by Guy Shahar
Published: 30th July, 2019
Finding the one thing that can make the difference between calmness and anxiety.
My son still sometimes gets into a state of frustration due to some residual fears and anxieties as described in the previous Overcoming Fears article.
We have noticed something that we weren’t able to explain. Sometimes, when we try to help and comfort him during such situations, he is responsive and easily calmed. Other times, nothing works and his frustration seems to be intensified by our efforts. This can also be dependent on the person who is supporting him (he seems more responsive to some adults than others).
For example, if he become anxious about going outside because he is not confident that he is able to understand which are the right clothes for the weather and fears that he might be exposed and uncomfortable, we might try to reassure him that he’s a big strong boy who can cope with being slightly warmer or colder for a short time than he would ideally like to be, and gently remind him that other people have this situation quite often – including us – and that we simply accept it and barely notice it as the actual inconvenience is so small.
Sometimes, and with some people, he will find this reassuring and happily take a step forward beyond his fears, feeling that he has achieved something. Other times, the attempt to help him will simply make him more and more resistant and probably even entrench his anxieties.
What Made The Difference?
Until recently, we had just put this down to what was going on for him at a particular time, or his trust in or relationship with the adult he was interacting with.
But then it hit me what was really going on. It never really had much to do with what was going on for him at the time or the trust he had in us. It had much more to do with what was going on for us at the time and the trust we had in him.
Like very many autistic children (despite appearances to the contrary), he is quite obviously very finely attuned to the subtleties of the intentions and motivations of those around him and who are interacting with him.
So, if we are trying to give him positive messages about his ability to cope with the weather, it helps him on those occasions when our own internal thinking is that we are wanting above all to support him to grow and feel strong and steady in himself, and there is no agenda on our part that he necessarily achieve it on this occasion. We are inviting him to step up if he feels it is something he would like to do. He invariably does.
It does not work on those occasions when we are starting to feel stressed and just want the situation to be over so we can get on with life. There is no option in our minds for this not to be resolved quickly or for it not to be straightforward, as we already have enough to deal with without a new “situation” coming into the mix at this time. The ironic result is that this invariably prolongs and intensifies the situation.
Why Does This Happen?
It goes back to the tremendously important concept of Containment, which we have written about previously. In short, this is the idea of giving the child an environment where they feel safe and protected. As autistic children are so often so intuitive about others’ intentions, it is not what we say or do that has the crucial impact on a child, but what we are thinking, wanting, intending; how patient we are feeling, and so on.
Our son can clearly sense (without being consciously aware of it or able to articulate it, of course) our underlying condition and expectations. When we are trying only to support him and are relaxed enough to accept whatever outcome of the situation is best for him at that time, he feels affirmed and bolstered by this. Importantly, he feels that he is understood and accepted and protected, and therefore safe to come out of himself and take a risk that would otherwise be inconceivable.
When we are preoccupied with our own agenda and concerned primarily with making what we think of as a problem go away, there is no such reassurance for him. He feels pointedly misunderstood, and therefore necessarily unsafe and unprotected: how can someone protect him if they don’t understand or even really care what he needs? So, in that situation, he perceives the world as an unsafe place. If there is volume or intensity in our voice, this lack of safety is accentuated. In these circumstances, it is unthinkable to take such a risk. In fact, we have only confirmed and reinforced his perceived need to keep control, in this case by insisting on being sure of having appropriate clothing and not stepping outside if this cannot be guaranteed.
When we are feeling stressed and fearful about what could happen next, the child will imbibe this stress and fear and take the message that they are in such a dangerous situation that even the adult trusted to look after them can’t cope with it. They will feel helpless and panic will ensue.
When we feel calm and trustful that any outcome of any situation will be fine and nothing to worry about, they will imbibe that too, and take the message that even if they aren’t sure what’s happening, at least the trusted adult is confident enough about the situation to ensure that they get what they need.
How Can We Keep This Up?
Even for the world’s most perfect parents, it would not be realistic to remain perfectly focused on our child’s needs at all times regardless of what’s going on for us. It is totally understandable that we are sometimes stressed by the relentless demands of life. We lead busy and often stressful lives, and when everything is already too much, one more sudden unexpected and demanding situation could be the straw that has devastating effects for the overburdened camel.
Yet it is immensely helpful to be aware of this dynamic. Often, when we notice a situation going in an unwanted direction, it is now possible to simply remind ourselves of how this works, and how by pushing for a specific outcome, we are actually pushing it away, to the detriment of ourselves and of him. Sometimes (not always, of course) it is possible for the mere awareness of this to be enough to empower us to decide to change course.
The parenting journey is not an easy one, but the more we become aware of the way these things work and embrace that and make use of it, the more straightforward, rewarding and fulfilling it can become.