Hacking Your Child's Diagnosis Into a Superpower
A new way of understanding how to parent diagnosed children.
Posted August 5, 2019 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
So, can you fix him?
The parents sitting across from me seem desperate and exhausted. They’ve been living in the shadow of their child’s anxiety disorder for years. They’ve tried play therapy and sensory integration therapy and seen allergists, homeopaths, and social workers. But they haven’t really tried to work with a therapist on how to parent David. They’ve tried to address his disorder, but not the child within it.
But when anxiety strikes, David becomes this unrecognizable ball of resistance. “You practically cannot budge him with a tractor,” says his father. “I mean, we’re all standing there at the water park. All the kids are getting into their bathing suits and running around, and he won’t leave the dressing room! He won’t even come outside to walk around, without getting into the water. He just won’t budge.”
The mingled anger and despair in Michael’s voice is familiar to me—it’s almost more diagnostic than meeting David. Only a diagnosed child can provoke that kind of parental reaction.
As a child psychologist, I don’t treat children. I treat children within families, children within schools, children within friendships, and children within communities. D.W. Winnicott, one of the fathers of child psychology, said, “There is no such thing as a baby.” He meant, there’s no baby outside the context of a parenting relationship.
Here’s a little secret, and it’s one that I wish all parents of children who carry a diagnosis knew. I can’t fix David. No one can. You can’t fix something that isn’t broken. There’s nothing wrong with your child. He is as he was meant to be.
I look at all diagnosed children as superheroes in hiding. The very thing that makes them so difficult to parent, or teach, or befriend is also their superpower. Whether that’s the anger and reactivity of the ADHD or explosive child, or the stubborn resistance of the anxious child, or the awkward hyper-focus of the child who is struggling with social skills—it’s a manifestation of a superpower gone awry.
For example, let’s look at David. In my parenting classes and in parenting therapy, I call David a “Careful Child.” This child’s superpower is all about being careful and cautious in his exploration of the world. Let’s face it—he’s not wrong. The world is a scary place, and it’s getting scarier all the time. Can we really blame a child like David for thinking of all the possible things that can go wrong?
This is David’s brain doing its job. The fear that strikes when David contemplates going out of that dressing room at the water park—that’s fear warning David of all the things that could possibly go wrong. Never underestimate the creative power of an anxious child—they will think of things that could go wrong that would never occur to you or me.
Fear is protective. It’s meant to keep you alive, and that’s a good thing! Let’s look at David’s fear as a superpower—his ability to visualize and imagine and think of all the possible negative outcomes. Let’s channel that!
Let’s allow David to use his abilities to create contingency plans and backup plans to those plans. Perhaps we’re talking to a future engineer or a future risk-management professional? Let’s honor that superpower, and then let’s talk about what skill David would need to get out of that dressing room.
Treating Careful Children like David involves working with his parents. Parents must be taught to honor the superpower by helping David make use of it, and then teach whatever skills are lacking. David and I create a contingency plan for everything that could possibly go wrong at a water park (Water splashing in your eyes! A giant bucket that randomly splashes people when they are not ready for it! Flesh-eating bacteria. Your cotton candy getting splashed and melting all away. Not having fun!).
We come up with a detailed flow chart for each contingency. We assign each one a probability number and a level of discomfort. For example, the probability of getting splashed when you’re not ready for it is about 99 percent, but the level of discomfort is about a 2. The probability of contracting a major disease is .001 percent, but the discomfort level would be 1,000 (on a scale of one to ten).
Now that we know what we are risking, I ask David what skill he would need to go to the water park anyway. His mother suggests bravery, but that’s a pat answer. We all know the concept of telling children to be brave in the face of their fear. We need a much smaller and more teachable skill.
We come up with the concept of being able to tolerate discomfort. Getting splashed when you’re not expecting it is uncomfortable. Well, what if we could rehearse that skill?
Let’s practice getting splashed, splashing others, and being in wet clothes for too long. It was therapy homework but of the fun sort. We devised sponge challenges, water gun races, and outdoor ice bucket challenges.
We tend to use large concepts like “bravery” or “self-control” with diagnosed children, but what do those words even mean? We have to break those concepts down even further, into molecular skills that children can master. I can’t teach “brave” in one day, but I can certainly figure out how to teach “tolerating discomfort,” and that’s a tiny ingredient on the way to establishing bravery.
We also have to rehearse that skill until it is second nature. By the time Michael and David went back to the water park, they had participated in so many splashing fights, water gun battles, and surprise squirts from water toys, they were ready. In my TARGET system, I call rehearsal “Training It In,” and it’s all about learning and over-learning that skill until it’s second nature.
Our family session about preparing for the new school year went very differently than that initial session. We asked David’s superpower about everything that could possibly go wrong on the first day, and it came up with a lot of things and came up with plans for all of them. There was one possibility that none of us could think of a solution to: What if the classroom smells bad?
David thought for a bit and then said, “That’s OK. I know how to be uncomfortable. And then, I’ll get used to it.”
Watch out, world. Here comes a superhero.
© Robyn Koslowitz, 2019
Winnicott, D.W. (1960). The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 41:585-595.