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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Theology and Parenting a Child with A.D.D.

I'm not going to start off by telling you any reason why I have the right to tell you these things.  My thoughts should prove helpful regardless, I imagine.  If I were talking to a group of parents who are struggling with the challenges of raising a child with A.D.D. here are some of the things I might say to them:

Before I get into all the nitty gritty, I want to begin with a basic premise - seemingly so obvious that it might be redundant to state it, but I believe it is a foundational starting point from which to parent any child - or even to interact with any human being, and it is this:  Your child was created by God, with His very fingerprints all over them.  God stamped His own image, His own self, into the very person you deal with on a daily basis.  Your child is created imago dei - in God's image, by God Himself.  So we can all agree, God wanted your child to exist, and was intimately involved in the process of making and shaping this child.  We can thank Him for that.

I have to start there because parenting in general, and parenting a child with A.D.D. specifically, brings many challenges.  It can be frustrating.  We arrive at parenting after we ourselves have gone through many seasons of shaping and growing and find our outlook on life shaped by an adult(ish) perspective.  This is why parenting shocks us a bit.  (And some of us, more than a bit).  Because we recognize that this helpless human being needs to be shaped and formed into someone who will not only manage their own lives, but will be productive members of society.  This is a huge task.  Part of the adulting process (and I'm still not there yet, so I'm just kind of guessing at this) is realizing relationship between cause and effect: if I do this, there will be a predictable outcome.  And adult living involves manipulating life to desired outcomes.  This is, in general, a healthy endeavour.

Then there is a child in the picture - and children don't often cooperate off the bat with our methods of manipulation.  (In this context I am going to refer to manipulation as a healthy, desirable thing, whereas in many contexts of relationship it is an area to tread carefully). When a child has their own outlook, and does not cooperate, this is where the breakdown begins: frustration ensues.

Here is an off-the-top-of-my-head overview of some of the hurdles children with A.D.D. face:

  •  Short attention span - unless, of course, attention is being given to video games or other desirable activities.
  • Difficulty focussing on specific assigned tasks.  (Often confused with a disobedient, rebellious nature).
  • Physical and Sensory needs that seem blown out of proportion.  (Certain sounds, textures, or visual stimuli have a stronger impact than we expect).
  • High needs for nurture and understanding and validation
  • Needs to interact with learning material in creative and unique ways
  • Emotional Regulation after disappointments - I like to say there is almost a lack of 'emotional skin' - the part that holds us all together in one piece.
  • Lack of understanding from the adults or peers in their lives.  Social norms aren't always appreciated or followed.

There are, of course, many more - but those just give you an idea of what I'm talking about.

Obviously, a child who doesn't jump through the hoops we expect them to, or who doesn't learn quickly the relationship between cause and effect ("if I scream and rage over a tiny offense, people will probably stay away and not want to be my friend"), will try any parent's patience.

If you live with these kinds of struggles, as a parent or as a person with A.D.D., I want you to know you are not alone.  You are not going crazy (okay, maybe you are - this kind of experience drives any sane person totally nuts at times - but in this case, it is what I like to call: situational craziness).

I used the word 'theology' in the title of this blog.  That's because my perspective on most anything tends to always be driven to the deeper, theological implications of the subject at hand.  Parenting challenges are no different.  Who you are, who God is, who your child is - these all matter as we approach the nurture, instruction and shaping of a child.  The bottom line of parenting for me is: my child is made in God's image.  God loves him and wants him to experience His love.  I am the first conduit of the love of God to my child.  Therefore, I'd better pay careful attention to how I communicate what God is like through my own behaviour and attitude towards my child.

This is not to heap on parent-guilt.  I can't stand that.  Guilt-tripping has no place with me.  So please, get what I am saying: I'm saying, "START WITH LOVE."

