Anatomy of a Bad Day Turned Good with My Differently-Wired Boy

As part of my research for writing the Differently Wired book, I’ve been going back to old journal entries and other writing from years past to reflect on what was especially hard, what worked, what bombed, and how far we’ve come. When I uncover something I think would be useful to the TiLT Parenting community, I’ll share it here. What follows is one such piece, which I wrote in late 2014 when Asher was ten years old.

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It’s been a hard eight or so days with Asher. I’m not sure if it’s the beginning of the dreaded “Fall regression” or just an off-week. We don’t know exactly what triggers these annual regressions, but because Asher is no longer in a traditional school setting, I was hoping we might skip it this year. And since we’re nearly at the end of November, things were looking good.

Asher’s regressions always look different, because he’s always at a different point in his life when they hit. But typically, they involve a return of less-than-desirable behavior we thought he’d outgrown, a lot of yelling and general disagreeableness, inflexibility, and him having an incredibly short fuse.

So, they pretty much suck. For all of us. Our home becomes a place of angry energy instead of peace, and Derin and I find ourselves scrambling to brainstorm new approaches and strategies to get things under control before things get really bad. We also find ourselves getting angry ourselves—it’s hard to be constantly yelled at and treated disrespectfully by someone you share a house with…someone you love so much. I breathe deeply and do what I can to stay calm, connect with Asher, show empathy for what he’s going through, and problem solve, but after a long, hard day, sometimes I want nothing more than to walk out the door and not come back for a week.

Starting last weekend, something about Asher’s energy was different. He began to escalate over little things. Tantrums resurfaced. And all of our “systems” (we have many systems and strategies in place to track and support his learning positive behavior and life skills) stopped working.

For me, Asher’s homeschool teacher, this has translated into a very difficult week. He was fine doing the things he wanted to do—math, watching NOVA, working on the story he’s writing—but everything else was, in his mind, just me placing demands on him. Therefore, he pushed back, in every way he knew how, to try and control the situation and get what he wanted.

It’s been exhausting.

This past Friday was the worst day of the week. And then it became the best. And I’m not sure exactly how or why. But here’s what our day looked like. I’m sure the answer is in here somewhere:

8:00am – Asher gets up, reads Pearls Before Swine on his Kindle, eats breakfast.

9:00am – Asher gets on Minecraft and continues working on the videos he’s creating for his YouTube channel.

9:40am – I give him a 15-minute warning (on a Post-It, in case he’s recording a video) that his time is almost up.

9:50am – I give him a “5-minute wrap up” warning (again, on a Post-It).

9:55am – I tell him it’s time to get off the computer and get dressed, brush teeth, and come downstairs to start school.

10:00am – I call upstairs and tell him it’s time for school.

10:05am – I go upstairs to see what’s going on and find Asher sitting on his bed reading his Kindle. I remind him of the deal, give him some positive reinforcement cues (earning points for sticking to the schedule), and go downstairs.

10:15am – I call up and then go upstairs to see what the holdup is to find Asher sitting on the floor, half-dressed, reading. I tell him he’s lost the points and he’s moving towards a consequence.

10:29am – Asher comes down for school (dressed and with teeth brushed), and instead of meeting me on the carpet for our movement exercises, he crashes on the couch and announces “I’m tiiirrreeedddd.” I remind him of the deal and let him know that we are already so behind schedule that he will only be able to watch half a NOVA, and even that is in jeopardy. (NOVA is his favorite part of school and something he negotiated to have added to his daily schedule.)

10:30am – Asher angrily says, “Fine!” and then proceeds to flail his body around during movement, falling over, being silly, doing the opposite of what I ask him. Operation Push Mama’s Buttons has officially begun.

10:40am – After managing to get Asher to do a few of our movement exercises, we have our morning meeting, where I reiterate that because of our very late start, there is no time for a full NOVA today, as we’re going on a field trip in the afternoon, and we have a lot of things to do in the morning before we leave. Asher, in every way he knows how, let’s me know this development is completely unacceptable. He also announces that he doesn’t like any of my ideas for a field trip (I’d suggested the zoo, the Amsterdam Museum, or the Rembrandt House) and that he doesn’t want to go.

I am at a crossroads.

I can either a) give in and let him watch the full episode in an attempt to thwart off a full tantrum / rage / meltdown (TRM), b) lose my patience and temper, threaten to yank privileges away, like saying no Minecraft for the rest of the day if he doesn’t start cooperating, or c) calmly tell him his earlier choices had consequences, let him know his current behavior is completely unacceptable, tell I’ll be available to talk when he is calm and ready to have a respectful conversation, and leave the room. Though b) is my default when I’m feeling especially tapped out, for some reason, on this day I had it in me to do c).

10:42am – 11:10am – Asher ups the ante. Throws some pillows, deconstructs my couch, runs upstairs to try and grab his computer (I’d already hidden it), stomps around, and generally tries to push my buttons. I barely look up from my work, and when I do, it’s to calmly say, “Gosh, I’m so bored by this behavior. It couldn’t be less interesting to me. But I would like to remind you that there will be zero computer time today until all your school work is done. So it’s totally your choice.” I continue frankly, calmly, and without even the hint of annoyance, “And unfortunately the option to watch even half the NOVA episode is off the table now…it’s just too late at this point.” Then I looked back down at my work and proceed.

11:15am – 11:55am – Asher intermittently tries to get me upset while also reading on his Kindle. I have to dig deep in my toolbox to get through the antagonizing without losing it. I mean, the kid knows how to get my goat. But I just kept breathing and remembering what my parenting coach Margaret Webb told me to say to myself in moments like this: This isn’t about me.

11:56am: Asher comes into the dining room where I’m working and announces he’s ready to do math. “Great!” I say. “Pull up a chair.” And he did. And we did math. And his energy shifts a bit.

12:20pm: I pull out a new kind of logic puzzled I’d printed out and suggest he give it a go while I make his lunch. He starts but then gets stuck, so I pull up a chair and we solve it together. And his energy shifts a little bit more.

12:35pm: I give Asher lunch (baguette, ham, cashews, apple, peanut butter) and let him know that he has a choice to make—choose one of the options for an afternoon field trip or we stay in and he has to do all the school we weren’t planning to do originally because of said field trip. I let him know he should think about it and tell me his decision after lunch. I nonchalantly walk upstairs to my office to eat my own lunch and catch up on emails, hoping he’ll choose field trip because he does so much better when I can get him out of the house.

1:15pm: I come downstairs and Asher announces that he’d like to go to the Rembrandt House. And I say, “Great! Take your plate in and put on your shoes… let’s go!” He does and we leave and we have what is simply an amazing field trip.

5:00pm: We get home several hours later, he’s a different kid—happy, agreeable, excited to build his new 3D architectural model of Rembrandt’s House we got at the gift shop, regulated. I feel calm and happy and grateful.

I don’t know exactly what shifted things, what happened in his brain chemistry to help him regulate, whether it was the math or the problem solving or my managing my own energy or the bike ride to the museum or being outdoors…or all of them combined, but somehow we had shifted things. The two of us. That morning, we were going down the wrong road. I mean, things could have gotten ugly. But they didn’t.

I know better than to make last Friday’s turnaround mean anything more than we got through that day. I know that any day could present new challenges, when I’m less patience and he’s less regulated. I know that any day could end in disaster. But on Friday they didn’t. And I noticed, and appreciated.

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