Step-by-Step Strategies for Parents of Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders
By Patricia Robinson, MFT
Autism Asperger’s Digest | November/December 2008
You’re having one of those days. The school called because your son refused to do his math assignment. Or the social skills group you finally tracked down is too full to take your daughter. Or else the insurance company is making you jump through hoops, again. You manage to hold it together on the phone and deal with the crisis, only to find yourself, hours later, totally losing it just because your spouse didn’t feed the dog.
Anger is like that. It can burst forth when you didn’t even realize you were feeling angry. It can be directed at those you love the most, when you’re not even mad at them. And an angry outburst can leave you feeling drained, out of control, and worst of all, guilty.
Raising a child on the autism spectrum is a huge, sometimes overwhelming, challenge. Feelings of frustration are a daily companion as you try to deal with a disorder that even the experts don’t understand. There’s the constant uphill battle in trying to find services, to get insurance to cover them or the school to provide them. You probably feel frantic about finding the right therapies, believing every day lost could be hurting your child’s chances. Everywhere you turn, you get advice, yet it’s all different. Everywhere you look, people seem to be having an easier time with their neurotypical kids, who just don’t require so much effort and care, and their woe-is-me laments seem, frankly, trivial compared to your situation. Top off all these stresses with the ever-so-common sleep deprivation that affects parents of spectrum kids and it’s no surprise that anger takes over.
There is a silver lining to this dark cloud that seems settled over you, though. As a therapist, I’ve spent years helping people learn to manage their emotions, and anger can be the toughest. The good news is that anger management is a skill; one you can learn as a parent and use to help your family run more smoothly. And nothing helps children manage their own difficult emotions more than living with parents who manage their own emotions well. The following step-by-step tips will help you do just that.
1. Understand Anger
Understanding the emotion of anger is the first step in managing it. We’ve all heard the phrase “mixed feelings”, and nowhere is that more valid than when the feeling is anger. Anger is often the emotion that sits out front and center, masking everything else you might be experiencing. It can feel much safer and more powerful to yell or slam down the phone than to admit to deep-seated feelings of grief, worry, and helplessness over your child. It’s not surprising that anger comes out when what you’re really feeling is grief and sadness, worry, frustration, guilt, jealousy, exhaustion, or even boredom.
Anger is also a masked-marauder emotion because we may be angry at one time or in one situation and not express it until later. Most people learned as kids that it doesn’t pay to explode in certain settings, or when dealing with powerful people. So we seethe silently while waiting for a doctor’s appointment or talking to the traffic police. When that’s over though, all that rage doesn’t just go away; instead it comes pouring out at the slightest trigger.
The next time you feel ready to explode, try to look inward a bit. Is anger what you’re really feeling? Are other emotions present? Are you upset about what’s going on right now or is the feeling a carryover from something else?
2. Allow the Feeling of Anger
A basic step in anger management is to allow and accept the fact that everyone experiences anger. Many adults were taught that anger is not good, and that when they were angry as children they weren’t “being good.” The truth is that we’ll never be able to eliminate anger, and that’s a good thing, because anger has a positive, powerful side. It can help us recognize when things aren’t going well and give us the power to make changes. It’s important to learn to accept anger and tap into its energy. The best news is that accepting that your anger exists will instantly take away the pressure of trying to get rid of it.
3. Recognize the Feeling of Anger
Anger, as an emotion, actually has a physical sensation in the body. Everyone differs in how they “feel” emotion, but with practice, you can sense it. Right now, try to remember a happy experience, maybe your child finally mastering a skill after umpteenth trials or a special “I love you Mommy” moment. Try to re-experience the event and sit quietly in your body, noticing how your body feels. Now shift to the memory of an angry experience, such as feeling frustrated or misunderstood. Notice how and where your body changes. When happy, many people feel lighter, especially around the head and neck. Facial muscles relax, lips may turn up, breathing slows. Anger generally brings a tighter, edgier feeling. The arms and jaw tense, fingers curl into fists and the breath becomes more shallow and quick. If you notice anything specific in your body while imagining anger, try to exaggerate it, tightening those muscles even more. This is how your own body experiences anger, and with practice you can start to recognize it early, when the feelings are still small and manageable.
4. Insert a Space
The next step in anger management is to insert a pause before expressing anger. This momentary break can allow you to stop and think, get control, make a plan. It’s easiest to aim first for a tiny moment of control. As soon as you recognize the slightest sensation of anger in your body, take a deep breath. This can grow into a goal of expanding the space by counting to ten or reciting a soothing phrase, such as, “All is well.” or “I can get through this.” The pause will give you a chance to think before reacting.
Another very effective technique is to take a time-out when you feel angry. Time-out is not just for your kids! Many parents have learned that the best way to manage when anyone in the family is losing it, is to step back. Give yourself 15 minutes. Make sure everyone is safe and walk around the block. Those crayon marks on the wall or the cereal all over the floor will still be waiting for a calmer, clearer you.
5. Express Anger Safely
The toughest part of anger management may be learning to express anger appropriately. It differs from losing your temper, because with management your goal is to plan ahead and be in control. We’re all different, so you may have to experiment a bit here. For some people, the energy of anger builds and builds and it can be hard to control unless it’s released in a big way. That’s OK, just plan ahead and try something that is safe while feeling dramatic. You could try pounding the pillows, a pile of clay, a basketball, or your feet. Does all this drama make you feel out of control? You may need to express anger in a more deliberate way. Write an impassioned note in a heavy marker, listing all the ways you’ve been wronged, then tear it to shreds. Start keeping a complaining journal that you pull out just for these times. You can exaggerate and whine as much as feels good. If you’re someone who is a little more social, call a friend and vent over the phone. (This is much better than venting to your kids.) The point is to figure out how you can best acknowledge and express your own anger. The result should be you feel better, your anger has subsided, and you’ve regained control.
6. Channel Your Anger
A long-term solution to anger may be to funnel all that energy into something productive. Don’t just fume about the school district; write them a letter. (Just don’t mail it until you’re calm!). Band together with other parents to bring about positive changes. Consider what you can do to educate those whose attitudes or perceptions fuel your anger. Parents of children on the autism spectrum have done amazing things to support each other, and work toward treatment and research. At the same time, give yourself a break. Caring for your family may be all you can handle right now. Just know that in the future you can use all the knowledge you’re gaining to improve the situation.
7. Take Care of Yourself
Most importantly, take care of yourself. You’ve probably heard this hundreds of times, and ignored it just as many. I’m here to say: Don’t. It’s tough to manage your emotions when you’re lonely, tired, out of shape, or eating poorly. Give up the idea you have to be “perfect” – a perfect mother, perfect wife, perfect friend, perfect citizen. Start small. Even 10 minutes a day geared just to you can help. Lunch with a friend, exercise, meditation, yoga, getting sunlight every day, a healthful diet and plenty of sleep are all things that can make you feel stronger and more in control. Through it all, be kind to yourself. Don’t feel pressure to change the world or even your diet if it’s going to make you feel inadequate. Find something that makes you feel good.
8. It’s a Process
Although the steps of anger management are simple and straightforward, results take time. Try to notice the positive gains along the way, without focusing too much on the end goal. And remember, resources do exist to help you and your child, from the school, through treatment programs, and therapists. Any of these professionals can help you develop an anger management program that works for your family.
Patricia Robinson, MFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in San Ramon, California. She works with kids and their families, runs social skills groups and teaches parenting, with a focus on children with Asperger’s Syndrome, autism and other developmental disorders. Learn more at www.patriciarobinsonmft.com.
Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2008. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.