Confronting abusive parents

When I was a teenager, I’d often notice kids being shouted at by their parents, belittled in public, sworn at, smacked, nagged, grabbed and abused, and it never failed to ruin my whole day – partly because of my sympathy for the poor tyke, and partly because of my failure to do anything about it. I would roast myself for my cowardice, relive what I had witnessed over and over, wondering what I could, or should, have done.

These ruminations always ended the same way – with the reassurance that though I was currently unable to intervene, when I was older, bigger, more confident in myself, and packing both the muscles and bank balance equal to my ego, I’d never let a transgression go unpunished.

Trouble is, I never got much bigger. Nor did I develop the muscles, bank balance or confidence that would enable me to face down bad behaviour. In fact, following several breakdowns and a diagnosis of autism, I have an almost pathological aversion to confrontation, something I’ve covered in depth in Takers and the Took: Asperger’s and Confrontation. So when I say my evening out last night, the first without the kids for a year, was horribly ruined, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

As we entered an all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant, out burst a man with a shaved head, tattoos, tattered clothes and a scarred face, carrying a crying seven-year-old boy by the arm. He slammed this poor kid down on a low wall, shook him roughly, shouted and swore into his face and then dragged him back inside and threw him down into a chair. At the table, the mother, dolled up to the nines with bleach-blonde hair, black eye-liner and a top showing off her cleavage, said to the kid, ‘What you crying for?’ whereupon the man thrust his finger into the boy’s face and hissed, ‘He’s being a right [expletive deleted].’

All the while, the kid hid beneath his hoodie while his many brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles acted as though this was nothing out of the ordinary. And, judging by the speed with which this kid seemed to get over it and start mucking around with the others, perhaps he’s used to it. But it shocked the hell out of me.

I’ve always admired those maverick characters like Martin Riggs from Lethal Weapon and John McClane from Die Hard, the kind who if he saw something like that would step up and make them regret ever lifting a finger to their kid. Unfortunately, those people don’t exist outside the pages of fiction, or if they do, I’ve never met any.

So I sat there trying to enjoy my meal, watching this kid and his father, bathing in my own cowardice. I tried to look at it from all angles – maybe the kid was being a shit, maybe his dad was at the end of his tether, maybe they were out for a birthday and the kid was ruining it yet again and his dad just lost it. I know what that’s like – I planned this really special surprise day out for all of us on Boxing Day at Monkey World, only to have my three-year-old daughter bitch and moan the whole way round about how she’d rather be at the playpark and how monkeys are boring and how she wanted to go home, until I shouted at her and said she was ruining my enjoyment of the day, which made her cry. Who am I to judge another father’s parenting style? And what right do I have to stick my nose in where it’s not welcome? Am I really that arrogant and presumptuous to think that my way is best?

That was a good way to get me off the hook, but really it was making excuses for my inaction, because this dad’s behaviour was more than the normal, run-of-the-mill fed up parent stuff – it was uncomfortable to watch and it crossed a line. True, he didn’t assault the boy – not in a way that would stand up in court – but the way he mocked, manhandled and humiliated that kid in public just wasn’t right.

But what could I do? Go up to a table full of burly builder-type blokes and say to them, ‘Good day, sirs, I beg your pardon for interrupting your meal, but I thoroughly disapprove of the way you treat your child.’ I’d be lucky to get told to mind my own effing business. And would having my face rearranged really improve things for the boy? Knowing the way these things work, blood being thicker than water, and all, he’d probably have cheered his dad on.

I thought of interacting with the boy when he got up to replenish his plate, asking if he was okay and offering some reassurance, but I decided that was an even better way to get beaten up. And then I started thinking about the times that I’ve shouted at my kids, or grabbed them and dragged them to the naughty step, the times I’ve threatened to take away their toys if they don’t stop misbehaving, or simply snapped at them because I’m tired or unwell or overwhelmed, and I wondered: am I like that guy? Am I getting so upset because I recognise in him a trace of what exists in me? Is he what I could become if I don’t constantly keep myself in check? And is that how I appear to my kids – a hulking, angry monster with a shaved head and tattoos?

So, as you’ve probably already figured out, I did nothing. Nothing but watch them, excoriate myself for my faintheartedness, and then dwell on it all of last night and all day into this evening. The world’s children are not my responsibility, I tell myself. I do not possess the skills or authority to act in such a situation. Anything I did would probably have made things worse. In short, I’m a gutless, spineless, powerless coward.