I get that your kid drives you nuts.  And I get that we need to instruct our kids in right and wrong.  But frankly, I think we overdo this at times.  If you are even a mediocre parent, I'm sure you've taught and told your kids a million times (or more) what is right and wrong and what you think they need to do or not - ad nauseum.  I think we don't give kids - A.D.D. or not - enough credit.  I really think they do know and hear what we say to them.  The challenge for them is their fleshly immaturity and we as parents would do well to recognize that and instead of seeking to bludgeon them into discipline, we need to seek to bless them with an intimate understanding of what it is to be loved unconditionally by the Father Who created us.  They are not going to waltz into a discovery of this when we lose it because they exasperate us for the umpteenth time as they forget to put their shoes away.

(I get the frustration - really, I get it.  I have told my children more than once, in my 'about-to-break' moments: "Do you WANT your Mommy to turn into a monster?!  Because I am very close to becoming one.  That's your warning!")

But however your child behaves - no matter how frustrating - underneath that behaviour is a person who bears God's image, who has deep (often unmet) needs for validation: You matter.  Who you are is important.  If you misbehave, I will still love you.  Your sin is my opportunity for grace.  Your weakness is an invitation to receive the grace God pours on all His weak children.  Your emotional despondency is a reflection of human brokenness.  You are part of the human family.  I welcome you.  I embrace you.  I know, I care.  Life sucks at times.  We'll be here for you.

These are the messages I think we all need to hear - and even moreso, children who struggle with their own awkward tendencies.  Children who are difficult are typically acting from a place of need.  Instead of: "Here's where you're right and wrong and how I want you to fix it" - parenting, what about: "Here's where I see you're struggling and I want to know where that comes from and how I can be your advocate, not your adversary."

I have made huge blunders in parenting.  I know I have broken my kids' trust way too often and in the process lost seasons of productive influence over them.  I have behaved in ways that have shut their hearts to me.  But I can recognize this and apologize.  I can articulate this: "Do you trust me?  No.  I understand why.  I hope in time to show you that you can share your heart with me and that I will honour and respect it."  That kind of thing.  Apologizing to our kids - often - as needed - I believe is one of the first parenting skills to equip us for the journey.

So how do you deal with the kid who is freaking out 'cuz you won't let them bang on the piano?  Who is inconsolable at the thought and won't stop sobbing hysterically and screaming - unwilling to accept your no?  I can't tell you exactly what to do - maybe your kid has sensory issues and won't want to be held.  Maybe he will want more sensory stimuli.  You've got to know what your kid needs, and sometimes you won't know, but you can grow in your understanding.  In my case, in the above scenario, I was going to be parent-boss and get my kid to conform.  I was going to force emotional regulation.  I was going to leave unwanted behaviour at the door (between house and garage) and teach my kid what we expect in our home (i.e. not tantrum behaviour).

You wanna know how that worked out for me?  Yeah, not great.  You can imagine.  How many hours should I leave my kid to rage and wail before it becomes an emotional form of child neglect?  (My current answer to that is 0, by the way).  That scene was a turning point for me as a parent.  I changed from: "I need to be in control" to "He is hurting and needs care."  It also turned from: "I will demand conformity to my demands" to "Do unto others as you'd have them do unto you."

If I couldn't understand life and the normal disappointments it brings, and I grieved every loss, no matter how minor, as a great tragedy ("No, you can't bring your leaf and twig collection into the house." - that kind of thing), I would want someone to nurture and comfort me - not to tell me my pain was meaningless and to just grow up.

There are umpteen resources to help understand parenting challenges - I do suggest doing your homework and reading them.  Each of them will offer perspective and help as you try to bring out the best in your child.  But at the same time, I really think that the bottom line of it all needs to be seeking to understand your kid, what they need, and being a companion in their growth and not a thorn in their wounded hearts.  They have enough struggles and obstacles to overcome.  You, as their parent, can be a minister of the healing balm of God's grace.  As they grow, they can come to rely on your nurture and care as a constant source of blessing.

And maybe, someday, they will come to see you as God's image-bearer too.

(Feel free to share this with parents facing the same struggle).

