Thank you for telling me.
The first time I used the "script", Thank you for telling me, was during a shared bath between my older son T and my one-year-old, D. It was the week after I had returned home from my trip to Chicago to get T assessed for Sensory Processing Disorder. My husband and I were tag-teaming and hoping we could wash two little birds with one stone. A few minutes into the bath, however, T picked up a cup, filled it with water, and poured it over my one-year-old's head. D screamed, gasped for air, and then started crying. I warned T that if he did it again, I would have to remove the cup. So he looked me in the eyes, filled up the cup, and poured it over D's head again.
My husband - intuiting what would happen next - whisked away our one-year old and out of the line of fire. I took away the cup and my older son went nuts. He locked his legs and balled his fists, his face turned red, and his neck muscles and veins bulged as his rage mounted. Then he let his anger loose on the tub, kicking with all his might, pounding the water, and soaking the bathroom and me in the process. He screamed a barely intelligible, "No" over and over, in a voice so shrill it sounded like it would go hoarse.
In moments like these, my heart always started to pound and my mind would race. How long will this last? Will I have to restrain him this time? Can the neighbors hear us? Do they think we abuse our child? And I would consider the cost-benefit analysis of moving his body out of the tub and letting him scream until he exhausted himself and giving back the cup to speed us toward bedtime. But I fought my conditioned responses, took a deep breath and recalled the "scripts" that my dear friend, the child development specialist, had taught me while I was in Chicago.
Retaining a feigned calm, bath water still raining down in torrents on my lap, I said to T, It looks like your body is having a hard time right now. What can I do to help you? He continued to scream and thrash. So I waited. Finally, when it seemed his fury was plateauing, I asked again, What can I do to help you? He ignored me for a while, still kicking his legs, and then finally screamed, "I'M COLD!!". He didn't look in my direction, rather his brow furrowed and his chin dug deep into his chest in anger. Thank you for telling me, I said, and helped him out of the bath, wrapped a towel around him, pulled him onto my lap and gently rubbed him dry. He refused to make eye contact and lurched his body away, projecting an aura of passionate hatred toward me that I imagine parents of teenagers are used to.
Now let's pause for a moment. Does this seem like a natural parental response for a mother whose son just disobeyed her twice, looked her in the eye defiantly while doing it, and then screamed, kicked, and splashed water everywhere for a full ten minutes? Who first refused to answer her question and then screamed in her face when he finally did? Maybe it does, and if you are that parent, then one million high fives to you. I am, unfortunately, not that parent. Rather, when my son behaves violently, defiantly, or aggressively towards me moment after moment, day after day, I want to punish him. Deep in a secret and sad place in my gut, I want him to express a shred of remorse or guilt. To display any feeling that would shadow the pain I felt each day while I watched him fail to respond to discipline or behave in an appropriate way.
As a soul who was born a compliant, cheery child and a rule follower from jump, I simply could not comprehend or tolerate my son's behavior. The traditional, behavioral approach that had always made sense to me - rewards for good behavior, punishment for bad - had not worked for my son. Despite the fact that it was what my parents used, my school system had used, and what I felt I should be using to be a good parent. Yet the sticker charts did not motivate desired actions, the time outs did not extinguish T's unwanted behavior. We were not living in the glossy land of cause and effect, where things made rational sense.
So when my friend in Chicago introduced me to an alternative way of parenting my child, it seemed deeply counter-intuitive. One where instead of focusing your energy on stopping unwanted behaviors, your job was to focus on and find ways to address the biologically-driven, root causes of his behavior. As well as rebuilding a foundation of trust and a sold relationship to address those root causes. Because for a subset of kids - especially the differently-wired kiddos or those who have experienced trauma or ruptured attachment - the behavioral approach simply won't work. And apparently, my child was part of that unfamiliar subset.
Let me give you an example with eating. If your child has a physiological response to certain foods - gagging, vomiting, dry heaving, or panic attacks in their mere presence - no amount of carrots or sticks will entice that child to eat, even if he is hungry. You could offer a reward of a mountain of chocolate, coated in rainbow frosting, with rivulets of corn syrup flowing down the sides and he still would not eat one bite of the offending food. Not gonna happen. In the same vein, no amount of time-outs or minutes at the table, where he is forced to sit in front of the food, will elicit the desired response. He simply will never eat the food using this approach.
Here is another example - getting your four-year-old into a car seat. We know that sometimes kids don't want to get in car seats; they dislike going to get groceries or simply would rather be home playing than accompanying you on errands. In these cases, you can sometimes encourage the behavior you want to see with small rewards - stickers on a chart each time they do it without fussing or a threat that they won't get dessert that night. Even rewards as small as verbal encouragement, or micro-punitive measures like negative facial expressions can be effective in these cases. Often, this is enough to get that car seat safely buckled, albeit with some whiny and fussing along the way.
