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Why This Parenting Technique Helps My Child With an Undiagnosed Mental Illness

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Slom  [slom]: noun

  1. any object, substance or situation that produces debilitating feelings of disgust, anxiety or anger

When my daughter was 4 years old, she refused to go on a field trip with her pre-school class to a local farm. She was extremely concerned about the trip. She couldn’t go “because of all the horse slom and pig slom at the farm.” Wait…what? She seriously explained that slom was “the stuff that falls out of an animal’s mouth and nose.” I’m no biologist, but I’ve been around lots of animals in my life, and I’ve never been aware of anything falling out of their mouths or noses. At first, I thought she clearly had reversed the ends of the horses and pigs, because we all know yucky things do fall out of their rears rather than their faces, but no, in her mind there was something sinister just waiting to slither out of a pig’s left nostril and ruin her day at the farm. She skipped the field trip and the word “slom” was coined and became a part of our family vocabulary.

That was the first time I remember my daughter’s irrational thoughts making her decisions for her. As Mabel grew (we’ll call her Mabel because there aren’t enough Mabels in the world), it became obvious that she was struggling with something very powerful.  Mabel’s thinking can sometimes be illogical and “bizarre-like,” and can fiercely dictate her feelings and actions, dramatically altering her view of the world.

One morning when Mabel was nine, she woke up with a broken leg. Really – in her mind, her leg was broken and she could not be convinced otherwise. She acted like you or I, or any other person would act if their leg was legitimately broken. Another time, we spent hours (until the store closed, actually) methodically combing every single piece of merchandise in an entire department store because there “was something there” that Mabel was intensely driven to purchase, she just had to find it first.

Over the years, Mabel has experienced and (sometimes endured) pediatricians, play therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, batteries of tests, social workers, a psychiatric nurse, genetic testing, medication, a police intervention and a crisis center visit.

Mabel’s ailment doesn’t fit a diagnosis. She has been over and under-counseled and over and under-medicated. She has triggers, but not consistent ones. She has love/hate relationships. She has psychosomatic medical symptoms. She is perfectly well-adjusted for days, and then she’s not.

So, to you, elementary school office staff – I am well aware that “Mabel is home sick again” doesn’t explain our 64 absences this year. And to you, pediatrician – I understand I’m asking you to “prescribe” a placebo for a condition that my child clearly doesn’t have. And to you, extended family member – I do know the potential risks of allowing a six-year-old to binge watch “Dr. Who” at 10:00 p.m. on a school night. I am aware of the parenting tactics I have employed for my child’s comfort and peace of mind. And to Mabel, I’m truly sorry for the stuffed pink elephant incident in Home Goods when you were five. I didn’t realize what was going on in your head. I hope you can forgive me.

The cornerstone of Mabel’s illness is extremely rigid thinking. Where one of my other children may be frustrated, disappointed or even ferociously outraged by a disagreement we have, after much weeping and gnashing of teeth, they accept and move on. Mabel’s brain however, can act with violent rejection to disagreement — self-harm in response to a missed sleepover, for example. I have learned that a compliant nature is a tremendous blessing and not necessarily crafted by exceptional parenting.

One member of my family is a great orator, and as a younger woman I listened to him speak to an audience on the “evils of compromise.” He gave outstanding historical examples of individuals who were greatly rewarded by providence for their commitment to never settle for less than the exceptional. Since then, I have learned that parenting my child with mental illness can sometimes mean settling for less than what traditionally would be viewed as “exceptional parenting.”

Years ago, I would have been appalled at the suggestion that a child be allowed to negotiate the duration of her time-out. I would have adamantly defended the necessity of allowing a child to experience situations that may be uncomfortable, but are healthy. And while those tactics were largely successful for my older children, they do not resonate with Mabel’s brain. If I have learned one thing in my journey with parenting a child who has mental illness, it is that I will never be cited as an example in that speech – compromise is my best friend. Mabel and I compromise on consequences. We compromise on rewards. My negotiation skills now rival the secretary of state. Compromising allows for a more peaceful home environment, and most importantly, protects Mabel from the “slom-like” feelings in her head.

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe your experience of not quite fitting under one specific diagnosis or a label your community identifies with. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.


Originally published: June 17, 2016
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