“Habitual Parenting” in Autism

I have heard the term “overparenting” a lot this last year. What does that even mean? Does it happen? What does this even look like? Lets dive in.

One morning A few weeks ago in preparing my eleven year old autistic son for his day of school he was laying in his bed with his iPad as I struggled to dress him without any help from him (though he can dress himself). My husband approached and stood in the doorway, crossed his arms and said this is just “disturbing”. Admittedly, yes, I was “overparenting” but then, I knew that he was about to have an eight hour day of ABA with therapists telling him all day to “do this” and asking millions of questions and tasks of him.  Also, It was nearing 830 a.m and I had alreayd prepared two other children for the send off and driven them to the bus. As my husband and I “tiffed” it was increasingly apparent to me that what I had done, as he said, was “not in line with ABA and our therapists would not like what they saw”. But in exhaustion and exaspirioation I replied back in  tone “I get that, but I am his mom, not his therapist”.

As the day carried on the texts flew back and forth. I knew I had screwed up especially after my recent plea to cease my sons ABA therapy now that I am, myself, a technician and have the skills to help him. (I know there are limitations to family members being therapists just wanted to throw this in here for those thinking it had began their internal dialogue). I began to throw out how I was running the shower program with him on our own time and had potty trained him myself. I began to build a case around my “overparenting” until I began to question what “overparenting” really meant?

Considering my son dressing himself is a solid independent skill am I to believe that my attempts to relieve just a bit of stress off of him for a moment is contrary to ABA therapy? In podering this question another question began to come to mind. The true question is not whether it is contrary or even a hinderace to his ABA therapy the question is where does real life stop and ABA begin? What is the role of being a parent at the core? Is it not to be a protector, a teacher with the purpose of later independence? But then even in that question is yet another how does one protect while still pushing their child toward independence?

In typical children this is a much easier question to answer. The children usually answer that question for you as they begin to push away from parents and lean toward peers or begin to want to shower themselves because of not wanting to be seen in a compromised state, but this is not often true for those with autism most notably those on the more severe ends. Often, we do things for our children until they show an interest in doing it for themselves. “Teach me to cook momma”, “Look my friend is riding a bike I want to do that too!” “But Johnny is doing it so what if im younger”. This is why usually the youngest child in a family learns things at a younger age. Its modeling. This is something children with autism struggle with.

without a desire to model and social awareness limitations children with autism often need a lot of prompting and “help” to get through the most basic of tasks. Here’s where it gets clouded for parents. Without that natural inclination from our children to progress toward independence we often get stuck in a rut. For instance, the other day, I was standing in the kitchen making my son a sandwich. The technician walked in and said, “he can make his own sandwich im sure, lets just see”. I got all the ingredients out and just stood back and watched my son make his own sandwich in awe. He knew what to do. He had been watching all this time. I was just so used to taking care of him in this way it became MY rut not his. Outsiders would probably call this “overparenting” but i have another name for it “habituated parenting”.

It becomes a habit. Not because our kids cant do it but because we have become so accustomed to doing something that we just continue to do it especially without an outsider telling us that we are actually doing it. Its much the same as any habit we have and are unaware of until someone brings it to our attention. Is it a bad habit? No, not in and of itsself. BUT it does become detrimental in the long run if we contine to “habitually parent” without regard to the idea that our children are capable of more.

I want to point out, that I would much rather hear of a parent that is “habitually parenting” that a parent that is “under parenting” because in the end I know that their heart is in it maybe that parent just needs an extra push. Not even that, maybe just that gentile reminder that “hey, I bet your kid can do this lets just try let me help you.” emphasis on the “let me help you part”.

I dont know. Maybe its me.  Maybe its my habitual parenting mixed with my need to protect. Maybe its my mixed emotions about my son entering Middle school next year that has me focused on protecting as of late. Or maybe its my new job as a Technician that has opened my eyes. All I know is that over the past nine years on our autism journey and dozens of clinicians with their differen spin on things I have come away with two huge lessons:

  1. “Through the tears and the tantrum theres progress”. No one ever grows when they remain in their comfort zone.
  2.  “know when enough is enough”. Making a desired task aversive is a BIG NO NO! Listen to the child.

Last but not least: as my grandfather said years ago “No one will love your kid like you do”. Stay aware but be open as well sometimes we don’t see the whole picture and bringing an outsider in can be a great help.

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