Maybe you know the feeling… a manager asks if you can work a couple of extra hours one night. You don’t want to, but you’re not sure you have a choice.
A friend or relative would like you to attend an event you sincerely don’t care for, but you don’t know how to refuse while sparing their feelings. Someone close complains extensively about their money trouble, and you wonder if maybe this is a subtle way of asking for cash.
The Guesswork Loop
In all of those situations, you know what you want to answer (“Sorry, but no,” “No thanks,” or “Wow, that must suck”), but you’re unsure. What should you answer, what are you expected to answer, and what would be the polite answer?
Maybe that friend or that manager will be angry with you. Maybe they’re only phrasing it like a question to be polite, and are actually demanding. Maybe they’re only asking to be polite but actually don’t want you to come! Which one is it?
When we torture ourselves in such a fashion, we assume people don’t say what they mean (and with neurotypicals, can we be blamed?), don’t mean what they say, and that ultimately we are responsible for their own emotions.
The Ownership of Emotion-Regulation
In my experience, it is common for people who grew up in stressful situations (with abusive relatives or parents who had a dysfunctional relationship, for instance) to try and guess what is going on beneath the surface of words.
Being able to “read the room” and correctly guess what someone thinks and expects from you is nothing less than a survival skill when your caretakers and/or relatives aren’t the most stable of people. And, of course, being on the spectrum can qualify in and of itself as a “stressful situation:” it tends to lower your ability to perceive people’s intentions and to heighten other people’s tendency to get cross with you.
The question I would like to address here is: how do we interact with children, from toddlers to teens, to avoid giving them the impression that they have to read you carefully before deciding anything?
While this is daunting in itself (think “guilt trip culture”), I believe it is even harder when you were yourself taught from a young age that you should micromanage everyone’s emotional reactions. I will, naturally, focus on autistic children, but these sorts of general principles apply to all neurotypes.
It’s a vast subject, but let’s give it a try.
Note: I will refer throughout this article to the child’s “caregiver.” This might mean a parent, a close relative, a nanny, etc. Basically, someone who takes care of a child and spends time with them.
Two Caregiver Maxims
Two things are our first givens. One, it is a given that children are human. That is to say, it is safe to treat them as rational beings (even if we don’t always understand their logic) with the same general likes and dislikes that all humans share.
Two, it is a given that humans are social creatures. By that I mean that humans will treat humans as their most essential resource in every single situation.
We like other humans so much we see their faces even when there’s nothing, a phenomenon called pareidolia where we recognize faces in objects like appliances, wood grain, and even the moon.
We mimic body language without having to think about it. We’re so incredibly social the first animal we domesticated was a pack creature, and we will pack-bond with literally anything. If you’ve ever felt sad for the bumpy lemon no one will buy, or had a hard time getting rid of an old stuffed toy you hadn’t played with in a year, you know what I mean.
So a child’s need to fit in is one of their most primordial ones.
Instinct and Adaptation
Children are completely dependent on their caregivers, and babies even more so (younger than 12 months old). It is a common assumption that babies don’t have a clue of what is going on around them, and while I wouldn’t argue they have the same perception or capacity of analysis as an adult, it’s wrong to think of them as dolls.
Babies start babbling around five months old, sometimes sooner – but that only means they get the trick around that age. Babbling is partly stim – the vocalizations and their variations make interesting noises and vibrations – and partly imitation of speech.
This explains both why babies have an accent depending on the languages they hear but also why a baby raised by non-speaking caregivers will still babble to themselves. To start imitating the caregivers at five months old, a baby will have started to listen to them much, much younger.
Babies a few weeks old can tell caregivers apart and by five or six months old they can adapt their behavior to the people around them (the classic “baby is a dream with the nanny and a terror with the parents” paradigm).
Babies Read the Room
Very young kids are able to read a room, realize when there’s a tension between people, guess when a caregiver is upset or angry, and to some extent, react to all of that. I don’t mean to say that a 13-month-old will think along the lines of, “Oh, daddy does seem tired tonight, and boy do I find that stressful.” Obviously most of that perspective-taking is unconscious and instinctive.
