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The Same But Different

with Susan Wagner

Susan Wagner is a freelance writer and editor, an avid runner and a mom of two boys. She's tentatively navigating the teen years with her oldest son, who has ADHD and an anxiety disorder (because puberty isn't hard enough already). [Insert blog name here] chronicles her efforts to balance science homework, basketball practice and panic attacks without completely losing her mind. Follow Susan on Twitter and Instagram (@workingcloset) and at her personal blog, The Working Closet

The Reading Hour: Why This Childhood Ritual Worked For My Kids

Categories: children, family, parenting, special needs kid

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The first thing the doctor tells you when your child is diagnosed with ADHD is that structure and consistency are incredibly important. In our house, this translated itself into specific family rituals that were designed to keep everyone focused and calm and functioning. Like reading together as a family.

When my kids were little, bedtime was a big deal. I had read somewhere, after Henry was born, that it was crucial that the baby have a consistent bedtime routine, every night, although I can’t remember now what that was supposed to do. (Promote good sleep? Maybe, but Henry was a terrible sleeper, always, despite all the routines in the world.) Bedtime was sacred at our house. And an important part of the bedtime routine was reading.

My husband and I are both big readers; we just took for granted, from the beginning, that our kids would be, too. We have always had books in our house, and one of our favorite family outings is still the bookstore. When the boys were very small we read picture books — our favorites were the now-out-of-print “Toot and Puddle” books, about two pigs who lived in rural New England. As the boys got older, though, we started reading bigger books, and we quickly learned that many of the chapter books for young readers are terrible. My kids loved the Magic Treehouse series, and while I appreciated how well-researched they were, the bad writing was painful to me. Too many incomplete sentences. There had to be something better.

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The New Mom Motto: What’s the Worst That Can Happen?

Categories: children, parenting, special needs kid, stress

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I have a new mantra these days: What’s the worst thing that can happen? I ask myself this all the time, in moments where I am getting overwhelmed and stressed out, and I use it with both of my kids. And no matter what the situation, the answer is rarely anything of real consequence.

What do I mean by that? Here’s an example: Henry loses things, all the time. Most frequently, he loses his schoolwork. Assignments disappear into his backpack or his binder or his cubby and show up on the weekly grade report as zeros. Until recently, he would completely fall apart when this happened because those missing vocabulary cards meant that he would fail English which meant that he would fail seventh grade which meant that his life was ruined and why couldn’t I just leave him alone?!?

That was always fun.

And then one day he was frantically searching through his things for a paper he had lost and starting to flip out and Wade said to him, “If you don’t find it, what’t the worst thing that will happen?” Henry started to yell about failing out of school and Wade said, “What is your grade right now? What will a zero do that that grade, mathematically?” And Henry stopped yelling and did the math and said, “Huh, so if I get a zero on this I’ll still have a B in the class.”

“Right,” Wade said. “That’s the worst possible thing that could happen. Your grade will go from an A to a B.”

That moment changed our whole family.

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Why “Fear” is My Co-parent

Categories: children, parenting

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When I was little, I would occasionally have a nightmare. My father would come in to my room and bring me a tiny Dixie cup of water. He would tell me, very seriously, that this was Magic Water and it would take care of the bad dream, but I had to drink it all for it to work. (I’m sure that was just to stop the crying — kids can’t drink and cry.) He would sit on the side of my bed and talk to me about what we were going to do the next day or some other mundane, unscary thing. When I was done with the Magic Water, he would tuck me in and kiss me on the head and say goodnight.

And it worked, every time.

My friend Rita made monster repellant for her kids when they were small; she took a spray bottle and filled it with glitter and confetti and before bed, her preschooler would go around the upstairs of their house and spray anywhere he thought there might be monsters lurking. He was very serious about it, and like the magic water, it worked to keep the scary things at bay.

These days, my kids are big and the scary things don’t respond to magic water or glitter spray. Instead, it takes therapy and anxiety medication to get us through the day. Although maybe that’s the same thing.

I never realized what a big part of parenting fear would be for me. I like to have all my ducks in a row, all the time, but ducks are unruly and they don’t like to stay lined up; they go where they want to and won’t always cooperate. Children are the same way, even the good ones who, for the most part, don’t cause anyone any worry — there’s always some monster lurking out there that needs to be managed with glitter spray and a shot of magic water.

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Why My In-laws Don’t Get a Say In How I Parent

Categories: family, mom guilt, parenting, support system

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It takes a village to raise a quirky kid — or at least to keep that quirky kid’s parents from losing their minds — and my husband and I are fortunate: We have a wonderful support network of friends and family who are there for us, all the time. And while it would seem that there would be no down side to that, there occasionally is, particularly when we talk about people who are super invested in our son and his life, and who have strong opinions about how we should be raising him.