However, if your child has a sensory-driven response to the sound of the car starting, the pressure of the seat belt against his chest, the sun streaming through the windshield - rewards and punishments will not prevent him from writhing, screaming, or arching his back, or fighting violently to get out of the seat. This is because he is having a biologically-driven response to that unwanted stimuli. You cannot carrot away his intense physical reaction to getting in the car seat, just like you cannot discipline away a bee sting. No amount of threats - carried through or not - will extinguish this reactive behavior. In fact, that poor child probably wants to avoid screaming and writhing and to please you, but simply cannot under the circumstances.
The hard thing about all of this - at least for me - is that what we parents observe our children doing, often looks the same whether it is an emotionally-driven reaction or a sensory-driven reaction. It is difficult to discern whether the behavior is primarily driven by preferences and emotions, or brain circuits and biology. And what's more, it is rarely one or the other - kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder or Sensory Processing Disorder are certainly capable of manipulation and the deviousness that comes with being an intelligent kid who knows your triggers. And all neuro-typical kids have sensory systems that are on a bell curve, with some highly sensitive and some not sensitive at all.
A rule of thumb that I developed to help me understand - in the heat of the moment whether - whether something is an SPD-related response vs. a typical five-year-old behavior is rooted in the following concept: the intensity, frequency, and duration of the response. Is the intensity of the response outside of the normal bell curve every time? Does it look like a panic attack or a tantrum? (I.e., could your child stop if you gave in to what he or she wanted?). Is the frequency such that every time you try to buckle that seat belt, no matter what the circumstance or how tired the kid was, you get the same out-sized response? Regardless of whether you are getting in the car to go to a birthday party vs. going to the grocery store? Is the duration more than a 20-minute meltdown even when you attempt to calm the child? Or was there a relatively quick recovery if you help him or her?
This is by no means a scientific or therapeutic approach, it is simply a mom survival approach. A cognitive short cut when my own anxiety is spiking and I have to decipher the root cause of T's behavior and decide a plan of action in the next three seconds. And of course, I still sometimes come down too hard on a sensory-motivated response and ease up when I shouldn't have. It is a complex analysis that is easy to get wrong.
But when T and I arrived home from Chicago last summer - before I really began to understand him and how his brain worked - I didn't have the luxury to come down on the wrong side of this analysis. At that time, my son felt so volatile and so unpredictable, spending a day parenting him felt like trying to usher a wild panther through a church pew. And I was willing to try anything to retrieve my son from the dark planet that he had landed on. I used these "scripts" to go where he was, as uncomfortable as it was, to stop the cycle of relentless rage and the anger. I had to ignore what felt like such an inappropriate tone to take with his mother, in order to first forge attachment. To let him know that once again, and no matter what was going on inside of him, he could come back to earth, be in our family and be safe.
And so beginning last July, no matter what type of behavior T thew at me, I would respond with one of my "scripts" and stay by his side. Of course, I made sure to prevent anyone from getting hurt, but we did not leave him alone in his rage. We would repeat, I can see you're upset right now, what can I do to help your body? And long as he was using words - regardless of the tone, volume, or content - my husband and I would try to respond with, Thank you for telling me. Because those words were one step closer to planet earth and the land of verbal communication.
Now, eight months later, I can report from the other side. I no longer fear my son's explosive behavior, because I have sat through it so many times, that I know he and I can weather it. Increasingly, and as the trust has slowly been rebuilt, his violent meltdowns have dwindled and even become somewhat predictable. They now usually last less than 20 minutes, involve more crying than running and fighting, and can be absent for our lives for a few glorious, consecutive days at a time. Of course, the "scripts" and the parenting approach are not the only causal variable in this equation - intensive occupational therapy, me quitting my job so he could be at home more, and listening therapy have all played a role. But the "scripts" got us through the dark time and to a place where we could sustain daily life. Before we had found an occupational therapist who took insurance, or we even really understood what Sensory Processing Disorder meant.
If there were ever an indicator of how far we have come from last summer, it is the fact that my husband and I can joke about our "scripts", enacting imagined scenarios where they might come in handy. Your next door neighbor tells you that he thinks your political ideals are uninformed or that your dog is ugly and not welcome near their yard. Thank you for telling me. Your boss shares with you that you did a terrible job on that power point presentation and she wishes she had never hired you. Thank you for telling me. Your acquaintances judge your parenting approach and say you are coddling your child, negotiating with a terrorist, letting him get away with murder, and they don't even think Sensory Processing Disorder is a real thing.
Thank you for telling me. What can I do to help you?