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“Can’t You Control Your Child?!”

I was at the deli counter, getting some turkey.  I wanted to get turkey without preservatives or food coloring, so I had to pay a little bit more attention than normal people would. My boys wandered off, about 15 feet from the cart.  I gently called them back, “Boys, too far! Come stand closer to Mama please.”

That’s all it took to set off a full-fledged tantrum in my 4 year old middle child.

  1. When I say “full-fledged tantrum,” I mean complete with unrelenting, eardrum piercing screams, punching, kicking, spitting and drooling. Oh yes, there was even snot running everywhere.  And growling.
  2. When I say “my 4 year old middle child,” I mean my step-son that I am raising as my own (full-time) that battles daily with mental disabilities caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol.

To the best I can deduct, here’s what was actually happening. I was concentrating on keeping the toxins out of the turkey, because my step-son can regulate his own impulses and behavior much better when he hasn’t ingested preservatives or food coloring. I neglected to realize that my step-son was walking in a pattern along with the checkerboard pattern on the ground.

A dear friend of mine that often works with children who have brain damage from prenatal exposure to alcohol as a SLP, suggested that checkerboard patterns are quite soothing for these children. He was probably in a very calm state that is hard for him to naturally achieve. When I called him back to the cart, it would be as if I roused you with cold water from a deep, warm slumber.

Before this was my life, I didn’t think much about FAS or FASD. I guess I just thought that drinking too much alcohol was bad because it could possibly cause prematurity or that they would be born addicted and have to go through withdrawal. I didn’t realize the huge spectrum of difficulties that prenatal exposure to alcohol causes.  It’s exceptionally difficult, because my step-son is completely normal in some areas. He is intelligent and sweet, but he has brain damage.

We’ve been waiting several months to even get into to the FAS clinic so that they can help us learn more about his specific damage. With autistic children, you know what areas you’re dealing with. With retarded children, you know the IQ you’re dealing with. With a child who has FAS or FASD, it changes, every day, every moment sometimes, what he can control or cannot control. What he can remember or cannot remember.

One day he will know his ABCs. The next day, he’ll barely know the difference between letters and numbers.  One moment, he will be sweet and kind. The next moment, he will be punching me and telling me that I am a “stupid, stupid mom” and that he hates me and wants me gone with no real provocation.

So, trying to get out of the store as quickly as possible on that particular day, I rush hurriedly past comments such as “Can’t you control your child?” I fight back tears because I want to tell them, “You couldn’t either!” or “He’s disabled.”  The challenge though, in these moments of mortification, is that my step son now knows he’s different. He’s also smart enough to try to use his disability as an excuse if he’s mad enough. If I save my pride and explain to these strangers that negative consequences are useless in a tantrum with a child like him do not work or blame it on his disability, I am offering up to my child endless enablement.  The truth is: He’s not retarded. He’s not autistic. He’s going to have to learn to live in this world, fully understanding his own challenges and weaknesses, and he’s going to have to somehow overcome them.

The other truth is: I don’t have time for pride. I am not privy to the liberty of explaining myself to strangers amidst a public tantrum. All I can do is escape as quickly as I can, and leave others believing I am incompetent.

This is the life of a caregiver of a child who was prenatally exposed to alcohol.  Sounds frustrating? At least I have the ability to express my feelings. He lives this life from the inside… fully aware of himself. There he lives, trapped inside his mind along with all the words to explain his feelings that cannot quite make it to his lips. That is the life of a child disabled from alcohol exposure.

So to answer the question:  Can’t you control your child?!

No. I can’t.

But I promise to keep trying.

-Dawn Papple


2 Responses

  1. This was a great read, Dawn. I read all of your blogs, and feel (as a non-parent), I do not always have a chance to comment. You are giving me great tips though, for if I am lucky enough to have a child.

    I think this blog is useful for all of us non-parents too. I am sure most of the people commenting about your parenting skills, do not have children of their own. Since I work with special needs adults, I am fully aware, they were children at some point.

    Maybe this read, will give people a better understanding, of what parents (all parents) have to go through. Hopefully it will be a reminder to people to not judge until you have walked in their shoes.

  2. Thank you for your self-awareness and courage to give public voice to the challenges of many parents of children with special needs – not just the practical challenges – the emotional challenges. Those are the ones most often left unspoken, often because they are just too raw to say out loud when that parent already feels incredibly vulnerable.

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