For example, the grandparents.

We’ve always known that Henry was different, but it’s only been in the last few years that we’ve clearly identified what is different about him and begun to find strategies that really work for him. When he was younger, we would talk with our parents about how hard it was to raise him and how much we were struggling. And they were always there with a sympathetic ear and a suggestion.

My mother-in-law thought we were just too hard on Henry, too strict, that if we would just relax a little, we would all be less stressed. My dad, on the other hand, recommended that we push him a little harder, make him do more things, challenge him a little more. Their suggestions, while always thoughtful and well-meant, often left us feeling even more defeated, because we had tried all those things and nothing worked. Clearly we were failing at parenting — everyone could see it, even the grandparents.

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Goodbye Life List, Hello To-Do List

Categories: mom guilt, parenting, stress

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iStock_000019124471SmallA couple of years ago, I went to a retreat in Palm Springs. We were asked to create a life list and to come for the weekend with five items from the list that we wanted to prioritize in the next year. We would each present our five items to a small group — the idea was that if you put something out there, said it in front of other people, then you would commit to doing it, and you could enlist the group to help you get it done.

I decided that my five things would be big items, because why not? Go to fashion week, run a half marathon in Paris — I don’t remember the others, but they were equally over the top. They were all things that I genuinely wanted to do, but even at the moment that I was sharing them with my group, explaining why I chose these as my five things to accomplish in the next year, they seemed unreal and unattainable.

Over two years later, I have not done a single thing on that list. (Even though I cannot remember what the other things were, I am positive that I’ve not accomplished them; I feel like I would remember if I had, right?) I would still like to go to fashion week, someday, and I still think a Paris half marathon would be super fun, but those goals don’t have anything to do with my real life and they’re not a priority right now.

Instead, I navigate my days with the help of short to-do lists, little post-it notes covered with reminders about work deadlines and housekeeping projects and dinner menus. Every morning, I sit at the table while my kids eat breakfast and write down all the things that need to get done that day; as I finish them, I cross each item off, frequently with a little flourish because look! I have accomplished something! Even if that something was just scheduling a dentist appointment or running a few miles or wiping down the bathroom counters with bleach. I’m calling that a win. Every single time.

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4 Bad Parenting Decisions That Have Been Good for My Family

Categories: children, parenting, special needs kid

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Henry is unpacking his homework at the kitchen table while I clean up after dinner. “Tell me again what all you have tonight,” I say. (I have already asked in the car on the way home from school, but that was hours ago.)

“Literature and social studies,” he answers, “and math, but only the odd problems, so that won’t take long. Can I download some songs?”

“Sure,” I tell him. ‘You can get two songs now, and two more when you’ve finished the lit and social studies assignments.”

“Great!” he says happily, and puts his ear buds in and starts searching for new music.

When Henry was four, the psychologist who did his very first evaluation told me two things that have been invaluable to me as a parent. The first was that Henry’s behavior — the inability to remember directions, the physical hyperactivity, the refusal to engage with things — was not something he did willfully. “He’s not trying to push your buttons,” the psychologist said. That was a huge relief to me, because I was sure, of course, that his propensity for jumping off things and running out into parking lots was my fault, somehow.

The second thing she told me was that Henry was a kid who would respond better to rewards than to punishments. I was baffled by this — how would that work? What was the alternative to putting him in time out when he misbehaved? How about rewarding him when he behaves, the doctor suggested — just with little things, like a word of praise or a high five, something to mark the fact that he was doing it right.

And that’s how I became the mom who buys her kid new music every time he finishes a math problem set.

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90 Days, No Worries; Or, Why Therapy Matters

Categories: parenting, stress, support system, therapy

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Not long ago, I wrote on my personal blog about some advice my therapist gave me: She told me to stop worrying about anything that was more than three months away. (More about that in a bit.) And a very helpful commenter said, “If you can afford a therapist for your first world problems (it’s called LIFE) then you have had a very cushy life.”

Honestly, that made me laugh. I had written, in the same post, about how I was giving up eating wheat and really missed scones, and how a pair of not-inexpensive J. Crew pants were my new favorite thing to wear. Of all the first-world issues to pick on, seeing a therapist seemed like the least frivolous of the things I was sharing with my readers.

From a material standpoint, my life is very comfortable; my husband and I both have good jobs, and we live in a nice house in a safe neighborhood. Our children are healthy and intelligent. We have wonderful family and terrific friends. We are, as my Oklahoma neighbors say, very blessed.

So yes, my life is pretty “cushy.”

