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Visualizing and Modeling an Amazing Future for Your Atypical Child

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We parents of atypical kids often have real fears about their future. I find it helpful to do something about my fears. They never seem to go away on their own.

“All parenting turns on a crucial question: to what extent parents should accept their children for who they are, and to what extent they should help them become their best selves.” –Andrew Solomon, “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity”

Beware of anyone who guarantees a certain future for your child. The future is unknown. The past is behind us. All we can work with is this moment. There is definitely something we can do about our child’s future. We can practice conscious parenting.

We can set an example by caring for ourselves and others. By taking responsibility for our own happiness and our relationships. By being caring to ourselves first.

I don’t always get this right. My husband and I argue in front of our 9-year-old son “O.” I am working on catching myself in the act. I am working on forgiving myself and others for not being perfect. I am working on many things, and narrating my process to O, when appropriate, so he might learn from my mistakes.

When we feel we are making a valuable contribution, our stress response can shift from fight, flight or freeze (panic, yell, compete, abandon, give up or numb out) to attend and befriend: “We’re in this together, we’ve got this!”

Having perspective makes the mundane trivialities of parenting feel more meaningful. When teaching O to tie his own cleats means a better social outcome and more independence in his future, I can muster a lot more patience than if I’m simply trying to get out the door. Velcro is still common around our house. I pick my battles!

Think about what you want for your child’s future. Take time to come from a place of strength, rather than fear. Imagine big. Don’t limit your child. Dream.

You can do a grounding practice and try a guided visualization:

Start by centering and grounding in the present moment. Look around the space you’re in, not just at your screen. Notice what’s coming in through your other senses. Closing your eyes or gazing softly at the floor in front of you, scan your body for unconscious tension. Shoulders and jaw, chest and belly, hands, lower back and down to your feet. Make adjustments to your posture to optimize ease. Take a few deeper breaths that fill your belly first and then your waist and chest. Suspend each breath very briefly. When you breathe out, do it as slowly as you can, and empty completely. Add an affirmation to ground yourself in the present moment. You can try, “I am breathing in… I am breathing out.” or “Inhaling, I am aware of my body. Exhaling, I have arrived in the present.”

When you feel more clear, start to use your imagination to envision an ideal future for your child. This is your visualization, and you don’t need to share it with anyone. Don’t picture just what you imagine your child wants, and don’t be bound by any beliefs about their limitations. This is boundless. What does their ideal future look like? Feel like? Give it as much detail as possible. Also, pull back and get perspective. What’s really important in a meaningful life, as far as you’re concerned? How will it evolve? How will your child handle challenges and relationships? Who else is there? Where are you in all of it?

Write it down. Draw it. Somehow, record this ideal future for yourself. This is just for you, although there may be ways to apply what you envision to a mission statement or structured plan later.

What values are most important to you? What do you believe is essential to a fulfilling life? Write it down. Don’t read my list until you have completed your own, or at least have a good start on it.

My List:

Happiness: A level of contentment and emotional balance
Love: Self-compassion, as well as deep connection and intimacy with others, and the ability to solve inevitable conflicts that arise when you are bonded with someone
Kindness: Strong sense of values, and empathy
Community: Feeling that he has a broader base of support to reach out to for help with problems he can’t solve on his own, interdependence, also community for fun and celebration
Independence: That he will be dependable, handle the day to day challenges of living in this capitalist culture, have security, shelter, food, a job, savings plan, organized home, the ability to solve small daily problems on his own, and self-regulation strategies
Service: Valuable contribution to the community, in whatever way he chooses
Family: I honestly pray I will be a grandmother one day

The first time I wrote this list, health wasn’t even on it. Even though I educate O daily on exercise, sleep, hygiene and nutrition. Go figure. Don’t worry about getting it just right. Get the big ones.

In order for O to see how it works, I know I need to model this life for him. He needs to learn many things explicitly. He isn’t just going to pick it up by osmosis from the wider culture. Not only does he need to see us practicing these qualities, but we need to start explaining what we’re doing from time to time: narrating to him.

If I am unhappy, and perpetually an emotional wreck, how will I show him how to come back to balance when his own emotions go haywire? I’m not saying I should pretend to be happy all the time, but I have to find tools that help me come back to a just-right place after experiencing strong emotions. That’s called emotional balance. It isn’t about being an automaton or constantly exuding love and light. We all have challenging feelings, and I can find the ways that help me cope with them, and repair when things go off balance.

