Friday, April 15, 2011

When does good parenting become too intense?

In the midst of a sickness ridden home last weekend, I found myself watching an amazing PBS documentary about a family with a young boy, Graham, who had been diagnosed with autism. As I watched, it became clear that he actually struggled with “autistic-like behaviors” and perhaps was not even correctly diagnosed with autism. Wonderfully inspirational, I smiled and cried at the same time while watching. This excellently produced story is by Erik Linthorst, who also happens to be Graham’s father.

The story captivated me for a number of reasons, and as a mom of three toddlers with delayed milestones, I couldn’t help but draw parallels from the Linthorst family to ours. There is an undeniable pull for every parent to make sure their child succeeds. Admit it, we all really want each of our children to be the best. (Yes, there is a little Tiger Mom in all of us, isn’t there?) So when you see that your child is behind, or struggling in development, you certainly mourn a bit, but you also take action and get busy. You want the best for your child, to help her catch up in her milestones, or to reach her highest potential no matter where that ceiling may be. Of course you accept your child’s uniqueness and the limitations of whatever the diagnosis may be, but that doesn’t stop you from getting the needed intervention and correct therapies.

That’s part of why I loved this story - this couple never stopped looking for the best for their son. Never. And I hope that’s me in relation to my own children, but there is also a piece of the story that scares me. Graham’s mother says more than once throughout the program that she feels pressured to save her son’s life - that if she doesn’t engage 200% all the time, never sitting down at the playground, always interacting, always pushing, always pressing into the next step - Graham won’t move on. The feeling of you can never, ever let up, because “I have to save his life.”

I get that feeling. I really do. It’s a weight that carries so much guilt you sometimes struggle to breathe. And as much as I respect the Linthorst family and all that they’ve done for their son (and many others by sharing their story), I’m compelled to say, “Wait, really? Save his life?” Is that amount of intensity appropriate and warranted?

Maybe it’s just that if it is warranted and required to be a good parent, then I’ve got more than Trouble in River City - I’ve got a disaster. I have 3 toddlers - all with delayed milestones and it’s simply impossible for me to ensure that I’m always 200% engaged with each one of them. I mean absolutely impossible.

But here’s the thing, is it really necessary to be that? Yes, it’s vital for me to engage with my daughters. It’s important to play one-on-one with each of them and get as much eye contact as possible. It’s critical to speak with them, to read to them, to play with them, and to do it all one-on-one whenever I can. Because I do want them to speak someday, and I do want them to be able to function in society to the best of their abilities. Yet, if I end up calling that “saving their lives,” it puts me in a no-win emotional tug of war not only between the three of them, but also with my teen, Lotte, and every other task that I am required to do for daily survival in our home. I don’t think I could withstand that tug of war.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to minimize the concerns or urgency of action that Graham’s mom had (and has), or any other parent of a child with a difficult diagnosis, but I do wonder if the intensity sometimes overshadows the larger picture. Could it lead to such a level of guilt that you wind up in a chronic depressed or paralyzed state? Does it wear you out to the point where your reserves can’t battle illness? How much can you expect of yourself, other than to love and accept your child, and take steps every day to help them grow a little bit more?

I have friends with autistic children - they have questions I could never imagine, like “Will my child ever speak to me at all? Will he ever be able to use the bathroom alone? I am lucky, my questions about my daughters aren’t that deep (although sometimes I do wonder if Angel triplet will ever communicate with me verbally besides humming). But really, I know my daughters will catch up - I’m just not exactly sure when. And while I have no desire to minimize those very profound issues that other parents face, the statement “save his life” still haunts me.

What do you think, is it possible for good, loving parenting to become so intense it hurts the parent(s) and perhaps the child? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


  1. I think you're pretty much on target with your thinking. You also owe yourself and the other people in your life a whole person, and weigh the cost of being so focused that you & others suffer for it.

  2. Thanks Pam - it's so easy to demand more of ourselves than we could ever pull off.

  3. You're absolutely right - and, yes, this sort of thing does indeed end up hurting the child as well. I used to read and post to an Internet group for autistics and their family members, and learned that there are a lot of people out there who have suffered from growing up with just such an attitude on the part of their parents. What it means to them is that, firstly, they constantly get the message that they aren't good enough/acceptable as they are and that they need to change, and, secondly, their life becomes about therapies and behaving in a certain way that's alien to them and needing to change into something they're not, and so they just don't have any time to relax and be kids.

    1. What a great insight, Sarah, and to be honest, not one I had thought of before. The idea that getting needed therapies can also lead to enforcing the idea that the child is somehow less is certainly something you need to balance as a parent. It reminds me of a post I recently read on someone's Facebook page in which she reminded all of us and herself our atypical neurological children can certainly hear us - as we discuss and manage them all within their earshot. Would we ever think it was okay to do that with a neurotypical child?