I’m Not a Bad Parent … Right?

Deanne Shoyer



Deanne is the mother of gorgeous twin boys, five years old, who are both on the autism spectrum.

I’ve read a number of blog posts where the writer describes the ways that strangers or relatives make them feel their parenting skills are inadequate. This post will not be adding to that number. It is about a struggle I’ve had in dealing with some challenging behaviours from Oliver. My reactions to those behaviours led me to conclude (at least initially) that I wasn’t being the best mother I could be.

Oliver had been displaying some pretty aggressive behaviour towards Owen: pushing him hard enough so that he would fall over, kicking him (usually once Owen was on the floor) and pulling his hair. The worst incident happened when Oliver pushed Owen off a chair and Owen fell on his head. It got to the stage that Owen would cower every time his brother came close.

Of all the challenges I’ve so far faced as a mother, this was the first that left me feeling … powerless, bereft and, to be completely honest, angry. Owen is the sweetest little guy and it hurt like nothing I’d ever experienced before to see Oliver behave that way towards him. (Don’t get me wrong, I know my Owen isn’t perfect; he can be incredibly stubborn — and passive aggressive! — at times.) But then there was also the fact that Oliver’s behaviour was so out of character — he’s normally very affectionate and caring. Seeing one of my babies hurting another one of my babies was very painful. Then there was the reaction of the boys’ father and grandmother. It took a lot out of me frankly, having to constantly explain that Oliver wasn’t being ‘naughty’ or ‘bad’ and that the right response wasn’t to shout at him about what he was doing and that he didn’t need to be disciplined or punished.

Then one day it happened; I cracked. I came out of the bathroom and Oliver was pulling Owen’s hair and kicking him. I shouted at Oliver to stop but then I found myself yelling, “Why? Why are you doing this to Owen? I don’t understand!” I was holding Owen and crying and then the look on Oliver’s face made me cry more. I’d hurt him. I held both of them and cried. I knew I couldn’t handle this behaviour effectively any longer and to avoid getting upset with Oliver again I started putting him into time out. Not because I thought this was the best strategy but because at least it prevented me from shouting at him and worsening the situation further. Nonetheless, I felt like I had failed him.

Oliver has had recurring bouts of aggression which I had dealt with in the past using planned ignoring. I didn’t feel that this was effective in dealing with this latest phase however, especially as the behaviour wasn’t being ignored by others, i.e., his caregiver, his father, and his grandmother. I hated putting Oliver in time out but until I could speak to his supervising therapist and we could figure out a better approach I needed to be able to calm myself down when these episodes occurred. I confided in a good friend who is also an ASD parent about what was happening and their response was that they’d never used time outs but that their ex did. Given my friend’s opinion of their ex, this was less than a ringing endorsement of my strategy! I officially diagnosed myself as a bad parent.

I compiled some data on the behaviour and finally got a chance to speak to Oliver’s supervising therapist about strategies. I told her that I really needed her to be very specific and detailed with me. If she was going to recommend that I ignore the behaviour then I needed to know exactly what that would look like — how I could ignore Oliver while interceding to make sure Owen was safe at the same time. We came up with the following:

I would work on timed, specific, positive reinforcement with Oliver. I was separating the boys to avoid incidents but she wanted me to actively work on putting them together as much as possible – to sit them together during meals and on public transit, to get them to walk together instead of me being in the middle of them and so on. During those times I would tell Oliver how happy I was with how he was interacting with Owen. I would make sure I did this at least ten times a day.
In terms of how to react when he was aggressive I was not to say anything at all to Oliver, not to make eye contact with him and not to touch him if possible. Ideally I would put myself between the two boys with my back to Oliver and that would be sufficient but if I had to, I could grab his brother and Owen and I would go into “time out.”
Whether it was these strategies or if the behaviour simply waned on its own I’m not completely sure, but Oliver’s displays of aggression towards Owen have reduced dramatically. The behaviour had spiked when there were a number of changes to the boys’ routine and so it may have been simply a reaction to that — Oliver can be very rigid.

So where did that leave me in terms of my feelings that I’d failed him as a parent? I realized what really ate away at me was not being able to understand Oliver. I knew he wasn’t being naughty but it was so tough to explain to others exactly what he was doing. If I couldn’t explain it to others that meant I probably didn’t understand it either and I needed to understand my son before I could start to feel better about myself.

