“Do you not know? Have you not heard?
The Everlasting God, the Lord,
the Creator of the ends of the earth does not become weary or tired…
He gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power.”
“That’s it. Samuel, leave your brother alone.” He had been on Joshua’s case all day long.
“But he’s copying me!!!”
“I don’t care what he’s doing. I’m not talking about Joshua right now. You are responsible for your own words and actions and you are not showing your brother kindness by yelling at him like that.”
“You ALWAYS want to get ME in trouble!”
“Samuel, I need you to stop talking and calm down right now, or you are going to time-out in your room. Take a deep breath so we can talk.”
“I can’t help it! I always do wrong! He’s making me yell! I can’t stop talking!”
I sent him to his room as promised for continuing to yell at me. Not to mention I needed to collect my thoughts and reign in my own emotions before continuing to deal with the situation. He stomped down the hallway as if he were trying to break his foot through the laminate wood flooring and slammed his door. Immediately, he began screaming, “I’M STUPID! I’M SO STUPID!” over and over again.
I was undone and began to fall apart.
The night before, I had spent 6 hours in the emergency room with my oldest son who, as it turned out, did break his wrist playing with a friend the night before that. We had given it some time to see how he felt and by the next evening, he was in horrible pain and definitely needed to be seen immediately. We didn’t get home from the ER until 2:30 Wednesday morning. The rest of the day was a non-stop string of phone calls to orthopedists (trying to find one in our area that took our insurance), an unexpected trip to school to provide Sam with a change of clothes, a grocery stop on the way home, and what should have been a 30 minute online job I do once a week turned into a couple of hours due to interruptions from kids, trying to make dinner, all the while trying to supervise kids’ cleaning and tidying up myself. Needless to say, when this little outburst occurred, I was already about an inch away from my having my own outburst.
As you know, (or for my new readers that don’t know,) Samuel has autism. He is high-functioning now, having overcome many obstacles with the help of early intervention ABA and speech therapy. I have often struggled with the balance between following both Christian leaders who have authored parenting books, and following the necessary techniques that are used in the secular therapy world that does not typically consider the Christian perspective in dealing with children.
For example, Ted Tripp’s book, “Shepherding a Child’s Heart”, (*affiliate link) is meant to teach parents how to go beyond controlling their child’s behavior and focus on the heart, which is the root cause of the behavior.
(By the way, I recommend this book for parents of typical children as it has many worthy attributes.)
If selfishness is in the heart of a child (wait… if??), they might grab a toy away from another child. We correct the behavior by telling them no, it’s wrong to take something from someone else without first asking or being given the toy. We rarely, if ever, tell them that their selfishness is ruling their actions, that their selfishness is wrong, and therefore their actions are wrong that require repentance and forgiveness.
But to a child with autism, they see the toy, and only the toy. They likely do not consider the fact that there is another child there with them, much less the fact that the toy that caught their attention is currently in the possession of that other child, much less the fact that there are social rules for going about acquiring desired objects that belong to someone else. They take the toy, completely unaware that they have committed a magnificent crime against their fellow playmate (which it seems to always be a magnificent crime judging by the common reaction from the offended!) What is the right response by the Christian parent who wants to teach manners, honor, and patience but must also deal with the certain meltdown that will occur if they try to return the toy back to the owner? The autistic child will only see and comprehend (at the most basic level) that their toy is being taken away for no good reason. They may, as my son did, begin banging their head against the floor, or using their hands to hit their head, or biting themselves or anyone close to them, screaming and crying uncontrollably. This kind of behavior can be true at any level of functioning with autism even though the cognitive abilities may differ.
According to Tripp, I should then tell or ask my child questions that reveal they are being selfish and rude by not recognizing the toy belonged to someone else, or was at least being used by someone else, and they were rude to take it away without asking nicely. That will NOT work. The heart of my child at this point is buried under layer upon layer of inability to process what is happening, uncontrollable and incomprehensible emotions, disconnections in the brain and probably a lot of other legitimate neurological issues the parent is unaware of and unable to address. The Christian parent wants to deal with the heart of their child. But the ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy) only deals with the actual behavior. The Christian author says deal with the heart first, the behavior is secondary. Autism demands the behavior is primary, and ABA does not even consider the spiritual heart because it is only meant to address behavior. This means I am left to figure out how to accomplish both at the same time on my own.
Let’s go back to the actual incident. Sam was melting down, and we both needed to collect ourselves. I sent him to his room for a break not just for himself, but for me too. So while Sam screamed self-deprecating statements in his room, I went out to our van, got in and closed the door, and I screamed too. I screamed at the very top of my lungs with clenched fists and tightly closed eyes. No words, just screaming so hard that my throat hurt. I silently questioned myself and God, “What do I do? How can I love my son? How can I show him Christ? How can I teach him about his sin and somehow also help him believe that he isn’t stupid and has worth as a child of God?”
I went back inside and continued the task of making dinner and preparing the table. Sam was still yelling for a minute or two when I went back in, and then was quiet. I heard his door open, his cue for me to come get him. I went to him and asked him if he was calm. He nodded yes as tears rolled down his pale cheeks. I calmly explained once more about the right way to treat his brother with kindness and love, to listen to me without talking back, and then the tears started coming again. This time though, he was not defiantly angry. He was sincerely confused and sorry for his actions. He said he didn’t want to do wrong, but he always does anyway and that he is stupid.
I was still frustrated over the entire day, and this was the icing on the cake. Honestly, I wanted to dismiss his obvious cries for compassion and tell him to get over it, but my heart broke. I felt as if I was melting inside, and I did what I know to be God’s hands through me as a mother. I put my hands on the sides of my son’s face, looked him in the eye, (consciously aware that he was holding my gaze staring back at me instead of looking away); his eyes commanded compassion and love that I could not refuse.
“Samuel James, you are not stupid. Say it; say, ‘I am not stupid’.”
“I am not stupid.”
“Say, ‘God loves me’.”
“God loves me.”
“Say, Mommy loves me.’.”
“Mommy loves me.”
I had him repeat these a couple times, praying the truth of them would take root in his heart. I told him that he needed to ask Jesus for forgiveness for the wrong he did, and reminded him that Jesus can help him the next time. He also had to apologize to me and I forgave him immediately. I pulled him to my chest and wrapped him in my arms, holding him as tightly as he allowed. He rested his head on my shoulder, still sniffling a bit, but breathing calmly as I whispered in his ear, “I love you.” He whispered back, “I love you too.” The storm was over.
This kind of event happens often in our home, though rarely, up to several times in one day. I am utterly exhausted by it. My own sinful self tries to take hold of the reigns of my mouth and often succeeds. Pride is crushed when my child does not show me the proper respect I deserve as his mother. My only hope is Christ. I have not the strength to deal justly with him, yet at the same time lovingly and compassionately. I must throw myself on Christ, trusting that He will speak through my mouth, and He will guide my motherly hands. I must trust in the knowledge I have of how autism specifically affects him and the techniques of ABA we use with him and bring Christ into it as much as possible so that the heart of my child is reached and changed by the Spirit.
How do you show your child Christ when a meltdown gets the best of them… or you?