My on!y consolation is that when it comes to my own kids, I’m able to overcome my natural aversion to confrontation. I learned this a couple of months ago when I discovered a family member had disciplined my child in a manner of which I did not approve, a person set in their ways who has always intimidated me. I’ve always clung to the belief that as a parent, your instincts take over and enable you to be a freaking tiger when you need to be, but it doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t make you any less afraid or any less alone, and nor do you look inside and find a strength you never knew you had. The truth is, you simply don’t have a choice – right is right, wrong is wrong, and as a parent, when you see a wrong being done your child, you have no option but to confront it, no matter how scary it is.

And so it was, legs shaking, palms sweating, heart beating out of my chest and my stomach doing cartwheels, every fibre of my being telling me to run away and hide, that I drove round this person’s house and told them in no uncertain terms never again to discipline my child in that way. I had psyched myself up for a fight, and you know what? They absolutely crumbled.

I guess that’s what matters – knowing that when push comes to shove, I can look after my kids and keep them safe.

I just wish someone could do the same for that kid.

Takers and the Took: Asperger’s and Confrontation

Every day at the moment, I’m having between sixty and seventy arguments. Some are mild, a witty response to a provocative remark; some are longer, a tussle between players on opposite sides of the game; and some are long drawn-out, bloodthirsty affairs that leave souls destroyed and lives in ruins. Sixty to seventy, every single day.

But it’s not as bad as all that: they only take place in my head.

Like many people with Asperger’s, I have something of a phobia about confrontation, to the point of enduring any amount of abuse in order to avoid it. When it does happen, I avoid eye-contact and retreat into myself, and all the cogent, coherent arguments I could make evaporate. I have a visceral reaction – acid, like liquid copper, spreads from my gut, my chest tightens, my throat constricts, and the back of my neck starts to burn, because even though words can apparently never hurt me, I feel as though I’m being physically attacked. So I wait for it to end, mutter some platitudes that completely undermine my own position, and then slink away in a turmoil of guilt, shame and humiliation like a dog with his tail between his legs.

And afterwards, I dwell on it. For days. I relive the argument, word for word, re-experience the feelings, the fear and helplessness, think of what I could have said or should have said but didn’t because at the time all I wanted was to retreat. Like someone who has taken a beating, it takes me a long time to recover. It’s as though my psyche is bruised, and the world is now altered, everything out of place and dangerous until I manage to rebuild my walls and feel safe around people once again.

I worked in telesales for a time. Last thing on Friday afternoon, a stranger eviscerated me down the phone line. I didn’t sleep that night, couldn’t relax all the next day, had bad dreams on the Saturday, ran over the incident a million times all day Sunday, and on Monday handed in my notice and bought a plane ticket to New Zealand. Growing up, people said I was sensitive – too sensitive to survive in society. I think the truth is that I’m autistic, and my problems with social communication and social interaction, married to anxiety, insecurity and an obsessive nature, make conflict something I’m particularly incapable of dealing with.

So I tend to avoid confrontation, if I can. You might have heard the opposite to this – that people with Asperger’s are themselves argumentative, self-centred egoists who run rough-shod over the feelings of others – and this is also true, no matter how contradictory. So how does that work?

I can only answer for myself. When it comes to facts – or at least what I consider to be facts – my natural pedantry, honesty, commitment to accuracy and inability to let things go mean I often get into arguments over trivial matters. Like when over dinner one time my (ex) sister-in-law was talking about someone overly concerned with their appearance, and concluded with the statement, ‘People are so fickle.’

‘What do you mean by that?’ I asked.

‘You know,’ she said. ‘People are so shallow and superficial.’

‘Oh, I totally agree,’ I replied. ‘But that’s not what fickle means.’

‘Yes, it is.’

‘No, it’s not. Fickle means changeable, inconstant, not shallow.’

‘I’m an English teacher.’

‘And I have a dictionary. Shall we look it up?’

‘Well, whatever it means, most normal people would have known what I meant.’

‘Then most normal people are using the word fickle incorrectly too.’

Sure, it’s a little thing and in hindsight it comes across as kind of petty, but that’s the sort of argument I can’t resist having – those to do with facts, where I will back myself to the hilt because I know I’m right.

On the other hand, when it comes to disagreements about less concrete things – emotional things – that’s what I struggle to cope with. I approach life in a rational fashion and expect other people to respond in a rational way, but that’s not what tends to happen. Instead, people are complex and confusing and behave in ways that aren’t rational at all. I just don’t understand it. You try to discuss something in a calm and controlled manner and they flip out, fly off the handle, scream and shout, and in a split second I’ve backed down, lost the argument and dropped into survival mode. Otherwise, if I try to stand up for myself, I get eaten alive.

I link this to my autism, especially since I know many others who experience the same anxiety over arguments. Perhaps having poor Theory of Mind skills – the ability to understand another’s thoughts, feelings, and point of view – means we are incapable of successful conflict-resolution. Or perhaps my aversion to confrontation is something more particular to me.