What I mean is that babies manage to get a general feeling of what is going on around them and are able to adapt to that.
And that is just talking about babies. The older the child gets, the more refined their understanding and capacity to modulate a response will be. Non-verbal children will be more challenging for the caregivers to read because as a culture we rely tremendously on speech, but that doesn’t mean they will have a harder time reading their caregivers. ￼
Atypical Adaptation is Valid
And while autistic people in general might not adapt to their caregivers’ behavior in a way that is perceived as typical, they will still adapt, and these adaptations will have their own internal logic.
All of this to say… it is a human trait to try and generally convince the people around you not to abandon you to the bears, and everyone–children and adults– will do it with various degrees of subtlety and success.
Children want, consciously or not, to be kept safe, to be fed, to be loved, and to be entertained. So as a caregiver, it is your very first job to do those things, but also to convey to your child that these things are unconditional and that the child doesn’t have to work for them.
Meeting Children’s Needs
This seems obvious, and yet it is easy to get lost and start leveraging those basic needs as bargaining chips– or to unknowingly send the message we are ready to use them as bargaining chips.
To avoid letting a child feel like their safety or right to be loved (which, in the end, is roughly the same) is conditional. We all need to look at how we express your own emotions and feelings.
I’m not advocating that you never express anything negative and are perpetually frozen in a state of mild bliss, of course. Let’s keep our eyes on the ball: humans feel responsible for other people’s emotions mostly when they feel like they can’t completely trust those people.
So you want to convey to your child that you can be trusted.
Consistency & Logic
For that, an important piece of the puzzle is consistency. Consistency means that a similar behavior on the part of your child will mean a similar response on your part. A child shouldn’t be forbidden to do a thing they were allowed to do the day before – at least not without a good explanation; because let’s remember, children are rational beings.
Let’s explore an example: a three-year-old is allowed to stand up on the couch when they’re playing. One day, the child is standing up, falls down, hurts their head. As their caregiver, you decide standing up on the couch is not a behavior you want to see repeated.
You tell your child something along the lines of, “I didn’t realize before, but doing this is dangerous. I know you were allowed to do so before, but things have changed. From now on, we don’t stand up on the couch anymore. If you forget, I will remind you.” And of course, when the child stands up again (let’s be real here), you will remind them every single time without getting angry.
Inconsistency & Illogic
A bad example would be something like this: you see your three-year-old being unsteady while they stand up on the couch, and every time they do it, it makes you anxious – but you don’t say anything. Or rather, most of the time you don’t say anything, except for when you’re already stressed out from having a long day.
In those instances, as soon as you see your kid climb up the couch, you tell them to get down and that standing up on the couch is dangerous – and you probably don’t say it in a nice and calm fashion, either.
In the end, your child doesn’t know if they are allowed to stand up on that couch or not, so they will try from time to time, probably checking you out from the corner of their eye to see if today it is fine with you.
You probably think you are doing the child a favor by tolerating a behavior you don’t completely agree with, but the truth is you’re just teaching them that you’re not to be trusted 100%.
The Unintentional Lessons We Teach
The same phenomenon will happen with a behavior you find annoying, but only when repeated. Let’s imagine you’re in a public place and your child likes to yell at a high pitch – this might be a nice stim for them, particularly in a vast open space. ￼It annoys you the first time they do it but you don’t say anything – they only did it once, after all.
But then the child proceeds on yelling and yelling, and after the fifth or sixth time, you get angry and tell your child off harshly. Again, you didn’t think you were doing anything wrong: you tried to let them enjoy their thing, but in the end, you had to put a stop to it. But again, from the perspective of the child, you’re simply mercurial: that same behavior you tolerated five times in a row got you angry the sixth time.
A much better way to react would be to act before you become angry, explaining calmly what the problem is. Perhaps something along the line of, “I know you enjoy making sounds, but this is really loud, and it hurts my ears. If you want to yell like this, you have to wait until you’re on your own in the garden/on the beach/whenever it’s fine to yell. Maybe you can do a quieter stim if you want to stim right now?”
