Last night, I took my son to his first judo class. He had a blast! He was attentive, (generally) followed directions, and tried every activity that was presented. He effectively used skills to avoid a confrontation with another child that was there who was getting into his personal space. He was totally OWLRIFIC – our word for when he uses Wise Mind to guide his actions. I felt proud of his efforts to fully participate in the class, and provided lots of positive reinforcement for his attempts to use skills to navigate situations that can be challenging for him. I truly enjoyed watching him and seeing the positive changes he is making in his life.
What was difficult for me was watching some of the other parents whose children were in the class. Even though it is designed for children on the ASD spectrum with emotional and behavioral difficulties, some of the parents were clearly experiencing some uncomfortable emotions related to how their children were acting. As I looked around the room, I saw parents whose eyes were swollen with tears, heads were hung down facing the floor, and had their hands covering their faces. As I sat there watching their reactions, I felt a sense of sadness for the children that were looking over to their parent for smiles and encouragement, and instead saw what I was seeing. And, I remembered that I was once that parent, too.
Having a child with different needs can be challenging. I remember feeling stressed and ashamed of how we BOTH acted at times. I remember crying, pleading and yelling to try to get my child to act “normal”. I remember thinking I was a failure as a mother. I went to therapy and talked about my struggles and feelings. Although in some ways, I felt better just getting things off my chest, I wasn’t really changing anything – I still felt stuck. Similarly, my child wasn’t flourishing through any of this. Throughout this time, I repeatedly asked “why is this happening to me/us” . . . “what have I/we done to deserve this drama”? It was a time of intense emotional suffering, and we needed relief.
Before I was as knowledgeable about DBT as I am now, my friend and colleague introduced me to the skills of Turning the Mind and Radical Acceptance – two of the Distress Tolerance skills that help you to effectively live a life that is not really the one you want to be living. Huh? Why would a person want to live a life that they don’t want to live? The answer is simple – because we must accept that reality is what it is – even if we do not like it or it makes us unhappy, disappointed, ashamed, etc. Rejecting the facts, attempting to control that which we have no control over, and trying to avoid pain doesn’t help us to move toward our goals or help us create our life worth living. Instead, they move us away from our goals and exacerbate suffering. I was reminded of this last night at the judo class. As I watched some of the other parents, I remembered how miserable I felt before I started using these skills. I thought about how I felt stuck, ineffective, ashamed, embarrassed and annoyed by both my child’s actions and needs, and my own feelings and behaviors.
Turning the Mind is the first step on the path to accepting reality. It is observing that you are fighting the facts, making a commitment to accept reality as it is, and planning for moving toward acceptance when you find yourself questioning reality or wanting to control that which you have no control over. Turning the Mind can be practiced over and over again, each time you notice that your thoughts or actions are drifting toward nonacceptance of reality. So, in my case, I struggled with accepting the fact that my child is on the ASD spectrum. My attempts to change or ignore this fact resulted in increased frustration and a host of other negative and ineffective emotions, actions and outcomes. By committing to moving toward acceptance of my child’s diagnosis, I began the process of fully acknowledging that although it is not the reality I want, it is the reality with which I must live. By doing this, not only did I became better able to address the specific issues and concerns that are inherent in my child’s life, but I began to learn to regulate my own emotions . . . and, I was able to start down the path of being a more effective parent and advocate for my son.
Initially, practicing Turning the Mind was a difficult task for me . . . I have written before that I can be Willful. The more I practiced though, the further I traveled down the road to Radical Acceptance of the situation. Radical Acceptance – the idea that a person fully accepts that the facts are the facts, that there are realistic limitations on and expectations for every person and situation, and that life is worth living even with pain and disappointment – has provided a new level of freedom for me and my child. It is the state of acknowledging that he has a disorder that I am unable to do anything about. It has released me from the anger and disappointment I once felt, and allowed me to focus my attention on other tasks. It has moved me from struggling against something that I can’t influence, to facilitating changes in areas that I can.
So, last night at judo, I found myself wondering how many of the parents were still stuck where I was before – resisting the reality of their child’s diagnosis, experiencing a host of negative emotions that accompanied a refusal to acknowledge life on life’s terms, and challenging every ineffective behavior rather than shaping positive behavior? I experienced a sense of sadness for those who were so focused on the struggles that they seemed unable to fully enjoy their children’s triumphs. I felt relieved that I am no longer in that place.
Think that DBT skills can help you be a more effective parent and interested in learning more? We’d love to hear from you!