Saturday, June 20, 2015

Lessons from 18 years of a "disruptive mood dysregulation disorder" child

Just back from a Mountain Bike outing with #1. We had a great time. Can’t be that that many special needs NICA mountain bike racers; it’s something he’s proud of. He’s already telling tall tales of his daring runs. Another happy memory.

It didn’t have to be happy though. I’d planned a 3 day trip — some biking, some hanging, some other stuff. Instead after biking on day one he said he wanted to go home. Of course I’d already paid for two nights of peak season lodging.

It’s not clear why he cut the trip short, but in retrospect 3 relatively unstructured days was a lot for him. To make that workable I’d have had to plan out all 3 days in detail, and get the schedule on his iPhone calendar. I think he was also missing his sibs, especially since #2 is leaving for a 1 week autism away camp. Our kids are close, glued by shared struggle.

So this was yet another test for Dad - I’d spent the money, and now he wanted to bail. Did I fight for the principal of “commitment” or fold?

I said it was a happy memory, so you can guess I folded. The money spent was a sunk cost. It didn’t matter any more.  Once I told him we’d head home his mood transformed and we had a happy dinner. The next morning he hung out while I went off on a bike adventure of my own. We had a fun drive home. Tonight he remembers the trip fondly. I passed the test.

Our drive home gave me time to reflect. #1 is 18 now, and he’s “finished” [1] High School. Overall we’re about where I’d hoped we would be with him. There’s lots to work on, but he keeps making progress. Maybe we all did something right, not least his coaches and teachers.

So what did we do right? I think I can put it into 6 short phrases, 5 of which are deliberately familiar.

  1. Choose your battles.
  2. Make happy memories.
  3. Accentuate the positive.
  4. Cut your losses.
  5. Tomorrow is another day.
  6. Quit when you’re ahead.
Yes, 5 of the 6 are clich├ęs. I did that deliberately; I realized I could take my original language and turn it into something superficially banal. Read it and try to imagine that you’d never heard those words before.
Here are the same ideas in the same order, but with different language…
  1. Greenes/Explosive child: Divide behaviors into A (irreversible harm risk), B (criminal, reversible harm, C (infuriating, obnoxious). Always work on A, take B selectively, C is nice to do.
  2. Make happy memories. Memories are made of doing things. Declare victory early. Take pictures. Put ‘em on the family screens. Burn the happy memories into the kids brains. Soon they’re programmed into thinking life was all happy. They forget the rest…
  3. Kazdin and Shamu: Reward desired behavior, ignore (extinguish) unwanted.
  4. Realize when you’ve got a losing hand and fold. That’s what I did today. After a while you know when you can win and when it’s time to remember what a sunk cost is.
  5. It’s not a sprint, it’s an ultra-marathon. Don’t burn out in one battle, there will be time to engage with a winning hand.
  6. When you’re winning, declare and celebrate victory. Don’t wait to see things to the end, celebrate the moment. Do this right and you have a heck of a winning streak. In this season, we have the power to define when each game ends and a new one begins.
- fn -

[1] He’s actually in an indeterminate state, which is a weird arrangement peculiar to special needs students. He completed his adapted course work, but after the graduation ceremony he was diverted from picking up his diploma. This magically keeps him in the school system, so he’s funded for a “transition” program that’s supposed to teach “work schools”. We think of it as 3 years of somewhat useful entertainment while his frontal lobes develop. I assume this weird arrangement is a time honored manipulation of old statute language.

I may write more about High School (the sports teams were the best part) and “transition” in future. There’s a lot to say, most of it mixed.

See also