“The One Word That Has Transformed Our Family Dynamic”
Just say, “Yes.” When I added this word to my vocabulary — changing my knee-jerk reaction from “Heck, no” to “Why not?” — it changed everything in my relationship with my extreme child.
Our son received his first diagnosis three summers ago. Since then, four more have joined his laundry list of what teachers and therapists call “special needs.” Our rambunctious little ball of energy began showing signs that his Dad and I, with a combined 20-plus years of experience educating and caring for the special-needs population, knew were red flags.
He is almost seven years old now, but we spent the better part of his life from age two to five pleading with specialists and doctors who refused to evaluate a child that young. They doubted, but we already knew.
Our days were filled with unarticulated emotions, explosions of frustration, radically aggressive meltdowns, and even restraint as we tried to prevent self-harm or harm to others. This was more than parenting a defiant toddler or adolescent; we were exhausted each day by repeating over and over again, “No,” “Don’t do that,” “Get down from there,” and “Please stop. That is dangerous.”
We saw therapists, specialists, OTs, play and talk therapists, and natural remedy healers. We finally decided to medicate our son. But what we learned along the way was that he was hearing lots more negative talk than positive reinforcement or praise from us, his parents — the two people who should be his greatest cheerleaders.
This revelation was no surprise to us. We’d felt the weight of our corrections for years, and we felt unable to redirect our son’s behaviors, teach him discipline, and keep him safe while balancing the parental desire to lift him up and make sure he knew we believed he could do anything.
Last August, after more than a year of research supporting the idea of simplification and minimalism as a means to address sensory overload for children with needs similar to our son’s, our family sold our 15-acre farm, gave away at least 80 percent of our belongings, and moved into a 36-foot gooseneck tiny home. The drastic reduction in clothes, décor, toys, and stuff has, in the last year, had a positive impact on our son’s ability to manage his surroundings and to thrive in his daily environment.
The move to downsize has taught us many lessons, but this summer’s perspective change came as both a surprise and a true gift to our family. Having fewer expenses allows us to be a one-income household, so we can “road school” our two kids. Since I am a teacher outside of the home, we have the summer off together as a family of four for the first time ever.
As we planned a road trip to speak to teachers and leaders about how to educate difficult learners — and to tiny house audiences about the benefits of downsizing and minimalism — we knew it would be a summer like no other.
We call it the “Summer of Yes.”
Our son’s specialist had suggested years before that we choose two or three of his behaviors that required behavioral interference and redirection. That meant that any transgression besides those two or three behaviors (barring imminent danger), would not merit a negative reaction. Nothing. No emotion. No huffing and puffing in a silent attempt to convey our frustration. Silence.
Since making this promise and discussing the boundaries and expectations with our son, the “Summer of Yes” has changed our perspective on parenting an extreme child.
Our days are no longer spent waking up and dreading what the day might bring. We no longer impatiently wait for bedtime so we can eke out a couple of hours not feeling scared or frustrated or isolated from the rest of the world that just never seemed to get us or our son.
Instead of avoiding certain opportunities, like a festival or a park, because he might have a meltdown in public, or always ordering fast food from the the drive-through instead of dining in since he struggles with waiting, we say “Yes.” It has been incredible. Our son feels more encouraged and less restricted. It empowers him to take control over his actions.
The first six weeks of this summer we have been on road trips, dressed like cows at Chick-fil-A, visited splash pads, gone to birthday parties, enjoyed picnics at the park, gone putt-putting, and much more. We avoided these activities in the past because we know our son, and it often feels easier to avoid the potentially disastrous meltdown than to risk it and have to pick up the pieces.
He still gets overstimulated. He still struggles to articulate his feelings and emotions. And we still strategize and adjust during meltdowns. Our son has been diagnosed with brain disorders, not the common cold.
But now — now that we say “yes” so much more — we have fun. Enjoying our son feels like a dream! Yes, he still needs more than the neurotypical child, but he doesn’t need me to hover over him, protecting him from every potential disaster. He doesn’t need his dad to redirect every backtalk slip-up. Ignoring these small behaviors has freed up our anxiety and exhaustion. These days we see our son as a problem-solver learning to redirect himself.
Sometimes parenting feels like a broken record of “No,” “Not right now,” and “Stop that,” but it doesn’t have to be. We parents have a choice in this dance of raising our extreme children, just as much as our kids do. Try saying yes. It could change everything!
Updated on April 3, 2020