Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Special needs parenting rule no. 1: Control yourself first, your child second

For days, I dreaded it. Not some Serious Doctor Appointment. Not a new form of therapy. Not a trip to the dentist. No, I was dreading Max's class trip to a local theater to see a musical production of The Magic School Bus.

Max has never in his life sat through a performance in a theater, not even for the movie Cars 2 (for that, we went to a drive-in and even then he freaked out). And so, I knew he was going to get upset about the play even though for weeks we'd talked about it. And I knew I'd get upset that he was getting upset. These sorts of situations generally leave both of us feeling Not Good.

The day, however, started off with pure, unadulterated glee. When I walked into Max's class, he laughed so hard I thought he'd cry. It's what he does when he's ecstatic. And then, joy of joys, he got to ride a school bus with me sitting beside him and his best friend C in the seat in front of us.  

At the theater, a lot of classes from other schools were milling around the entrance. Max made it into the lobby before he started shaking his head and saying "Noooooooo."

"It'll be fun, Max—Mommy's here!" I said, and I gently tugged him into the theater. Happily, the last two rows were reserved for his school. I grabbed a seat at the end of a row and pulled Max onto my lap. He began to whimper-wail and generally look terrified. I bear-hugged him. For once, I wanted him to watch a real, live play. If he could just see what it was about, maybe he'd like it.

Minutes went by and Max wasn't letting up, no matter what I said. I offered my iPhone to play with. Not interested. As I sat there—tense, upset and feeling like a child abuser—I had an epiphany. I could a) keep getting uptight about the wailing and the general situation; or b) decide that I wasn't going to react to it.

I went with Plan B. If Max continued to wig out after the thing started, we'd head to the lobby. But I couldn't leave before it began because there was no way he'd return to a darkened auditorium. Sitting it out seemed like the best choice.

The minutes passed slooooowly. I thought about lemon cupcakes I wanted to make (I have a thing for cupcake blogs). I held Max tight and pictured myself mixing the batter with the kids. I felt calmer. Max sniffled and looked warily toward the stage.

"Do you want to take him outside?" his teacher asked, right as I was decorating the cupcakes with pale-yellow buttercream frosting. (Disclaimer: I'm a far better baker in my imagination than I am in real life.)

"No," I said, firmly. "I'm going to see what happens when this starts."

"Do you have headphones?" she asked.

At which point it became very clear: I am so the opposite of a perfect parent. Because I'd totally forgotten Max's noise-blocking headphones. (Which actually would have been very effective for me.)

Another kid in his class wasn't using hers and we borrowed them. Very quickly, Max calmed down. Then at last, the lights dimmed and the play started.

Max watched, mesmerized. I spent most of the play watching him and doing a happy dance inside my heart. Once in a while I'd lift up up one side of the headphones so he could hear the music.


Max quietly sat through the entire one-hour performance. He walked out with a huge smile on his face.

I was so proud of him.

I was proud of me, too.



  1. Oh Ellen, this was so great it put tears in my eyes! You know, the the amount of things that are more similar than different in ALL children should remind people that special needs kids are first and foremost KIDS.
    Luca is 4, and for some reason that seems to be a really, reaally, REALLY, bad year for my kids' meltdown threshold. Mia has passed that phase so it gives me hope for Luca, but his meltdowns are so epic that checkout ladies at stores I've only been to once still remember him months later. And I've recently begun doing exactly what your wonderful post illustrated; keeping myself in check first so that I can give him a calm base to mirror. Sort of like that airplane disaster thing where you're supposed to put on your own oxygen mask first and then your child's. I guess as mom's we become so adept and used to always focusing on our children before ourselves that we forget that sometimes the very best way to help and take care of them is to be ok ourselves (<:

  2. Wonderful!

    I always love the Max stories because our boys are the same age. They are similar yet different (heck my son has autism!).

    However - no one is expected to be a perfect parent! (50 lashes with a soggy noodle for thinking such!) As parents in general, and as special needs parents in particular, we each have our own strengths and weaknesses. It takes a community.

  3. Mmmm, lemon cupcakes...

    Yay to both of you.

  4. Ellen, I love this post. It took me back to when my son was that age. He was phobic about many things, including haircuts. We took him to see the Paperbag Players perform on stage, and he was just holding it together until they did a skit called "The Terrible No Good Very Bad Haircut." My son stood up and shrieked, "NOOOO! NO HAIRCUT!" Every head in the theater swiveled our way. I might have handled it better if I'd had your buttercream cupcakes and head phones on hand!

  5. Absolutely tearing up reading this!

    This was even better than lemon cupcakes!!!:)Although now I'm craving them.

  6. "Happy dance inside my heart" Love it!

  7. That's just wonderful, Ellen! And you're so right about the lesson learned.

  8. That's awesome! I'm glad he enjoyed the show. And I must confess that I've put my son's noise cancelling headphones on a time or two while he's throwing a fit ;)

  9. yay! even before the happy ending i was cheering for your inner victory, but i'm so glad that max sat through the entire thing, too!

  10. Bravo for you both (and for Max's wonderful teacher)! So glad it was a resounding success.

  11. Kudos to you for trying to give Max different and wonderful experiences even though it might be difficult sometimes and persisting in doing so. As you said very well, the huge smile at the end and the happy dance inside the heart are well worth it :)
    Erica L.

  12. Way to go Max! I'm proud of you - and mommy too! :)

  13. That is soooo amazing!!! Go Max and go Ellen!

  14. Awesome. Isn't it great when our kiddos pull out a performance like that? Way to go Max and Mom. :)

  15. Yep, headphones--don't ever leave home without 'em! SERIOUSLY. If you have to find a place in your oversized bag for them, do it. Also, the "calm to the core" approach works if you force yourself to do it. Kids aren't stupid, they key off us and they are more perceptive than we give them credit for. They can tell when we are stressed even when we are faking it, so the thing to do is go calm all the way to your center.

  16. So happy for you guys!! Victories like that are huge!!

  17. Love. it.

    Not only because I struggled with being anxious about my little boys' anxiety, too, but also because Max did it!! Yay!!!! :)

  18. Yay Max you sat through the whole play and yay Ellen you didn't freak out too much LOL :)

  19. I audibly cheered when I read this post! A fancy word for what you modeled for Max is "self regulation". Your method of choice was going to your "happy place" of cupcakes. But it began with your decision to choose option "B". The headphones worked great for Max today. And as he grows, he can learn a whole repertoire of self regulation strategies from which he can choose in different situations.

    For now - he's blessed to have a Mom who chooses to be present and calm as he copes with the stress of new experiences and finds out (like Mikey on the Life cereal commercial) that hey - he likes it!

    Thanks for sharing your experience with all of us. I spent the day teaching 60 teachers about how to teach self regulation skills. Next time I run that session - I may use your experience as an example.

    You and Max influence more people than you'll ever know. Thanks for sharing this delightful victory!


Thanks for sharing!

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