I don’t know about you, but this is the time of year when I start feeling mild despair. It’s the middle of summer vacation for us and I really am enjoying having my teens around the house. They’re great kids and they’re fun people, and I know one of these days in my not so distant future I’ll be sad because they’ll have moved out of our house and started their adult lives. So I really am treasuring one of these last few summers I have with them. That being said, they’re driving me nuts.
I guess my kids aren’t acting any differently than they do the rest of the year. It’s just that the rest of the year they’re at school, driving their teachers crazy instead of me. Apparently their teachers have a lot more tolerance than I do, as my kids don’t come home from school every day with lumps on their head. By this time of the summer I’ve had several weeks of around the clock quality time with my children and as a result I’m seriously starting to doubt my abilities as a parent.
I mean really, how hard is it to teach a kid to not leave their shoes in the middle of the floor? Or to put their dishes in the sink? Or to not leave empty soda cans in the bathroom? (I’m leaving the discussion of how the soda can got into the bathroom in the first place for another day.) I know one of my kids has high functioning autism, one has ADD, and the other is a major Geek and therefore mentally spends half the time on another planet. (You know, a really cool planet where age old questions are finally answered, like who would win in a showdown: Granny Weatherwax, Batman or Q from Star Trek.) I know I need to make some allowances. However, it crosses my mind that if they are all capable of learning algebra then they ought to be able to keep the toilet paper holders filled. So, it must be me, right? Whatever I’m doing to teach them how to get along in this world, it isn’t working. Shame on me.
But then I had a revelation. I was standing in line at a store and I overheard a conversation between the two ladies in front of me.
“He always forgets to put on deodorant so I thought the smell coming out of his bedroom was him. But it wasn’t. There was a half-eaten sandwich on his desk. It was green and had hair growing out of it!”
“That’s disgusting! That’s almost as bad as what happened to a friend of mine. She kept cleaning her kids’ bathroom but couldn’t get the smell out. It took her weeks to figure out her pre-school boy was peeing into the heater vent.”
(I am not making this up. Really.)
As the ladies continued talking, the light bulb went off in my head. My kids aren’t dim and I’m not a terrible mother. It’s just that they’re like all other kids – they’ve got melty brains. Yup. That’s the technical term – melty brains.
Neurologists talk about brain plasticity. That’s the ability of our brains to change structure to allow the formation of new memories. When we learn something, our brains rewire themselves slightly to store the new information. That happens to us all. But kids have it harder; their bodies are still growing. They’re like this ginormous construction project that’s always active. (Okay – we’re back to me talking here, not the neurologists.) A new bit of information comes in and the brain gets busy trying to rewire itself and blammo – it gets hit with a wave of hormones. Just as it clears the decks to get back to work, it discovers all its construction materials have been hijacked to add a couple of inches to the leg bones. It gets more supplies, then a member of the opposite sex walks by and everything shuts down again. By then the new memory has evaporated and the brain has forgotten it was doing anything in the first place. See? Brains plus childhood equals soup. Melty brain soup.
I’m not saying that kids can’t learn anything and I’m not ducking my job of teaching mine to be decent human beings. Nor am I relieving my children of their responsibilities to act civilized. But I am going to quit questioning my parenting skills just because my kids are acting like typical teenagers. Sometimes we parents of special needs kids are too quick to attribute our kids’ failings to their disabilities or our parenting techniques. We need to remember that some childhood struggles are just part of the developmental learning curve.
For instance – pre-teens who don’t bathe enough to combat their newly developing stinky sweat glands. Totally normal – ask any 6th grade teacher, especially once the weather warms up.
Having to teach your kids that washing their hair doesn’t mean just swishing a little shampoo around the top of their heads, that they have to actually scrub every inch of their scalps, even the part around their ears. Normal.
Teaching them that if you ask them to take two garbage cans apiece out to the curb for pick up that you don’t mean two random cans; you mean two cans with garbage in them and not any empty ones. Normal.
When you ask them to do something and they look at you and say okay, then when you get mad ten minutes later because they didn’t do it, for them to say “But you never told me to.” Normal.
When you ask your kid why he did something and he says, “I don’t know.” He really doesn’t and it’s absolutely normal. Maddening, but normal. It’s melty brain.
Your next question is, “Okay, so it’s normal. What do I do about it?” The answer is, nothing that you probably aren’t already doing. You can’t hurry childhood development. You can teach your kids some coping skills – write check lists, have them repeat instructions, explain the goal of what they’re doing (for instance, the goal of vacuuming is to get up all the little bits of stuff on the carpet, not to just go around the room a few times so you can say you vacuumed.) You can also put things in place to make life easier when they blow it, like keep basic grooming supplies in the car (so when you’re half-way to school and you ask them if they remembered to use deodorant and they give you this blank look, they don’t end up walking around stinking all day.)
But more or less, you just have to wait it out. Kids do eventually outgrow melty brain. Ask parents whose kids are 25 years old or older. Almost all of them are doing fine. Ask those parents if when their kids were little, they ever thought they’d make it. Some of them will say yes right away, but most of them will think about it a bit and let out a great big sigh. Raising kids wasn’t easy then and it isn’t easy now, with or without autism. Teaching them life skills is like dripping water on a pile of rocks in order to create the Grand Canyon. It works, but it takes an awfully long time.
So have patience, with yourself and with them. Enjoy your children’s good qualities. When melty brain shows up, don’t let it drive you crazy. Try not to criticize too much. Help them fix whatever needs fixing and get on with life. They’re all little ding-a-lings at this age, so we might as well enjoy the lunacy.
Besides, pretty soon school will start again. My kids’ teachers may or may not be any better than I am at getting my kids’ brain cells to all line up, but that’s not the point. The point is – they’ll be the ones doing it, not me. Yay, public education!