As a child, I grew up in a household in which confrontation had very real consequences, then at 19 I moved in with my girlfriend’s family, where a violent brother and emotionally unstable mother meant that any confrontation led to holes being kicked in doors and phones smashed against the wall. At 21 I formed a band with a girl who ruled my life for the next three years because I was terrified of her spectacular outbursts and felt powerless to escape her anger, while at 28 I moved into a ‘supported living’ house, where my housemate would break milk bottles on the kitchen floor if I disagreed with him. Over the years, I’ve learnt that confrontation means danger; backing down is the best way of surviving.

But it isn’t, because it’s incredibly damaging to your self-esteem and your long-term happiness. Living like this makes it very easy to be taken advantage of – unless you isolate yourself as a hermit, which, to be honest, is a very attractive option sometimes. I get churned up inside just thinking about the potential for arguments. I walk on eggshells, terrified of upsetting people because of how they’ll react, and I know what that makes me.

There’s that common expression about the world being divided between ‘givers’ and ‘takers’. This assumes that givers and takers are in some form of symbiotic relationship that fulfils one another’s psychological needs. I think the truth is much darker than that.

To paraphrase the 1960 movie The Apartment, there are ‘takers’ and ‘the took’. The worst thing about being the took is that you know you’re being taken, but there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. Because takers don’t take what is freely given – they take whatever they want. It’s a form of abuse, one that people with Asperger’s are very susceptible to because of our difficulties handling confrontation.

So when I know I need to confront someone about something – when I’m being taken advantage of, for example – I obsessively plan out what I’m going to say. And then how they’ll respond. And what I’ll say next. And so on, and so forth.

Of course, in real life, people don’t respond how you want them to, so I try various permutations – if the person responds rationally, irrationally, emotionally, angrily, defensively, offensively, how I’ll react, how I’ll respond. I have the same argument sixty or seventy different ways, every single day, all in my head.

And then the moment comes, and all the preparation goes out of the window. You’re aggressive instead of assertive, you stumble over your words, the other person explodes and you cower, or worse they deny anything’s going on and it’s all in your mind, which confuses you, until at the end of the argument you’re in a worse position than when you started, and all the things you’d meant to say, and all the rights you were going to insist upon, lie unspoken in your heart.

And you realise that there’s really no reasoning with some people, so it’s best to leave those arguments where they belong – spinning around in your head all day, every day, because they’re the taker and you’re the took.

And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

A Christmas Parenting Problem

My daughter is a very boisterous child. She’s happiest when she’s falling off things and engaging in rough and tumble. She climbs up shelving units, jumps off the arms of sofas, spins in circles until she loses balance and crashes into the nest tables, runs until she trips and crashes down on grass, carpet, wood or concrete, and very rarely cries as a result of these semi-deliberate ‘accidents’. I’m sure she’s in training to be a stuntwoman. Her legs are a patchwork quilt of bruises and grazes and cuts, which she pokes and fusses over like they’re curiosities or badges of honour.

She’s a double-hard bastard, is what I’m trying to say. Despite being 17-months-old, her preferred playmates are kids aged 4-7 with whom she can wrestle, dance, and generally get up to mischief. She’s pretty much fearless. I get very concerned when she plays with kids her own age because she’s so excitable, energetic and rough that someone always seem to get hurt – and by ‘someone’, I mean whomever else happens to be playing with her. She’s a happy, confident and very contented child.

Which is why it’s all the more unexpected that she’s terrified of Santa.

She saw him a fortnight ago and screamed herself hoarse. She saw him last week and screamed herself hoarse. She saw a cut out of him on the wall of her soft play and pointed at it, shook her head and said, ‘Bad man’ (or she thinks Batman has really let himself go). She won’t go near the Christmas tree because it’s got a four-inch knitted Santa on it. She saw him on Peppa Pig and backed up ten feet until she was up against the wall, never once taking her eyes from the screen. She even went through a stack of CDs, came upon a picture of an elderly Brahms, and burst into tears. Clearly, overweight men with white beards are some kind of trigger to her – I’d better try not to let myself go (any further than I already have).

All of this would be a minor problem were I not married to a person who thinks that rather than peace, love and goodwill to all men, Christmas is actually all about trees, tinsel, markets, carol concerts, and a rather rotund gentleman with a penchant for dishing out presents from his sack. Indeed, my wife clung to a belief in Santa Claus far longer than would be considered rational, and I often have arguments with her over the existence or otherwise of Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic (statements such as, ‘But how do you know they’re not real?’ and ‘What evidence is there that they don’t exist?’ show exactly where she believes the burden of proof should lie!).