Our second important piece is honesty, but in a controlled way. By that, I mean that we must be honest towards our children, but that doesn’t mean we tell them everything and anything. It means we explain when we feel things. Too, we explain when something doesn’t concern them, so they needn’t worry about it.
Being honest, of course, implies never lying. Lying to children is the best way to teach them they have to second guess us. Try and remember when you found out about a lie you were told: didn’t you feel betrayed? Didn’t you feel like you could have understood the truth if someone had bothered to explain?
Let’s not inflict that guessing game upon our children. When we don’t want to play a game with our child, let’s be honest and tell them: “I am tired, and I don’t want to play now. I promise I will play with you tomorrow after your tea.”
Let’s not promise something thinking the child will “forget in five minutes anyway,” either, or say that something we know to be painful “won’t hurt a bit,” or that the visit to Aunt Carol’s will “only take five minutes.” Children can understand everything if only we bother to explain. So let’s explain.
Even for bigger issues, let’s avoid lying as much as we can. I would only balance that with the notion that children shouldn’t be made aware of their caregivers’ issues – or rather, that the issues might be daunting even to the caregivers.
Parenting on the Fly
Let’s be real. Most of us make it up as we go along, hope for the best, and generally, it turns out alright. Yet sometimes, we don’t know how to pay the bills, or we have to get a divorce, or a relative died and we have a hard time coping.
This is being human, and there is nothing wrong with that. I would argue, however, that a child should be left to assume that their caregivers have their life together, and while they may encounter difficulties, they know how to deal with them.
Striking a Balance
The alternative – letting a child know that, essentially, all adults are big children playing pretend very hard – might make a child anxious and give them the impression that they have to fend for themselves because no one has their back.
Worse, treating a child like a confidant– which can be tempting when you feel isolated or when your child is very perceptive and repeatedly asks if something is wrong – can lead to an unhealthy emotional dynamic that will have repercussions on their later life.
But still, no lying. Caregivers should be honest, but also draw a firm line when something is none of their child’s business. For instance: “I see you have noticed I’m upset, lately. That is because your aunt is sick, and this is making me sad. But I have ways of expressing my sadness, and you don’t need to worry about it. When I’m done being sad, I will be cheerful again.”
Being honest also means using our words, like I described in that previous example. The caregiver doesn’t try to hide their feelings or their impact. Again, the whole point of the exercise is to teach a child that they can trust what they are told about the emotional state of the people around them.
So as caregivers, we should strive to acknowledge our feelings and honor them in an open way. We need to teach our children that when we are angry, or annoyed, or scared, instead of them having to guess it and deduce how to act, we will tell them, so they don’t need to worry about it.
How to Share without Emotional Burdening
This might be hard depending on how comfortable you are with your own feelings, but the more you practice, the more natural it will feel. Let’s look at a few examples:
You are tired from a long day and your child is in high spirits, talking loudly, running around, asking for a ton of attention. It is beyond annoying, and your whole body language displays hostility whether you want it or not.
The child will pick it up and get tense, too. At this point you can either try and endure it (until you burst and yell a bit later), or pause, identify what’s going on, and act accordingly: “Sweetie, I feel overwhelmed right now because I am tired, and you are asking a lot of attention from me. I would like to have a break first, and then I will be happy to talk about your day with you. How about you go and read a book for half an hour? You can stay next to me, of course.”
If this sounds redundant with the consistency thing, it’s because it is– of course, it’s all connected.
When you are scared – because you’re in a situation that is scary for you or because your child is doing something you think is dangerous – it’s the same deal: be honest and use your words. For instance, “I feel scared right now because there are a lot of birds around, and I am nervous around birds, even if they are not dangerous. I need some time to feel better. You can either go and play where I can see you, or stay next to me.”
When you are angry, same deal. Anger is especially tricky to explain because you need to convey both that you are angry with your child, but also that they are not in danger in any way. I strongly suggest you avoid any demonstration of violence such as shouting, gesticulating harshly, or punching things.
Usually, anger is provoked by something the child just did so you want first to make the child stop whatever it was they were doing (hitting a sibling for instance), and then to express your anger.
