Sunday, January 13, 2013

Balancing Act

The Princess and Sophia, last October.

Sometimes it's desperately difficult to balance the needs of our kids, Safety Guy with his Aspergers, and Princess with her neurotypical ("normal") needs as his younger sister.  Life with Safety Guy hasn't been easy, and in some ways Princess has had to grow up quicker than other girls her age.  And, we've reached the point in their development where her emotional maturity has equaled and is starting to pass his.  It's like having emotional twins in the house, and it isn't fun at all - both stuck around 11 years old, and neither one of them good at backing down from a confrontation or disagreement.

It's absolutely crazy-making for my husband and I.

Last night the kids had another in a long (seemingly never-ending) series of spats.  Safety Guy was rude to her, she was rude back, he yelled, she kicked him, he swore and yelled more, she yelled more - it was ugly.  All the while I'm trying to intervene and separate them.  I sent Princess upstairs for kicking and grounded her for the evening, and told Safety Guy he was grounded from his electronics and to go to his room for a while to calm down.  He stalked off to the family room to watch TV, and we told him he couldn't watch TV.  He stormed to the basement and his man cave to watch TV, and we told him he couldn't do that either - he could be down there for space, but he'd lost his electronics privileges for his language and behavior.  He lost his temper again (or should I say, even more), and after a verbal confrontation with his father he stomped upstairs and immured himself in his room.  Finally.

I hate it when that happens.  I hate it when Safety Guy can't back down, and makes a simple situation complicated and much, much worse.  It makes me crazy when Princess provokes Safety Guy, knowing full well how he'll react.  I hate it when the kids egg each other into greater drama, and neither of them is willing or able to back down.  These are the times that Aspergers sucks, and so does sibling rivalry.

Because that's part of this mix too - sibling  rivalry.  Princess resents the attention that Safety Guy's Aspergers has always required.  She often doesn't understand why we have to be flexible in how we discipline him, based on how much of each situation he understands and how much of it is intentional bratty teen boy behavior versus unintentional Aspergers misunderstanding and sensory overstimulation and other autism-related issues.  She doesn't understand why she should be disciplined for her behavior when he does the same things and his discipline varies.  They're about 50/50 on who starts these conflicts, but she hates to be caught provoking him and will usually deny it vehemently even when caught in the act.  Princess sometimes seems willfully blind to the discipline SG earns for his choices - even when they earn the SAME DISCIPLINE for the SAME BEHAVIOR at the SAME TIME she'll complain that she didn't deserve it (which I'd call bratty tween behavior and being deliberately obtuse).  She is jealous.

We try very hard not to hold her to a higher standard of behavior.  She is, after all, not quite eleven years old, and shouldn't have to act like an adult.  But that has de facto been what has happened at times, when we've had to say to her in private, "You understand more than he does about certain things, and it's not fair for you to provoke him, knowing that he will overreact to what you do.  You can't provoke him then yell at him for acting just like you knew he would.  You can't hit him, knowing that he knows he CANNOT hit you back, because you're a girl and his sister.  It's NOT FAIR and you cannot treat him like that."  But that takes more emotional maturity than the average tween has - and she is, after all, a pretty typical tween.

I've heard of families where the kids get along and help each other, where they aren't jealous or mean, where it's mostly smooth sailing in their relationships.  I think those families are either myths, or pulling off a huge charade.  (If your family is really, truly that peaceful and cooperative, please don't tell me right now - I don't think I'd take it very well.)

So while most days go along with mostly good behavior from both of our kids, occasionally one or the other of them will start a confrontation that turns into a perfect storm of poor choices, ending with both kids grounded for varying amounts of time depending on how far they pushed each other and their parents, their actions and words, and who started the whole mess.  Yesterday Safety Guy started it by being very rude to Princess, and she escalated it immensely by kicking him.  It went to hell in a hand-basket from there.

Nobody won.  And even though such storms tend to be brief and really don't happen as often as they used to (once every week or two seems to be average for us right now), their effects still linger.  Safety Guy sulked in his room all evening, and still blames her today for his grounding.  He didn't sleep well, and is still angry with her, but he did admit to me last night that he shouldn't have used the language he had.  Princess and I had (another) talk last night about why she should not (cannot) hit him or otherwise provoke him physically.  She first denied she kicked him in the leg at all, then said she may have LOOKED like she was trying to kick him but she "was only stretching," and then only grudgingly admitted she may have kicked him but just lightly, but she was not repentant about it at all.  (I have to say, I didn't believe her initial story - and I could tell she wasn't telling the truth as her story morphed.  I HATE it when she lies.  She tried to get out from under her consequence, but we told her it had to stand.)

After our talk she did her best to be silly and cooperative and nice to me. But she refused to apologize to Safety Guy.  She holds grudges, and hates to admit she's done something wrong.  I know that personality trait will hurt her in the future, and that breaks my heart to anticipate.  I can guide, talk, reprimand, cajole, discipline, reward, and do everything but jump through hoops to try to teach her these social and self-control skills, but she's at the age from now on where life's lessons are going to come hard and fast.  We'll continue to do our best, but she's going to learn the hard way more than once to guard her tongue and her actions.  The same is true for Safety Guy.

A lot of the daily balancing act between the kids my husband and I do almost unconsciously.  It's unbelievable how much you have to anticipate and head off potentially aggravating or even explosive situations when you have a child with autism.  Someone who has never had full-time care of a child on the spectrum cannot understand the constant, never-ending anticipating and diversion we go through to make each day function without major behavioral trouble.  Spontaneity is not our friend; quick change is not a happy thing. Everything must be thought out ahead of time.  From simply modifying the language we use as parents with our children (being specific, breaking requests into steps, avoiding figures of speech, using phrases or words the child responds to best, etc.), to avoiding situations that will cause discomfort or distress to the child, to heading off conflicts and verbal confrontations between the child and others before they can even start, to keeping daily routines stable, and giving our kids time to adjust to changes in routine or new things - every moment of every single day is an obstacle course.  You are never not mindful of your child's needs and responses in every possible situation.

On top of that, you have to balance the needs of that exceptional child with the needs of the whole family.  You have to try to keep one child with extra needs from overshadowing the other family members.  And yet, inevitably, you find that the whole family revolves to some extent around that one child's special needs.  No matter how hard you try, the uncomfortable truth is that you have to tailor a lot of your family life to accommodate that child.  You can't avoid it.  And the other family members have to make sacrifices for that to happen, whether they want to or not.

No wonder Princess is sometimes jealous of her brother, and resents what his presence means in our family.

No wonder having a child with special needs is very hard on a marriage, and many marriages that result in children with special needs (especially autism) don't survive the stress.  The child isn't at fault, but the stress is still very real.

I pray for grace.  Often.  I am not what anyone would call a "prayer warrior."  I don't have the "gift of faith" that some are blessed with; faith is hard work for me.  But I still pray, for myself, for my family, knowing that God hears, and He is merciful even when trials make Him seem distant, aloof, even cruel.  My view is limited; His is not.  I need grace to live my life, love my family, and keep on moving forward.  So I still pray.
I'm glad He hears and loves and acts.