My son is signed up for a 4-H club involving animal husbandry. We signed up for extra shifts of animal clean-up when some of the other kids in the group had scheduling difficulties. My son enjoys the work, but being there for the extra shifts is turning out to be sensory and social overload. I hate to back out of the commitment, but I also need to balance his needs. How do I decide what to do?
Divided in Danville
Having a child whose needs are atypical can be a huge challenge. You can’t always predict what will work for them and what will not. As a result, you make your best guess and then hope for a positive outcome. When it is clearly not working out, you have to make choices. On the one hand, you don’t want to put your child in a position where they are almost certain to melt down. On the other hand, you are trying to model responsibility, which means following through on your commitments. In your own head, you may be arguing with yourself over whether you are making excuses or explanations. You also may worry about the impact on others whose problem this isn’t.
We’d suggest managing this by taking the following steps:
1. See if you can slightly compress or downsize the commitment (can you end a week earlier?). Looking at reducing the expectation, even if it turns out not to be possible, provides a good opportunity to show your son that you take his needs seriously, as well as modeling good “real-world” self-management skills.
2. Plan ahead with your child for what you will do if it gets too hard (for example, a mass escape of animals from the pen), and how each of you will manage your stress. A planned break in a predetermined, relatively quiet location can ease transitions and ensure that your son has an opportunity to take a few deep breaths and regroup if he feels he is becoming stressed.
3. Provide support and scaffolding so that the time he is there is as positive an experience as possible. For example, not sending him to do hard tasks all alone would be a great suggestion, but then you are faced with potential criticism from others who say you are undermining his independence. Ignore them. You know what your child needs better than they do. They’ll think even worse things if your child has an actual meltdown.
4. When the activity is over, discuss it with him and share your perspectives. Was it as bad as you or he thought it would be? Why or why not? What parts went well? What can you do differently next time?
We have no doubt that your child will find 4,698,573,948 reasons why the entire experience was awful, but hang in there. Far too often, we tend to accept our child’s negative first response and run with it, which cements the spontaneous opinion in place. If your child says, “Oh, I hate this,” and you remind them that they had fun last time, you are in fact inviting them to find a zillion reasons why it was even worse. If instead, you can approach it obliquely, you have a much better chance of helping them to break out of the all-or-nothing paradigm which holds them hostage. Sometimes we need to respond to “this sucks” with “Really? I can see how you would say that, but I thought this part was pretty good. What about you?”, and gently model a third way of looking at it that is less binary.
Remember that these are all life skills you are helping him with, and it will take time and practice. You don’t expect your child to learn his academic lessons overnight, so try to be patient while he works on learning these.