Do not Engage?!

Another really good discussion came up in a support group I’m in. This time about how professionals often recommend to us parents not engaging with our aggressive children and then trying to work with them when they are calmer later. To many of us, this doesn’t make sense. How does this teach our children to control themselves and be responsible adults later in life? Why are they giving us this counter-intuitive advice?

Well there are two sides of this. I hear what the parents are saying. I do. I wish to offer another side that tends to not get explained to us as parents. The reason we are often told to wait until they are calm to talk to them and dish out discipline is multilevel. I’ve spoken to my sister, who is a BSN psych nurse, about this topic more than once. And more than once, she has given me similar advice. More than once I’ve asked her WHY. I mean she’s my baby sister so yea, I’m not afraid at all to challenge her when she gives advice about my kids. I respect her degree, but our sisterhood gives me a free pass to ask questions on a level I wouldn’t think to ask. 😉

First and foremost is harm reduction. Rage can bring about a lot violence and a lot pain. Not just in them, but you too. Sometimes we do things we regret – sometimes things that we meant well at the time but the law deems illegal. So this first level is intended to protect everyone – legally, physically, mentally, and emotionally from harm.

Second level is meeting the person where they are at. If the person is in a disorganized raged state, you can’t meet them unless you go there too. So now we’re back to the First Level. But let’s say you manage to not go there but try to meet them anyway. How can they reason with you? How can they understand you? How will your discipline even make sense? You can’t and it won’t make sense. It will make them more angry and more disorganized as they try to make sense of it.

Third level is understanding that engaging with the person is not the same as managing symptoms and environment. Engaging is trying to reason with them. Engaging is trying to discuss with them. Engaging is arguing with them. Engaging is attempting to force immediate change right now when the mind is in a disorganized state.

Many of our diagnoses include the symptom of disordered thinking. I can say from personal experience that IT SUCKS. I hate it every time it kicks in. It’s overwhelming. It’s scary. And it makes me angry because I can’t control it. Doesn’t matter that anger makes it worse. My own brain doesn’t make sense but the world outside expects me to understand. I’m not making excuses for our kids, I’m just trying to explain what might be happening for some of them.

So how to do we not engage but still teach them consequences and responsibility? Because that’s the real delicate balance that we need and it feels like no one has the answers. I’m still working on that, but I believe it ultimately boils down to building good boundaries. It’s the concept of that the rules are like walls that don’t bend and don’t move. You set them up in clearly and in advance with what happens when they are violated. Then you stick to them.

So blowing up at a game thing is a very common thing. Happens in my home too and I’ve been thinking about this a lot on how I can do this differently. In fact the original post over at the support group has pretty much played out word for word so many times with my 6-year-old I could cry. He knows the rules. He knows if he starts screaming and swearing the controller will go. I don’t even give him the three strikes anymore. I won’t let him escalate that far, but if I touch that controller all hell breaks loose. So is that engaging? I know that doing so I’ve entered confrontation and sent us into an aggressive stand off. How do I hold this boundary without engaging? I don’t want to call for a psych eval every time he starts swearing at the game. That’s a waste of valuable resources and just becomes nuisance calling. I’d rather save those calls for when we have a true crisis on our hands. I could just start pulling the plug on the console, but I know that will also lead to violence – and probably far worse than me touching the controller. Same with throwing the switch on the breaker box. Although, I suppose I could fake ignorance and then just take them all outside to burn that anger off, but you can only do that so many times before they catch on. Then again, they are afraid of the dark and it would be really bad if I were to do this at night. I would then be punishing two boys that weren’t doing anything wrong for the actions of one. Not cool.

So it brings me back to their original advice and the original dilemma. I can see waiting until he was done to just quietly take the controllers and lock them up and say “You have lost this privilege for this much time.” if he was a teenager. My attitude at that point would simply be “You made your bed, now lie in it.” and just simply walking away. If at that point my teenaged son wanted to attack me for it, then fine I can call 911 and let them handle it. That makes sense to me. My 15-year-old is really good at responding to me when I tell him to give the game a break when he starts to get pissed off with it. And believe me, he does get really angry with these games too. I never have to take the controller away from him. My 12-year-old apparently has this figured out on his own and just walks away unless it’s a technical issue with the computer, then I need to step in and help him manage. But my youngest is 6-years-old with no concept of boundaries, incredibly willful, and believes that everything I do is because I am mean and trying to ruin his life. Sorry kiddo, that’s my job. It’s in my job description. It’s what I do.

But I need to do it in such a way that keeps everyone safe and the experts that work with our kids don’t seem to be very helpful in answering that with clear directives that work for everyone involved. However, I did find a website that gives me hope. It’s a site focused on helping caregivers and family members take care of and live with those who are diagnosed with personality disorders. I know, “not my kid” and I hear you BUT their toolbox box has value even if I don’t think my youngest son has Conduct Disorder,which is known to develop into Antisocial Personality Disorder, and even if your loved one doesn’t have a personality disorder.

I learned a long time ago when I realized my children were all special needs but had different diagnoses that you pull whatever tools you can find from whatever boxes you can get. The reason for that is due to overlapping of symptoms. The overlapping doesn’t only happen in our genes – it happens in symptoms and behavior too. Have a child with OCD traits, but not true OCD? That’s okay, still take the time to learn about the real deal. Did you know there is a personality disorder associated with OCD? There is and it’s highly specific. How about strong avoidant behavior but not strong enough to count as Avoidant Personality Disorder? As someone diagnosed with Bipolar with psychotic features and presenting symptoms of PTSD, my care team screened me carefully for a number of other diagnoses due to all the overlapping in symptoms. The difference in therapy options wouldn’t change, but medication options would have changed dramatically. Ultimately I believe my diagnosis is largely based on the class of meds I respond best to.

So welcome to the world of overlapping and the grab bag of the mixed tool kit! Everything is fair game if it works. I’m not here to diagnose anyone. I’m not posting any of this to help you diagnose anyone. What I am doing is trying to help you and me find better ways to live with the people we love.

Pages of Interest at the Out of the Fog Website:

  • Top 100 Traits & Behaviors (each item listed has a link to a new page with more details – like want to do and what not to do, so take the time to find the ones you see in your loved one and see if the site has some tips to help you with that trait)
  • Treatment (the meds listed here are aimed at PDs specifically!!! the counseling and therapies listed are good for almost all disorders – I am not personally familiar with EMDR, never been through it so I can’t speak of that one)
  • What to Do (applies overall regardless of behavior, this is where I find the most help – especially the link on boundaries!)
  • What NOT to Do (stuff I have been guilty of, stuff that I have been on the receiving end of, but doing these things just makes shit worse – honest)

Whatever it is your child has been diagnosed with it is my hope that this post at least let’s you know that you are not alone. There is hope. There is always hope. It is also my wish that the links I have provided offer good, helpful advice that you find useful.

As for me, I am currently working on better boundaries, walking away from circular arguments, and trying really hard to not enable anymore – and not just my children. It’s a work in progress and we’ll see it how it goes with my boys.

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