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Sunday, September 26, 2010

From the Archives: Confidence Undermined -- and slowly being restored with some "potty talk"

(Originally posted March 19, 2009)
One of the biggest challenges for me with having a special needs child is the hit my confidence took. His sensory issues have caused me to second-guess everything I felt I knew about child behavior, rules and boundaries, and discipline. Holding firm boundaries consistently was never (and may never be) my strong suit, but during his first year I was at least confident about which boundaries to try establishing and how to enforce them. When I became aware of his sensory issues, I had hard time determining when something was a sensory issue and when it was a discipline issue. While I didn't want to shape a child who failed to develop self-control and discipline, I also didn't want to enforce unrealistic expectations that were made impossible by his sensory challenges.

Oh sure, there are books to help you determine what behavior should be dealt with and what a typical four-year-old will display and then grow out of -- but all of that seems to be a bit out-the-window when you're dealing with a special needs child as opposed to a "typical" one. (Caveat: believe me, I know there really is no such thing as a typical child; at the same time, I could see a marked difference in my confidence regarding labeling things "typical" and questioning that label once I learned of Josiah's challenges.) While I hoped that reading and learning more about SPD would help make those distinctions more clear, that wasn't my initial experience with the information. One of the hallmarks of SPD is inconsistency in sensory-related abilities and arousal regulation; in other words, some days his sensory system seems to click and work fine while other days it is entirely out of whack. This only complicated the effort to dstinguish between what he was able to do and what he was not -- he genuinely was unable to do some things on a given day that he had done relatively easily only a day or two (sometimes even hours) earlier.

One of my biggest struggles in this area was regarding potty training. I use the past tense there not because Josiah is finally potty trained but because it is becoming less a struggle over confidence in my mommy intuition. From around 18 months, JoNo was interested in the potty -- unlike many children, he was never afraid of it and still thoroughly enjoys flushing it for anyone who will let him. Despite all this interest, and loads of encouragement from us, he never seemed all that interested in leaving diapers behind and actually USING the potty consistently. We tried all sorts of things, from the no-pressure approach to the sticker approach, even the "see, your friends at preschool don't wear diapers and use the potty" approach. We even bought a "potty watch" that lit up and played music every 30, 60 or 90 minutes to remind him to use the potty. Nothing made a difference. And while I would encourage more heavily at some times than at others, I always held back a little for fear it wasn't so much a matter of will but a matter of ability.

In the last two weeks he has suddenly shown tremendous interest in wanting to wear underpants and use the potty so there will be "no more diapers for [him]" as his Potty Book says. So that's exactly what we've done, at least around the house. And it's meant changing his outfit from the waist down a number of times a day. In observing him over these last two weeks, I've discovered that my instinct about it has been right all along. It isn't so much about motivation but about ability -- even now, he seems motivated but just not able. He has been consistently unable to get to the potty BEFORE nature has begun answering its call, but when he wants to he can stop it and rush to finish in the potty. And there is absolutely no regularity in timing -- sometimes he'd go hours between potty breaks, while other times he'd use the potty 3 times in under an hour.

All this potty talk to say that I'm feeling a twinkle of renewing in my mommy confidence. Like a bud just sprouting in the spring, I've still got a lot of growing to do, but through becoming a student of my child and really researching him individually (as well as SPD more generally), I'm finding my confidence returning bit by bit. I'm more able to recognize what he CAN do and maintain those expectations, and more able to handle the things he really can't do. I'm even finding more patience in handling those "gray area" issues where it is still unclear where his ability on a particular task is on a given day.

Our first therapist used to tell me that if discipline just wasn't working, it was a sensory issue -- and while that was helpful at the time, and is still a good general guide to making the distinction, it paralyzed me in some ways. When I could tell it was a sensory issue, and especially when I wasn't quite sure whether it was or wasn't, I was at a loss for how to handle a problem behavior. I would err on the side of doing nothing and slowly watched him develop habits and behaviors that went beyond mildly annoying. I finally got fed up enough, and learned enough about what and with whom I am dealing, that I've begun to find a better balance. I'm more and more finding myself able to draw boundaries and help him succeed at them even when the ability level for the task is unclear. And the empowerment and confidence-boost from it is encouraging!

UPDATES:  At nearly six years old, potty training is still a work in progress for Josiah.  He is mostly day-trained, though he still routinely has "accidents."  Sometimes he'll go a week without a single accident, only to have three straight days of several accidents a day.  He still has at least one accident most days, though it's usually just a tiny bit -- enough to require a clothing change but not to create a huge mess.  And night training isn't even something we've even started to tackle.  He still wears a diaper to bed and almost never wakes up dry in the morning (he still wakes at least once per night and probably pees then but isn't cooperative enough in his half-asleep grumpiness to go to the potty then).  So it's nowhere near finished, but all in all, the progress is moving a positive direction.

