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Parenting the Abnormal Child

Parenting the Abnormal Child

Normal is a charged term when talking about children. I actually hate the term. What IS normal?! But I'm also a mathematician, and I understand and value statistics. In a logical, mathematical sense, normal has a clear meaning. And so does abnormal:

Abnormal – not normal, average, typical, or usual; deviating from a standard: (

One of my children is abnormal. He's also very smart, cute, and funny. He's gregarious and loving. There are many, many things about him that endear him to me. But he's not normal. By that, I mean that he doesn't fall into statistical means on most anything. Below average on some things; above average on others. Frankly, I don't mind having a child that doesn't fit the bell curve. Most days.

But there are certain times that I am overwhelmed with the responsibility of parenting an abnormal child. My child doesn't look abnormal, and his issues are not nearly as serious as many of you have experienced with your children. Our diagnosis is PDD-NOS. Those of you who have been through the battery of testing know exactly what that is. It's the junk drawer for children who don't fit the bell curve yet also don't fit the set of symptoms and characteristics that define someone, say, on the Asperger's spectrum. Our big issue is how my savant deals with new social situations. One of my children will walk into a room, evaluate it, and join right in with whatever is going on. One day, his easy conformity to the social norm is going to be a big problem. But when he's 5, it's helpful. My other son, in contrast, is doing his own thing before he walks in and will keep doing his own once he's there. He's aware of what's going on inside of himself, but he is oblivious to how his actions affect others. And he hates change, especially change forced on him so he fits into a group.

At the beginning of the month, we moved. On the first day of school. Bad timing, Mom!! I was stressed moving, glad enough to drop the boys off at school and hurry on to my major To Do list for the day. Immediately, the troubles began. My child felt out of control, didn't know how to navigate his new social setting, and his attempts to regain control and power were very destructive. Pinching kids, pushing kids, passionate melt downs at church, school, and play. There were problems EVERYWHERE EVERYDAY. I felt like I had post traumatic stress disorder at the end of each day.

Paul Miller recounts raising an autistic daughter in The Praying Life, and the Lord ministered great grace to me as I read through his struggles. The stories of her meltdowns struck a nerve with me, though our family's struggles are not nearly so intense. My primary take away from the book was Miller's statement that he did his best parenting on his knees. Of late, there have been many days that my best practical efforts to prepare my children and myself for whatever situation we faced failed in a puddle of great negative passion. In those moments, all that is left is prayer. There remains no naïve notion that I have it together enough to navigate the minefield of parenting. In fact, I am absolutely certain that I do not!

So I prayed to God privately. And I prayed to God with my son. And the Spirit reminded me that God parents me through relationship and that I need to parent my son through relationship. So he and I talked, and I realized I had to get involved with him at school. I started sticking around his classroom in the morning to figure out what was causing his outbursts. Then the teacher asked me to read with him in the hall because he was having difficulty reading silently in the classroom when others were reading aloud. After about 3 days of this, he was confidently reading the little books that he previously was throwing across the table in anger. Then he asked me to come to recess because that was where he was having the most problems with other kids. I did, and it was like Lord of the Flies. I volunteered to monitor recess a few times a week.

After a week of this, he has made a 180 degree change. The anger is gone. He seems committed to showing kids grace if they cut in front of him in line (previously quite the sore spot with him). He is proud that he defended a kid in the lunch room instead of being the one who hurt him. I'm still a little stunned at the turn around.

I know where I was last week, though. I remember clearly staring at a bunch of kids practicing soccer at the playground and wondering, in a PTSD stupor after a particularly traumatizing outburst by my child at karate practice, what it would be like to have normal kids? All I could do was lean into my relationship with God through prayer. And then the Spirit pushed me to lean into my son through relationship as well. The contrast between my relationship with my son last week and this week is staggering.

Not all problems resolve that easily. And I know that some that seem resolved will resurface. I'm simply reminded by yet another round of parenting trials that it is on my knees that God parents me and that I can in turn best parent my own child, even one who does not fit society's norms.

Wendy Horger Alsup is the author of Practical Theology for Women and By His Wounds You are Healed. Alsup resides in Seattle with her husband, Andy, and two young children. To read more of her articles, visit Wendy's blog at Practical Theology for Women.