If I am treating myself with disregard or malice, I don’t see how he will learn self-love and self-compassion. If I constantly put my own needs aside, what am I teaching him about my worth? What am I teaching him about being an adult? Do I want him to be a martyr, or expect his life partner to put all of their needs aside?

When my husband and I fight and bicker and criticize each other in front of O, but we make up in private, we need to know he is watching and learning, even when it appears that he is not. Again, this isn’t about being perfect, there’s no such thing as perfect parents or a perfect co-parenting relationship. We do need to model strategies, and learn some if we didn’t learn them from our parents growing up. Showing him how we come back together and listen to each other, how we can agree to disagree on certain topics, even how we can stand up for ourselves in a relationship; these are valuable tools he will need in order to maintain a loving, long term relationship.

When O was first diagnosed, the saddest thing for me was the fear that he might be forever isolated and never find love. The person he has become, I can envision showing the attention, humor and kindness that he bestows on his best friends, to a life partner or maybe a roommate.

Of course there are no guarantees. If he chooses to live alone, I want him to love it. I wasn’t able to be a good spouse until I really learned to love exactly who I am. The ability to be content with your own company, be in silence with your thoughts, treat yourself with love and compassion, are essential building blocks of an intimate, loving, connected life.

Values have been my focus as O grows. I see certain things as my responsibility when it comes to raising a child. I understand that children need to be given freedom to explore and come to their own conclusions. A road map helps you get back home when you have been out exploring. Our values are our road map. I keep it simple and repetitive. Cliche, even. “Kindness counts.” “Mistakes make us better.” “Patience pays.” I talk about this stuff, even when I think he doesn’t understand. He surprises me with what he has internalized. When I’m not around, I’m told that he generally uses his road map. With me, he pushes a little, to see where the limits are. I post our family mission statement on our fridge. I try to refine it and involve the whole family on a regular basis. We need to know the foundation of what we stand for as a family. Most of the time, we know our way and don’t need to refer to the map. It helps us make decisions when we come to a crossroads.

Empathy is a big topic when it comes to atypical traits. I can only speak of my own experience with my child and those I know. Exquisite sensitivity and raw empathy have caused O to develop some really unexpected coping strategies. When he was 2, he used to ask me to pretend to cry, over and over and over. Each time I did it, he would start to cry. I would stop, and remind him that I was pretending. Eventually, he started to make himself smile and laugh as I pretended to cry. This was definitely not something I encouraged. It led to some pretty unfortunate incidents with friends (and myself) when real tears occurred. He was inuring himself to the pain. I don’t believe a deficit in empathy is a problem for him.

Appropriate expression of empathy is a different matter. That’s where modeling comes in. I have to show him how empathy looks, and talk about how to behave in a way that will seem understanding to the person he feels empathy for. It isn’t appropriate to try and cheer your friend up by laughing if they have just fallen off the swing and hurt their knee. The best thing is to ask if they are OK. Later, when they have an ice pack and have had a little time to cry, you can try distracting them from the pain with a little silliness. Then, see how they react.

Humor is a coping skill in our family. Laughter diffuses tension. There is a difference between laughing at and laughing with. If an adult in your child’s life enjoys slapstick, I feel it is really important to explain the distinctions. If I hear discrimination masked as a joke, I will call it out and explain to O why that kind of joke is not funny, and in fact cruel.

As far as community, I want O to know there are many people in the world with his diagnosis, and they may understand each other better in certain ways than even his parents understand him. He has friends that he has made in school, in the building, and kept up since babyhood. Some neurotypical, some atypical. O hasn’t asked for playdates very often in his life, but he is usually so happy to see his friends that it makes me realize how important this is.

The way I model community is by inviting my friends and neighbors over, and going out from time to time. I have a spiritual community and we attend events together as a family. I feel it is so important to nurture community in whatever form works. I felt isolated when O was young, and my past communities no longer felt relevant or accessible. I was blessed to have a few friends who stuck through the hardest part, or were going through a parallel journey of sleeplessness, feeding issues, confusion about developmental milestones etc. Through them, I came across Brooklyn Special Kids, an online parenting community. That was and continues to be my lifeline.

Independence is huge, of course. There are some ways we are barely getting by as a typically developing, two-parent, white, middle class, cisgender, educated household. Having order and simplicity are high priorities for me, and yet it feels like our home is perpetually in chaos. I try to stick to a visual schedule because it helps O. It takes a big effort to stick with the ritual of updating it. When he was younger, I had an enormous picture schedule that would go through every activity, and was so long it had to be changed each half day. Now I write on a weekly dry erase board. I do it every Sunday.

