I am going to veer off course for this writing and will continue discussing executive functions next time. We are leaving from South Africa today, back to the USA. I completed a series of different trainings and had some time with my mom in Durban as well as some time in the Kruger National Park. We encountered several lone elephant bulls with high levels of testosterone, as they were not close to any females to mate. On one particular occasion, a bull was walking down the dirt road towards us. Normally we would pass by peacefully, even stop to take a picture. This time though, this bull was not a happy camper and we had to reverse our vehicle quite some way, while the bull kept coming towards us. If we went to the left, he went to the left, we went to the right, and he went to the right. Finally, he decided to give and walked off the road. As he started to eat from one of his favorite trees, we put our car in gear and sped up to get past him. He charged out of the bushes, ears flapping, feet stomping, but we finally left him behind.
This encounter made me think. We were visiting his turf, he was on the prowl as his instincts were dictating him, and we were in his way. Our intentions were good, we wanted to enjoy him and we certainly did not want to harm this magnificent animal. He did not know our intentions though, made his own assumptions, and went into fight/flight mode. There was no way we could have whispered to his amygdala, we simply had to leave him be.
So it is with many of our children with developmental delay. When Sarah feels threatened no matter how good our intentions, she resorts to the more primitive parts of her brain and goes into fight / flight. This could look like a real fight, but also be a defensive posture or a “shut down” mode, where reason cannot enter. As well meaning adults we want to be able to use our verbal ability to calm, reason, kindly request, etc., but Sarah’s mind is perceiving threat and even if she was quite verbal, once the fight/flight kicks in, she does not have the same ability to use her verbal skills.
When Sarah does not respond in an equable manner to her parent’s request, her parents feel a number of things. In that car we felt our power dwindling and the beginnings of fear setting in. Likewise her parents feel the same kind of fear when Sarah does not appear to listen or “heed” a request provided to her. When her parents feel out of control of the situation, they themselves can go into a fight / flight as they respond to this feeling of helplessness, but in that car, with a bull looming over us, adult logic simply told us that trying to fight this bull was not going to be the brightest idea we have had so far! We decided to retreat and keep our distance and took our chances at a later moment.
What her parents need to be thinking about is not that she is denying them their authority or their parental power, but rather how are they modeling for her what power looks like so she could follow by example.
So it also would be with Sarah. When she is in fight / flight with no access to reasoning, it sometimes is better to retreat for now, give her time to gain control over her emotions, gain better access to reason, and then to advance in maybe a slightly different way again. Power struggles are often futile ideas, just as it would have been for us to try to overpower that bull that day. And most parents have lived it; the feelings of helplessness leading to not feeling in control and then going over into some action to gain control and so the power struggle begins one more time. The power lies in understanding the game. When Sarah is having a good day, she has access to the best parts of her skill and she will attempt more activities than usual. On a “not so good” day, she will go into fight / flight more often and if her parents persevere with their control over her on those days, she will fight for her own control and pretty soon, we have a blow up on our hands. If we understand that Sarah requires a little more time on those days, if we retreat and come back later, we will not only have provided her the time to get her emotions under control, but also have preserved her (and our) dignity, self esteem and ego integrity. We left that bull intact, and even though a little shaken, we were intact as well.
The power lies in choosing your battles wisely. Do not assume that Sarah’s behavior is “manipulative” in a negative way. She is still developing, still learning how to use her power and her control, and this process would be under construction until the age of at least 24 years according to research. What her parents need to be thinking about is not that she is denying them their authority or their parental power, but rather how are they modeling for her what power looks like so she could follow by example. Tough one, especially when we all carry our own issues. But it is also true and as parents we can only try. When we “goof up” we need to go back and repair, and model to her what sorry really looks like and build empathy in the process as well.
Nobody won, not the bull, neither did we. Nobody had to “win’! Both gained the freedom of being alive, of feeling important emotions and the compromise did not violate our ego integrity and neither did it harm us or the bull. We have stayed on course in order to gain another day and were wiser for the experience.
Until next time,