Recently I have been watching a show called “The Dog Whisperer”. It’s a show about people who have dogs who misbehave and this dog trainer comes in and fixes the dogs issues. He does this mostly by fixing the human who owns the dogs issues. I have a dog, who is pretty well-behaved, but I have found that this show actually helps more with my kids. Yeah, I said I am using dog training techniques with my kids…..gasp! Don’t knock it till you try it. This doesn’t work with older kids, but for toddlers and specifically for our daughter, I am seeing some progress. Our daughter has intellectual disability and comes from a hard place of living in an institution her whole life. Kids who live in these type of settings don’t know how to live in a family, and have learned survival techniques that work for them in institutional settings, but don’t work well in families. Most all the dogs on this show come from similar backgrounds. They are rescue dogs from pounds and shelters. They have learned how to survive on their own and as a result have developed some bad habits. They don’t trust anyone and will lash out at those who are trying to help them. This is what we are experiencing right now with our daughter. She is lashing out at us because we are not allowing her to be the boss, as she has been acustomed to being over the past 11 years. We are imposing some rules, like no hitting, and she doesn’t like it. We are pushing her to do things for herself, like feed herself, that people have done for her, her whole life. We are parenting her with her future in mind and not just making a “happy present” as they have done with her in the past. It’s hard on her, and really hard on us. We regularly just don’t know what to do with her.
We want her to grow in her self-care skills so that she can be as independent as possible as an adult, but that makes her life hard right now. She was doing so well in gaining independence and good skills until about a month or so ago and then it all stopped. She refuses to do anything we ask her to do. Her biggest battle is eating. In Hong Kong she was fed with a spoon by a care worker. As soon as she came home we started putting food directly on the table and having her eat with her hands as a toddler would, because we knew she was capable of doing it. With a little resistance, she did this very well. Then we worked up to her eating from a large tray, and then in time, a large plate. She was eating off this plate for a couple of months and then one day decided she didn’t want to anymore and stopped eating. For the past month, whenever we try to feed her she throws her food or just refuses to eat all together. She will eat occasionally when she gets really desperate, but she is eating very little. We have, of course, been in contact with our pediatrician about all this and she encouraged us to hold our ground and keep offering food as we were. I will tell you that seeing your child not eat for weeks on end is very difficult. We could get her to eat if we hand fed her, at least for a little while most likely, but then it would turn into another battle over something else she didn’t like food related. This isn’t about the food, it’s about control. She feels like she is not in control of her world anymore and that makes her mad. We are trying to make her understand that she isn’t in control, we are. Initially, she hates that idea, but the truth of it is she really doesn’t want to be in control. Children are not supposed to be in control in their worlds, they are supposed to have parents for that. But since she has never known what parents are, she has assumed control and is having a very hard time giving it up. This is really hard for us. We know we have to win this battle, but it sure would be easier to just give in and let her do whatever she wanted. But that will not help her as an adult be all she is capable of being.
So, how does this relate to the dog whisperer show? Well, I have learned a few things that have helped from watching that show.
1. Be calm assertive. When we deal with our daughter it is easy to get exasperated and show all kinds of emotions from fear to pain or anger. What I have learned is whatever emotions we are showing her, even subconsciously, she will reflect those back to us. If we are showing her we are angry with her, she will become angry back. If we show we don’t trust her and are afraid of what she might do, she will not trust us as well. But when we are calm and assertive with her, we show her we are to be trusted and respected. We are in control of our emotions and of her as well. (Much easier said than done, most times)
2. Consistency. She has no way to understand if you expect her to eat off the plate one day and then the next day you allow her not to, what you want her to do. You have to be consistent. It’s important with all children, but especially with kids with ID. She needs routine and to know what to expect next.
3. Don’t show affection when the child is in an agitated state. Elizabeth really likes Glenn. She prefers him over me consistently and that is a big issue in our house. She will be very ugly towards me and manipulate situations so that she gets Glenn’s attention. We didn’t realize she was doing this at first because we didn’t think she had the mental capability to do it. We were wrong. She totally does. She is much more capable than she portrays. So, one thing she will do is ignore me all day and then as soon as Glenn comes in the door she will rush up to him and try to gain his attention excessively. One might see this as cute and stuff, but it’s not. It’s manipulation and asserting herself in the position of control. So, when Glenn comes in and she does this, he ignores her until she calms down. Then he calls her over and gives her attention that is appropriate.
4. The adult is the king and queen and the child is allowed to lived in their kingdom. Elizabeth thinks that she is the queen and she allows Glenn to live in her kingdom while the rest of us she seeks to irritate enough that maybe we will leave. Her whole life as been spent in a situation where she was in control. She now has to learn to be not in control and that is a hard lesson to learn. She has to learn to respect us as parents. You teach this to kids in physical ways. For her, when we are out walking at the mall or wherever, she would previously try to hold Glenn’s hand and reach back and hit me. Now, Glenn and I walk holding hands and she must walk behind us. It’s a physical way of showing her what her place in the family is.
Some of this stuff may sound harsh, but it is necessary. If we allow her to continue to act out as she is doing currently, what is hitting, biting, kicking and head butting when you are 11, turns into assault when you are an adult. If we allow her to continue in these behaviors she will be put into a psychiatric ward as an adult. We don’t want that for her, she is capable of much more. It is not her disability holding her back, but her attitude. If we can work hard and get her attitude under control then we can teach her the self-care skills she needs to live as independently as possible and live a happy life as an adult. It is VERY hard! This is the hardest thing we have ever done as parents. But I know that in the end when we can get her to live as a happy, independent adult we will know it was all worth it.