It takes effort to declutter. It takes a lot of effort to model the day-to-day responsibilities of daily living. It takes much less effort to take out the recycling than to show him how and remind him to do it until it becomes automatic.

We break down the steps of a process and often make a chart. Teaching O activities of daily living has been such a rewarding process. I envision the end result and trust that he can get there. I try to stay on course despite avoidance and silliness, or even explosions, on his part. I teach one step at a time, explicitly, and stay with him patiently until it is done. We repeat until I can back off a little or a lot. The immediate reward is seeing the look of pride on his face when he accomplishes something new on his own. The long-term reward — who knows?

While I meet him where he’s at in this moment with acceptance, I refuse to limit him or his confidence in his abilities. The kid who couldn’t walk at 18 months is now on a mainstream soccer team. I don’t care if he does things his own way. I just want him to know that he can do what he wants if he cares enough about it. I want him to be able to cover the basics of life, and I believe that starts right now. Maybe our house is messy, but it is warm and safe and welcoming.

He knows that he contributes, and his contributions are essential. Self-respect and groundedness are the results. We’re still working on problem solving and self-regulation strategies. It is all a work in progress. Just like the clutter.

Service is part of most spiritual communities. Scientists have found a correlation between serving your community or family members, and happiness and longevity. There are few things that buffer us against the negative outcomes of stress like taking on more! Doing something for others selflessly isn’t about charity, it’s about being human.

When we recognize our common humanity, and can show up for someone when they are down, it has valuable effects on our own wellbeing. Avoidance strategies don’t reduce stress. Comforting others does:

“Where we place our attention when people we care about are suffering can change our own stress response. If we focus on comforting, helping, and caring for a loved one, we experience hope and connection. If instead, we focus on relieving our own distress, we stay stuck in fear. We can create the biology of courage through small actions… Helping someone else decreased people’s feelings of time scarcity… After helping someone else, time as a resource expanded.” –Kelly McGonigal, “The Upside of Stress

My service is providing practical and emotional support to parents; volunteering at the school O attends; and in my yoga and meditation classes. I do it joyfully with the expectation that others will be inspired to go into their communities and help others as well. O sees what I do, and we talk about it.

As far as family, there are so many factors. It is a long way off, and my longing is so great that I fear it will affect the way I support O. This is where I have to let go and let god.

Now, I invite you to read your own list.
Which skills are most valuable to you?
Which skills did your caregivers model when you were growing up?
Which skills did you miss out on growing up?
Where can you seek help?

Go through each quality on your list. Write about it, using the prompts below.
How are you modeling this already in your family?
Where is your child catching on and noticing?
Where can you grow in this area?
What supports would help your family teach this quality?

Now, decide what you want to do about any of this. Maybe you can see that your family is successfully modeling all these qualities. Great! You now have a clearer picture and can continue to celebrate and challenge in measured doses. Maybe there’s one area you would like to focus on.

I tend to choose the next challenge by how it will affect me. That may seem selfish, but for a really long time I had too much on my plate, and it was making me grumpy. One of my goals is to be less resentful, and have more time to focus on my career and self-care. This aligns with the quality of independence in O. As soon as he masters and integrates a self-help routine, I add another one. If he pushes back, I listen respectfully, and we negotiate.

The dance of how much to challenge is constant for us. So, if I’m backing off, I’m not giving up. It’s just a matter of timing. Of course, I meet him where he’s at. I continue to model and talk about the process during daily routines. I state my expectations, without judgment.

O has learned to brush his own hair. He has long hair, which is his choice. He still finds the new skill challenging. If he is rushed in the morning, he will often ask me to brush his hair. Do I believe he will never be able to brush his own hair? No way! On days when there’s plenty of time, I insist. He will eventually internalize the new habit.

Compassionate, gentle motivation is the way I’ve found works to challenge O to grow. I have faith in his ability to learn. All our kids can learn and grow. We just need to figure out how they learn best.

When we imagined our parenting journey, none of us expected this. And yet, we now have an incredible opportunity to become more patient, conscious, compassionate and happy than we ever expected. We have an opportunity to transform. As we do, we can have an impact on the future of our children. Envisioning that future, and taking steps towards it, can help us feel more hopeful and motivated on the parenting path.

Originally published: April 30, 2020
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