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Living in a Drug-Free Zone

Categories: children, parenting, special needs kid, stress

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Male doctor holding out medicationEvery morning, Henry takes a Claritin and a multivitamin. In the evening, he takes two Benadryl and two fish oil capsules. Occasionally, if he has a headache, he takes a couple of Tylenol.

Barring an illness, that’s the extent of his medication.

You’d think a kid like Henry would be a good candidate for medication, both for his ADHD and his anxiety. Unfortunately, he’s not; he falls into a very small percentage of kids, almost all with Aspergers, who don’t respond well to the available meds. We’ve tried virtually every ADHD med on the market, both stimulants and non-stimulants. Each time, the doctor lists the side effects and reassures us that odds were we won’t see any of them. Each time, often within days, we’re calling to ask if we can stop the meds because we’re seeing all the side effects.

The first medication Henry took was Adderall, and honestly, the change was amazing. My formerly disorganized, unfocused kid could suddenly stay on task and keep track of his things. This meant that he was less frustrated, which meant that he was happier and less stressed. It was remarkable.

Until we noticed the tic.

Henry has a couple of small tics — he scrunches his face in an odd way and makes little humming noises. The tics aren’t particularly bad or noticeable, but they’re worse when he’s tired or anxious. On the Adderall, the tics, particularly the scrunchy face, became pronounced. I called my pediatrician, hoping she would say it was nothing. Instead, she said, “You need to stop the medication right now.”

So we did.

Other medications had other side effects; the most common were an inability to sleep and a kind of generalized rage. Instead of helping my son to focus, the meds made him angry and wired.

So you might expect me to say that I am 100% opposed to ADHD medication, right? Because they’re bad! And dangerous!

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Why I Drink (And Why I’m Trying to Stop)

Categories: mom guilt, parenting, stress, support system

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wine glassYesterday, when we left the house for school, it was 22 degrees with a brisk north wind. I suggested that the boys might want to wear their winter coats, which we almost never do because it’s almost never that cold here. The coat Charlie is wearing is one I bought Henry last winter — he outgrew it before we even took the tags off.

Henry’s coat, on the other hand, is brand new. I bought it a month ago and he tried it on then and said it fit. I did a little happy dance because the whole thing was so easy.

I should have known better.

Yesterday, as we were leaving the house, Henry put the coat on and announced, “This coat is too small.”

“Ok,” I said, a little skeptical, “can you wear it just for today?”

“Sure,” he said.

In the car on the way to school, he started to flip out. “It’s TOO SMALL! I can’t wear it!”

“It’s not a big deal,” I told him. “Just wear your sweatshirts today. You’re not doing to have recess if it’s this cold. You don’t really need a coat.”

“Stop talking,” Henry said. Because clearly, the talking was making it worse. For all of us.

This is a fairly typical morning at my house. Henry’s anxiety means that little things — like clothes that don’t fit exactly right or his backpack not holding everything he needs or a contact lens not going in perfectly the first time — seem overwhelming and horrible. His day, he will tell anyone within earshot, is ruined, already. And he hasn’t even gotten to school yet!

Yesterday was, on the scale of things, not a particularly bad morning. On the best days, I feel edgy and anxious; on the worst days, I wind up crying on the drive home from school. Either way, I usually text one of my other quirky mom friends with a joke about how it’s 8:00 am and I really need a drink. Already.

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Guilt Trip

Categories: children, mom guilt, parenting

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Fall S CurveI’ve been trying to practice guilt-free parenting, but it’s hard; while I’m getting better at letting go of the little things, that still leaves a lot to feel bad about. Always.

A few weeks back, we had one of those nights where both kids had something big going on. Henry had a concert; Charlie had a baseball game. They were in two different places at the exact same time.

It was going to be tight. “If we take two cars,” I told Wade, “then I can take Henry home after the concert and come meet you at the game. And not miss anything!”

Of course, that’s not at all how it happened. After the concert, Henry was in one of those happy, communicative moods that are hard to come by in teens — and even more so in Aspie teens. He wanted to tell me all about the songs they sang (country music, loosely defined, including Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and Mumford and Sons “I Will Wait”) and about the crazy things that had happened in rehearsals that week and about everything that was going on at school. He rarely opens up like that, so of course it happened on a night when I had planned to be somewhere else.

I drove him home and fist bumped him and told him to text me when he was done with his homework, and left him happily eating cookies and doing his math, all alone at the kitchen table.

I stopped to put gas in my car on the way to the ball field, and that’s when I started to feel guilty. I go to a million baseball games, but I have so few really great moments with Henry, especially lately — what if I just skipped this one game?

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