Choose Your Battles
The phrase ‘choose your battles’ runs through my head constantly. It has for several years, since puberty joined my family. Deciding what to address vs. what to let go has me feeling like Sherlock Holmes… or Jessica Fletcher… or that con artist-turned-police-consultant from The Mentalist. I feel like every issue, small or large, cannot be addressed without gathering the facts, analyzing the evidence, and coming to a conclusion about how to resolve the problem. This is so often much easier said than done.
When my son was young, I learned I needed to define the problem first before I could even begin to work out a solution. When it came to negative behaviors, I had to decide first – is this a behavior that is autism related? Is it sensory overload? Is it a result of social communication deficits? Does he need me to frame the problem (as I see it) in a way that fits into his understanding of the world? If none of the criteria seemed to be met, is it possible it is just about a kid having a bad day? Or having a selfish moment? Or seeking attention? So much to consider.
Several years ago, another parameter came into play. Hormones. Why did it not occur to me that, even when I thought I had it all figured out, a new guest would eventually show up at the dinner table and start throwing food? Sometimes literally. Pre-teen and teen attitude. Mood swings. The internal feud of the disappearing child and the emerging adult. Puberty is tough enough for any adolescent. Throwing hormone warfare into the mix for a person with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) must be impossible. Just when they are finally maturing to the point they can often be self-reflective and accountable for their actions and decision making, hormones kick in and add an unreasonable, unforgiving curve in the road.
It started to feel like two-steps forward, one-step back. And it was harder for me to keep my cool. Every harsh comment felt personally disrespectful. Every attempt to resolve altercations or frustration was met with the resistance of a teen seeking independence mixed with a scared child who just wanted to not feel whatever he was feeling. And I had to learn all over again to choose my battles. Not just to keep peace in the house, but to maintain my own sanity and continue to show him that I am an ally in his journey, not another obstacle.
As I have had to do since he was a toddler, I continue to take a lot of deep breaths, examine a lot of evidence, and choose my words before I speak or act. A lot of this goes against my natural inclination to demand respect and expect obedience from a child. A painful lot of the time I fail miserably. I make the situation worse before I make it better. I say the wrong thing or find that what worked yesterday was the WORST possible solution for today.
I have had to come to terms with certain facts that do not always make this solution-focused mom feel very satisfied. In choosing my battles, I sometimes just put off the fight for later. Or I compromise on a behavior that may be personally annoying but not particularly harmful in the long run. I have learned I cannot always fix the problem and sometimes need to let him work it out on his own, even when I can see he is struggling or not making the decision I would wish him to make.
I spend a lot of time seeing beyond the surface and hearing what is really being said, especially when his words are hurtful. I am his safe place, and he needs to be able to unload on me to avoid unloading on others who will be less forgiving. In many ways, this has brought us closer together. He vents, we both get upset, I try (or don’t try) to make things better, he apologizes, sometimes I apologize, and we move on. I choose my battles, sometimes wisely, and hope that the end results will reflect the hard work we have both put into navigating this journey together.
About the Author
Tara O’Gorman, MSW, is an independent consultant and advocate for individuals and families living with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and provides consulting for organizations working within the ASD community. She is a group facilitator for adolescents and young adults with ASD and is a proud mom to two sons, including an Asperger’s teenager.