From the data I’d been collating I knew the behaviour was mostly in reaction to not liking the things he was hearing. For example, if he was told to wait and he didn’t want to or if he requested an activity that wasn’t available to him at that point he would immediately turn on his brother. Clearly frustration at his lack of control over circumstances was at play here so I had to be better prepared if I was going to give him “bad news.” If something that he wanted wasn’t available then I had to offer him a choice of things he liked that he could have. Good old redirection! But this was a strategy to prevent a reaction, it didn’t get me any closer to understanding his behavioural choices. Why was aggression towards Owen his reaction to feeling frustrated?

I started thinking about Oliver’s life in general. As I mentioned previously, he can be inflexible, rigid and along with that goes some anxiety. He holds it together all day while he’s in IBI (Intensive Behavioural Intervention) and so it’s understandable that sometimes he would lose it at home. I’ve looked into some ways that could help him manage his tension and I’m going to try progressive muscle relaxation and breathing exercises with him. These are after all good ways of coping with stress regardless, so there’s no downside to him learning these skills. Again though, this is another strategy — helping him learn ways to self-regulate. It still doesn’t explain why he was currently dealing with his anxiety and tension by being aggressive towards his brother instead of (say) throwing himself on the floor screaming — an alternate strategy he has deployed in the past.

I knew Oliver didn’t resent or dislike Owen. He will often talk about how cute Owen is. He’ll stroke Owen’s hair and tell me that it’s really soft. He cuddles his brother a lot and if Owen gets upset he’ll say “Owen’s sad.” Oliver is actually a good reader of his brother — when Owen is crying because he’s angry rather than hurting or upset, Oliver will say “Owen’s fussy!” (I have to say, it’s pretty cute!) So again I came back to the question — why is he beating the crap out of his brother?!

Just so we’re clear, I wasn’t reinforcing the behaviour by “giving in” — Oliver was not getting the things he wanted out of this. However, I understood what his therapist was saying — that the attention Oliver got as a result of the behaviour (me running over, telling him No, putting him in time out, etc.) had a reinforcing rather than a deterring effect. But this still didn’t explain to me why he was choosing that particular behaviour, especially given the fact that it did absolutely nothing to ease his frustration. Again and again I went over the same ground — I knew he didn’t like hurting his brother so why was he doing it?

The scales finally fell off my eyes as I was reading an article on behaviour. The writer was discussing “extinction bursts.” This is what can occur when you start implementing measures designed to extinguish a particular behaviour and in response the behaviour suddenly and dramatically starts to increase. Wikipedia’s example of an extinction burst is as follows:

“Take, as an example, a pigeon that has been reinforced to peck an electronic button. During its training history, every time the pigeon pecked the button, it will have received a small amount of bird seed as a reinforcer. So, whenever the bird is hungry, it will peck the button to receive food. However, if the button were to be turned off, the hungry pigeon will first try pecking the button just as it has in the past. When no food is forthcoming, the bird will likely try again … and again, and again. After a period of frantic activity, in which their pecking behavior yields no result, the pigeon’s pecking will decrease in frequency.”

In explaining extinction bursts the writer of the article I was reading used an example that most adults will have some familiarity with — what can happen when another person ends a relationship and we are not ready to accept this. Typical reactions are crying, negotiating, getting angry (sounds a lot like our kids, right?). For a period of time these behaviours may worsen and we find ourselves continually thinking about and attempting to contact the person we still desperately want to be with. Some individuals will go to the extreme of threatening to harm or even actually harming themselves.

I thought of how intense the pain is when a relationship ends and it suddenly occurred to me — what if Oliver feels pain that deeply when he doesn’t know how to handle a situation? As adults, what do we often do when we hurt so badly that we don’t know how to deal with the pain effectively? Well, we sometimes lash out at the people we love the most. We know it’s not right but we also know that its effective because those people love us and somehow this will result in us getting some help. We’re hurting but we don’t have the words to explain it — we just want someone to make it better.

I don’t know if this is how Oliver feels but it makes sense to me. Thinking of it in this way has helped me understand what could be going on inside my beautiful boy’s head. If “behaviour is communication” then this behaviour helped me understand what Oliver was trying to tell me. I did (and still do) feel badly about shouting at him and putting him in time out but a lot of positive things have come out of that heartbreaking period. I’ve discovered some strategies that seem to be working and that feel effective. I’ve got some ideas for more things I can do to help Oliver self-regulate. Most importantly I feel like I understand Oliver again.