Always keep in mind that the way you express it is the way the child will learn is acceptable to express anger. Here is a suggestion: “I am very angry right now because we don’t do what you just did. I feel bad because of that anger, so I’m going to go in another room for a few minutes and calm down. I want you to sit here and be quiet while I am gone. I will be right back, and then we can discuss what happened.”
Make sure your child has safe surroundings and they’ll be okay for a few minutes. While away, you can scream into a pillow if you need to or punch stuff – but do make sure your child doesn’t witness physical violence from you. Keep in mind that to your child, you are an omnipotent giant that they rely upon for everything.
If you were in a similar situation and saw the omnipotent giant be so cross with you that they had to punch a pillow, how would you feel? Myself, I think I’d be terrified. Let’s not take the risk.
And once you are calm and have talked the issue through with your child, do remind them that you love them: “I was angry that you hit your sibling because that is a mean thing to do, but I know that you did it because you were angry with them. Sometimes it’s hard to control our anger. I know that you will try to do better. And no matter what you do, I’ll always love you.”
Listen and Respond Accordingly
The final and third piece of our puzzle is perhaps the most obvious, but I feel like it bears mentioning: actually, sincerely listen to your child and don’t play mind games. This is something for older children, but I can’t exaggerate its relevancy.
A lot of people tend to assume that when a person reaches their teens, they become dishonest by nature and need to be firmly leashed. I assume this is done both out of worry that something bad will happen to the child and also, maybe, out of memory: “I lied to my caregivers so my child will lie to me.”
Honesty Begets Honesty
The way I see it, however, is that most things go both ways. A child will usually not lie to their caregivers if they don’t feel like lying is their only option.
How should you convey to your child that they can tell you the truth? By actually listening, both when they tell you something, and when they ask you something.
Assuming a child does something they know you won’t approve of (get drunk, steal something, tries drugs, drive without permit, what have you), in what scenario are they more likely to tell you: if they think you will scream and punish them, or they think they will get help escaping the situation?
Because children will do silly things, some of them you will disapprove of. As a caregiver, you only get to chose the circumstances in which you’ll learn about these.
When a child wants to confide in you, actually listen. When a child wants to argue a rule they feel is unfair, actually listen. And here I’m not saying you should be a pushover and let a thirteen-year-old boss you around; but, if your child feels like they should be allowed to do something, and they have good arguments to defend it, it’s fair to let yourself be convinced. And if you have better counterarguments and detail them calmly, it’s likely your child will accept the decision more gracefully.
And do not play mind games. This goes with being honest, but sometimes we let pride or a weird sense of what’s appropriate take us over. The best way to teach our children they don’t have to try and read our mind is to actually act like we don’t expect them to read our mind!
And that means that when something is on our mind, we tell them. For instance, sometimes refusing a request instead of accepting and resenting it. Or asking for something we need instead of waiting for children to spontaneously come up with the notion.
Basically, when we show our children that we are consistent and honest people who will say what we mean and mean what we vsay, we teach them that they can trust us and be at ease.
This will lead to them assuming that most people work that way and will – at least in a way – help make them immune to mind games, intrigues, and passive aggressiveness. There is a real freedom that comes from assuming that when people want something, they’ll say so.
I do realize that some autistic people have the opposite issue and struggle with even barely veiled innuendos, but I think that assuming there are no hidden meaning, ever, is less tiring that assuming there are always hidden meanings, everywhere.
You can learn to be better attuned to body language and facial expressions. It’s harder, I think, to un-learn a lifetime of distrust and emotional labor.
Apologize & Adapt
And finally, let’s remember that children’s capacity to be rational also means they can understand apologies and adapt to new ways. This means that you can screw up sometimes without fearing you just ruined your child’s life. Which means, also, that it’s never too late to strive to do better. Being a caregiver is a huge responsibility and, plainly, quite hard. It’s perfectly okay to not be perfect as long as we keep on trying.
- On helping children not feeling responsible for other people’s emotions — February 8, 2020
- “You can be whatever you want!” On dealing with high-expectation anxiety — January 23, 2020