Saturday, March 21, 2009

Mommy Radar and Learned Helplessness

We parents of children with developmental delays like autism (not limited to autism, though) realize intuitively, very early, that our kids aren't able to share attention with us, and, as an unintentional result, we parents over-develop a kind of "radar" that has us thinking one step, five steps, ten steps ahead of our children. *grin* You know what I'm talkin' about -- the way we can scan a strange room on a first visit, or a park or playground, the way we look for exits, objects that could be mouthed, articles that could be broken, it's like the stuff we do with typical toddlers, except it's on overdrive (maybe even on steroids!) and it lasts waaaaaaaaaaay past toddlerhood!

Those parents don't get to relax, because anywhere they go with that child, that radar must always be working due to the child's underdeveloped joint attention.

That radar becomes a necessity, because if we're not a few steps ahead of them, POOF, they can be gone out a hole in the fence at the playground in a flash! Or they can pick up a glass "pretty" at someone's house and demolish it faster than we can blink! Or eat something they shouldn't.

So, this radar overdevelops, and we don't turn it off at home -- we quit being aware of it and it becomes our way of being with our kid. We get so good at it, that a GREAT DEAL OF THE TIME, we can intuitively read that child's communication SO WELL, that we reinforce learned helplessness in them.

Sound familiar? The child's experience is this one: I don't have to communicate my needs, because Mom watches me with her radar and does that for me, even when we're at home and in familiar territory.

And then all h-e-double-hockey-sticks breaks loose on the rare occasions when Mom's radar FAILS and the result is that we set off an incredible tantrum or meltdown, (the HANDLE approach calls 'em "flare ups").

The "radar" works because we, the parent, assume responsibility for the child, too. I can remember hanging on to my daughter's wrist to keep her near me, or she would bolt while we were running errands. But, I'd wind up overcompensating in places where I could have chosen differently, like at home. You know what I'm talking about: We do OUR part of the interaction, and the CHILD's part, too.

Holding BOTH sides of the responsibility ALL THE TIME is a heavy weight.

Here's something I learned, and I am still learning: If you want to shift the responsibility to your child of communicating her own needs, you need to change yourself, change what you are reinforcing with your "radar".

Are any of these your child? (they were mine, ironically after more than 3 years of early intervention and ABA)

"I don't have to shift my own attention because someone always does that for me by calling my name or using some other prompt"


"I don't have to show Mom what I want because she always knows what's in my mind. I don't have to know what's in hers."


"I don't have to watch for clues around me that a transition is about to happen, because someone will do that for me with prompts and reminders and compensations."

I posted my realization on a Yahoo group where Dr. James MacDonald of Communicating Partners joins parents as we learn how to use ourselves differently with our children, and his response to my post was helpful to me as I continue to think about how to use my "radar". He generously gave me permission to use his words, here. Here are some brilliant highlights from Dr. MacDonald.:

"The dilemma we all have is that we need to predict and protect our children but at the same time give them time and expect more of them.

It is difficult but critical to know the difference.

Let's try to develop in our selves some kind of wisdom or intuition that tells us DANGER or NO DANGER so we can stop and protect when we need to, but also, so we can let the child be himself and respond when we can.

So let's get in the habit of asking ourselves--DANGER OR NO DANGER?

When it is NO DANGER, let your child be free and then respond and make it interactive.

Out of rational fear, many of us tell the child (usually nonverbally) I WILL TAKE CARE OF YOU NO MATTER WHAT. And it can be just that unnecessary 'taking care' that keeps the child in a learned helplessness,or as I prefer, a LAZY mode of operating. So let's get into a habit of knowing quickly when to PROTECT--and when to MOVE ON. Think of your job now as catching yourself when you are about to do for your child when he needs to do for himself...

Remember our job is to prepare our children for relationships with people who will not CARE as much as we do.

Carolyn was right=== put on a stranger hat and act like a stranger would by not doing for the children what he can do for himself. You will find that most of the time you and your child can move on and only rarely do you really need him to protect."

The highlighted text are the parts that stuck out for me as I continue to figure out how best to use my "radar" to help my child to interact and communicate.

Charlotte Mason wrote extensively about habit formation -- Dr. MacDonald's words about a "lazy mode of operating," remind me of Mason's words about the importance that children develop a "habit of attention", which prompt me to dig up some Charlotte Mason materials in order to study her words more closely. Here's one link, if you are interested, too.

Thanks, Dr. MacDonald, for allowing me to share your words.


Anonymous said...

Penny, I am really enjoying getting to know you better and better through your blog and facebook. Your kids are lucky to have you for a mom.

Penny said...

Thanks, Ann. I fall short a lot, but I do try! :)

PaintCrazy said...

Very interesting topic. An advocate that I used to work with before we left school and I were just talking about 'teaching' our kids the so many things that more typical kids don't need to be taught - like how to hug, who to hug, how hard to hug, and when hugging is appropriate. You teach it and then hope they use what they learned appropriately. I've become much better at this kind of thing since we started homeschooling since now *I* am responsible for him learning ALL of these social skills but in just reading what you wrote I realized that it's also allowed me to turn off my mommy radar more often and allow him to test the waters with some of these new skills. Have you found that to be true too?

Penny said...

PaintCrazy, YES, I have found that to be true, too!

I also realized that I slip back in to "high alert" radar at certain times. In January, my daughter had an allergic reaction to antibiotics and it took about four weeks to see her begin to calm down. My radar went back on "high alert" out of necessity, and turning it back down again was a challenge for me.

Slipping back into that mode is easier than backing off. (for me)

walking said...

If you ever want to talk CM, I'm here for you!!!! :-)

This is definitely true for Pamela's language development. When we started RDI, I did not hit the association method as hard because I knew I had to focus on nonverbals because that is the base for all language. What changed was that we still did our one hour of stuff, but I did not emphasize it during the rest of the day. I focused on nonverbals . . .

Now, she is stage 3 and, because she has that nonverbal base and is using declarative comments herself, we are expecting more elaborate language. She had gotten into a habit of being vague. She is sharing some neat stuff! The other day when we were counting (grapes of math post), she was counting mentally and we were used to counting out loud. I said, "I don't hear your words." She said, "I'm doing it silently." She decided to take a shower and wash her hair. I was upstairs cleaning house when she told me. When finished, she came up to me and said, "I did it!" Then, yesterday, she was watching television and got up to leave the room. She turned off the television, turned to Steve and said, "I'm putting it down. I'll be write back. Don't touch the remote!" THREE sentences in a row!!!!!

Penny said...

Tammy, do you have blog entries at your place that reference what Charlotte Mason called the "habit of attention" that I could link to my blog entry?

Maybe you would like to write a guest entry for my blog. :)

Tajuana said...

This is a really great blog. My son is on the spectrum and I can so relate to lots of things you share.

I have an award for you on my blog at

Dani G said...

This is the first time I've seen this post. It's a really good one. I just realized that I always call her name to shift her attention. AND I help her with transitions by telling her what's next: i.e. "so-and-so is coming over soon."

The radar... I totally have it. I know where the bathrooms, exits, mouth-able objects are :)

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