My confidence as a mother is consistently inconsistent.  Ames' and Ilg's book series talks about the roller coaster of cooperativeness most children experience, vascillating regularly (roughly every six months, they say) between persistently testing boundaries and comfortably operating within them.  Even if this is true for many children, it certainly doesn't feel true for Josiah (he seems in a perpetual state of boundary testing)-- but that's a post for another day.  My point in referencing it here is to relate it to the roller coaster that is my sense of competence at parenting.  I seem to go through phases of feeling relatively sure of myself and unphased by the questions and criticisms from unknowing onlookers alternating with phases of feeling absolutely clueless about my ability to do anything productive regarding guiding my child into an adulthood of compassionate responsibility. 

It's interesting to read a post like this one, written roughly 18 months ago, that reflects on a small piece of that roller coaster -- the hopefulness that I was finally "getting it" is now being replaced with a more realistic recognition that while the general movement is toward more self-assurance, the pathway there is far from straight.  I've fallen into more valleys of doubt, wondering just what God was doing thinking I could handle parenting at all, let alone parenting a special needs child.  And I've had more experiences where my intuition as a mother has served us well, giving me a needed boost of encouragement to keep trying to figure it all out.  And what I know more clearly now than ever before is that I will never really arrive -- that there is no final destination, only a road more comfortable and beautiful, even as it is challenging, with every passing mile -- it's a road I believe all mothers travel and am honored to be travelling myself (even if there are some days I enjoy and appreciate it far more than others).


  1. I just saw your blog on Harley's blogger network (my site just got added as well).

    Wow - I can really relate to so much of what you said - especially the part about self-doubting my parenting skills and the frustrations in dealing with discipline issues.

    I also read your "about us" page - I feel the same way about teaching and blogging! Writing is so therapeutic for me. You described that beautifully. I'm also a community college teacher, by the way.

    It's wonderful to connect with someone who is having such a similar experience.

    I look forward to reading more...take care!

  2. Hi Rebecca -- So glad you found me :) Thanks for dropping by and leaving a note! I think the discipline/parenting confidence issue has been one of the hardest things about SPD for me -- I can handle the extra therapy, the extra four years to potty train, the picky eating, even the sleeplessness. What gets under my skin the most is feeling so overwhelmed and clueless about discipline and the hit my confidence as a mom takes as a result. And it doesn't help that so many people seem to believe they have the answers and offer their unsolicited advice. Just keeps the doubt alive in a lot of ways.

    I'm actually hoping that once there are a few SPD moms here we can have some brainstorming dialogue about some of the issues we're facing and help each other out :)

    What do you teach? I teach communication studies classes, and while I love it, it has certainly been reprioritized since I've had children :)

  3. Hi Andi,

    I came across your blog on the SPD Blogger Network today. A friend recently gave me a blog award and I'm passing it on to several of the newcomers to the SPD Network. I was just starting out there myself, not too long ago. Great group!

    Hop over to and I will soon have a post up with a link to your blog. You can grab the award button there if you like : )


  4. Hi Andi:

    I didn't see your reply to my comment until today! Yes, discipline has also been a biggie for me - perhaps THE biggest. First of all, I use to teach 5th grade....I never dreamed MY child would be a discipline problem!! Second, I have very judgmental and vocal sister-in laws with "perfectly-behaved" children. That has made it very hard - that feeling of being judged as a complacent and incompetent mother. I think I probably perceive this judgment to be a little worse than it actually is (not sure). Plus, I probably judge myself worse than anyone. It's been hard, but I'm learning to work through this, and I think I'm a better person for it in the end! I'm learning more about not caring what other people think. And I'm a lot less judgmental of others.

    Anyway, now I teach reading skills at the community college.

    Communiation studies sounds interesting. One of my undergrad majors was journalism. Is it a related field?

  5. It's definitely a crash course in "who cares what others think" but there's a steep learning curve on that one, at least for me :)

    Journalism is a related field. In some universities, it's actually the same department (just a different concentration). My focus was actually in Interpersonal Communication, and it was a separate department from the Mass Communication (Journalism, Advertising, PR) department. Interpersonal focuses more on relational communication, conflict management, identity management, etc. I also teach Public Speaking and the basic intro course (which is a hybrid of Interpersonal, Public Speaking, and Group Dynamics). I love teaching :)