I stood up, she made one drowsy noise but subsided again. I left the room and didn’t hear from her for the rest of the night.
Since then I’ve used guided fantasy to calm her several times in situations where she used to be unable to calm. Certainly children are as diverse as different species of animals. Just as this type of meditation didn’t work for me, it may not help many children. But what is universal in the technique is the parenting tool of looking at what the child needs on a deeper level and designing something that fits the child’s specific temperament to reach that goal.
How you get the exhausted child to sleep or the frustrated child to calm enough to complete their homework is not that important. We get stuck on having a specific way that such things should be done. There is a standard way that works pretty well with most kids, but not with all neuro-diverse kids.
“Do what works,” a fellow disability rights activist used to tell me. “Just do what works, regardless of how it looks.”
I hope someday my daughter will be able to learn to use guided meditation tapes to steer her own brain and gain a sense of self mastery. I’ve gained a new respect for a technique I previously rejected as too simplistic and manipulative. We all need different things.
On parenting, as usual, don’t judge other parents and do what works.