Monday, April 4, 2016

Mourning Fire: An invitation to Grief

Four weeks ago today I could've talked to my Dad.  I had called a few times over the weekend but missed him - or got a few words before the concert he was attending began.  We had a couple conversations the week before.  Nothing of great significance crossed my mind, so it was the usual stuff - and he talked a bit with each of the kids.

Today I cannot speak with him.  Four weeks ago, this evening, he was on his way to see us and had stopped for the night in a motel in Georgia.  He and my Mom had a nice visit with friends, then booked into their motel and headed for bed.  He was reading in the other room and seemed to fall asleep.  My Mom tried to wake him to come to bed.  But he wouldn't be woken.  His peaceful sleep had merely been a transition from this world to the next.

I got the call at 10:30, and I was already asleep.  My mind could not take in or comprehend those words, "Dad is gone."  I refused to believe while grief swept over me.  These are some of the darkest days of my life.  My heart has been pushed in all kinds of directions - disbelief, grief, regret, self-examination, shock, refusal, pain, sorrow, tears, detachment, numbness, silence.  And all these at varying degrees at varying times.

I have often known of others losing a parent.  I have felt sorry and sad for them.  But I had no idea what they were truly feeling.  I observed others' pain with a certain distant sorrow.  I had no way to comprehend or understand what it meant.

Yes, this was sudden and unexpected.  I lost words.  I could not write, other than to record facts in halting sentences that ran together like a child's description of events.  I could not hash it out in emotive streams on the piano.  No passion would flow from me.  I could not speak, except when it was necessary.  I could not see people.  I needed silence and time and space.

But I am a Mom.  I have to run kids all over and do laundry and make meals.  God graciously met all these needs the first few days.  Sam took off work and did my duties.  My sister-in-law stepped in to take over many of the responsibilities, including more oversight of her mother (my mother-in-law, who also lives with us).  I did nothing the first few days but stay in bed and sob.

But I needed a change of scenery.  And to be still, and alone.  We have a fire pit outside, so I gathered twigs and leaves and heaved over some bigger logs and I lit a match.  I sat and watched it burn.  The first day I sat a few hours.  What mother of 5 has hours to sit alone?  It is totally unrealistic.  But it was my mourning fire.  I let it burn and burn and watched as it smoldered.

The next day I did it again.  I lit the fire and watched it burn.  Sometimes I sat hypnotized.  Always I sat alone and in total silence.  Other times I wept.  I let the tears come and sting my eyes together with the smoke.  I imagined Dad with me and continued to deny the reality that he isn't here anymore.  My fire became, and still is, my quiet place of grief.

I tell people openly that I am still in denial and quite a bit of shock.  How does one reckon with a reality that has been bedrock for the entire duration of my 39 year life?  How do I wake up one day and believe the truth that Dad lives in realms beyond, and not in this earthly one?  How?  I don't.  I admit reality in my head, but my heart refuses to budge.

So I sit by a fire and wait for the reality to hit.  And it does.  Only in stillness do I confront the truth - the harsh reality that bites like bitter winds during a deep freeze in Chicago.  And it feels like a cannon has been shot through the center of my being and left a gaping hole where my heart should be.  And yet I live, but feel so dead inside.

A Mourning Fire is my place of reckoning.  The flames leap and seem alive, but they are reminding me how quickly life passes.  We think our days in this life will go forever.  That is a preposterous idea, and we tell ourselves the truth - 'we all die' - but live in perpetual denial.  Yet somehow denial in grief seems odd to others, but I say, we all live in a certain denial if we don't reckon with the inevitable end of our own days.

The Psalmist says, "Teach us to number our days rightly, that we may gain a heart of wisdom." Yet we think eternal matters are the department of the religious.  Those who live in mysticism, fantasy, superstition and the like.  Yeah, whatever.

Not so.

My time of grief seems to me to be an inevitable reality for the rest of my earthly days.  They say it lets up in time.  They say...

But I'll believe it when I see it.

Until then, I will continue to sit by my Mourning Fire and hash out my grief in silence, while I tell my soul the truth that my head knows but my heart resists.

And as the truth sinks in, I weep.