Wednesday, 22 August 2018

When Is A Spirited Child Not Just A Spirited Child?

I've just finished reading a book which is well known among gentle parenting circles - 'Raising Your Spirited Child' by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. It bills itself as 'a guide for parents whose child is more intense, sensitive, perceptive, persistent and energetic'.

Sound familiar?

Photo by Froken Fokus on Pexels

It's been on my wish list for years as until about a year and half ago, I thought I had a spirited child. Well, she probably is - but it turns out that the reason for her 'spirited' nature is that she's autistic. You see, as I read Kurcinka's description of spirited children I found myself getting frustrated because she was very accurately describing my daughter. She struggles to adapt to new situations, she has sensory issues, she has intense responses and she has what seems like boundless energy (but which is actually a need to feel her muscles working which can even outstrip her energy levels). If I'd read this book years ago it would have validated my view that my daughter was simply spirited, and nobody else understood this. But I was wrong.

It's hard to admit that. It's hard to say that I'd convinced myself of a version of my daughter that masked who she really is. The spirited/strong willed/high needs child is a common topic in gentle and attachment parenting - they're the ones, we're told, who will go on to excel in life, do great academically, have a fantastic social life and get top jobs. But as children, they're exhausting. They're harder work than other children so as parents we have to rise to the challenge.

Paired with this is the idea that gentle parenting/positive discipline/whatever label you want to give it takes a long time to 'look like' it's working. Naughty steps and reward charts are easy wins, you can see change very quickly, but that change may be short lived and create further problems down the line. Positive discipline, we are told, can take months or years but reaps long term benefits. Often when parents following these techniques come across issues with their child, especially relating to childcare/school, the answer from other gentle parents is that they're just not developmentally ready and will learn in time, and/or that the childcare provider/school just don't understand spirited children who have been allowed to develop in their own way. Major behavioural issues are often put down to a problem with the attachment between parent and child - something must have happened to make the child feel disconnected from the parent because well-connected children are cooperative and happy.

And I'm not denying that most of this is true. I'm sure there are children who are simply spirited with no further signs of neurodiversity, and I'm sure gentle parenting, while it takes longer, will create lasting benefits for our children. But we need to be mindful that sometimes there really is something else going on.

Despite describing my autistic daughter (and probably lots of other autistic children/people) very closely, guess how many times Kurcinka's book mentions autism? OK, I'll help you out: never. Not once. There is a cursory mention of ADD and sensory processing issues, but autism isn't discussed at all. For me, it was a glaring omission. Had I read this book two years ago, it would have added to my conviction that my daughter was spirited and I just wasn't parenting her well enough. Because that's what it boiled down to. I tried so many different techniques, read so many books, but nothing was working. I worked on my connection with my daughter, wondering how it was even possible that, despite giving up work to care for her and spending almost all my time with her, our attachment wasn't strong enough. I even tried love bombing, but nothing would fix the challenges we were having.

Because they weren't regular parenting challenges. They were the result of my daughter's wonderful brain giving her a totally different view of the world. And while some 'regular' parenting techniques do help with her, ultimately all I was doing was trying to force her into a hole she didn't fit in and making myself miserable in the process. I was trying to fix what didn't need fixing, it needed understanding.

So I'm not saying I'm done with gentle parenting. I do still strongly believe in it. But we need to be honest that sometimes, we need to look at alternative explanations for a child's struggles. 'She's just spirited', 'it'll take time' or 'the connection needs repair' are not always going to be the right answers and can lead to parents feeling like they're just not good enough to deal with their child. We need to be honest enough to say that there may be more to their child's issues than a spirited temperament, and signpost them to where they can get further information and support.

I still hope that my daughter will excel at school, have a great social life and get a good job, like all those articles promised me. But at least now I know that, to achieve all that, she will need support individualised to her and her particular form of autism. And I can start to see that the challenges we face don't mean I'm a bad parent. I'm not perfect, and I still have a heck of a lot to learn about how to face those challenges, but they're not my fault.

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