Unfortunately we have two upcoming appointments with St Nick – prebooked, prepaid and non-refundable – and my wife’s love of Yuletide being what it is, there is no way in hell I can persuade her to cancel. The first is innocuous enough: a garden centre. We walk down a tunnel filled with twinkly lights, fake snow and geographically mismatched wildlife (I can accept flying reindeer, but polar bears mixing with penguins? Forget about it!), and we meet Santa in a little room at the end. If she screams, vomits or has any kind of adverse reaction, we can simply head for the nearest exit. Simple.

The other encounter I’m less optimistic about: it’s on a train.

The thought of sitting next to a screaming toddler while Santa enters the front of the carriage and slowly makes his way from the front to the back, stopping to greet and cuddle and provide gifts to every child along the way, fills me with dread. Not to mention the fact that I really don’t take any pleasure from exposing the little one to a situation that upsets, terrifies and traumatises her.

So, the past two weeks I’ve been trying everything I can to convince her that Santa is actually a very affable, non-threatening, child-friendly individual – albeit one who sneaks into your room at night while you’re asleep, hoping you won’t wake up, so he can steal your milk and cookies. Alas, it doesn’t seem to be working.

Still, it could be worse, I suppose. If she develops a phobia of thirty-something men with neatly-trimmed ginger beards tinged with an increasing amount of grey – well, then we’d really have problems!

‘Different’ is not ‘wrong’

Thanks to problems with Theory of Mind, when you have Asperger’s Syndrome it can be very difficult to understand why people might want to do things differently to how you do them. Coupled with a tendency towards black-and-white thinking, this means we think our way of doing something is best, which makes all other methods worse. It is a short leap to thinking your way is ‘right’ and every other way is ‘wrong’.

As the primary carer of a baby, whether you have Asperger’s or not, it’s very easy to fall into this trap. You’re with the baby all day and all night, and as a result you quickly become an expert on all aspects of baby care. You develop ways of holding her, cleaning her, talking to her; you have routines dictating how you change nappies, make up feeds, how you put on sleep suits; you know how to respond to different cries, googles, gurgles and grunts; and everything you’ve worked out is definitely the best and only way of taking care of your little angel.

And then the other parent wades in.

For whatever reason – they work, they’re ill, they’re just not as in-tune with the baby’s needs as you are – they fumble around like a five-year-old trying to unscrew a doorknob with their eye-socket. You cringe, you grimace, and then you step in to show them how it should be done. ‘Like this,’ you say as you patiently guide them towards a better method. ‘No, no, hold her under here, like this, pat her bottom, there you go, see how well that works?’ Because you’re trying to help.

Ever since Lizzie returned home from hospital with Izzie, and struggled every step of the way, I’ve devoted myself to making things easier for her. I took over the night feeds, soothed the baby when she was colicky, strapped her to my chest when I walked the dog; every time it became too much for Lizzie, I took over; and everything I learned, every tactic and technique that worked, I tried to teach her.

Yet the more I’ve done to take the pressure off Lizzie, the worse she seems to have become. She would deny this but I’ve been doing around 75-80% of the baby care, and the fact I’ve had to shoulder the lion’s share of the burden has put an undeniable strain on our relationship, which came to a head the other day when I was telling Lizzie how to hold Izzie to stop her crying when she suddenly snapped, ‘Shut up! I don’t want to do anything the way you do it!’

We slept in separate beds and I was forced to do a great deal of soul-searching. Righteous indignation, resentment and a feeling of being criminally underappreciated slowly gave way to the realisation that Lizzie has increased in confidence when she goes out with the baby, decreased in confidence when she’s at home. The only possible reason for this is that when she’s out, I’m not with her, and when she’s home, I’m always peering over her shoulder, giving her ‘guidance’. Despite having the best of intentions, had I in fact made things more difficult for both of us?

I thought more about her outburst, wondered why she wouldn’t want to do things the right way for the baby – if my technique stops Izzie crying in thirty seconds, and Lizzie’s takes five minutes, surely she’s deliberately doing it the wrong way? I had to work really hard – I mean really, really hard – to turn my thinking around and realise that I can’t stage manage Lizzie’s relationship with Izzie, no matter how much I might want to. Her way of doing things is not wrong, simply different, and as Izzie’s mother she has as much right to experiment with different techniques and find her own solutions as I do. If it takes Lizzie five minutes to stop Izzie crying doing it her way, that is the nature of their relationship and it will be different from my relationship with Izzie. Not worse, not wrong – just different.

It’s hurtful and heartbreaking to admit that by trying to do what’s right for all of us I’ve actually made it much more difficult. I haven’t allowed Lizzie to develop her relationship with her daughter, build confidence in her baby-caring skills, or find her own solutions to her problems. I haven’t allowed her to be a mother, and I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.

Since having this epiphany, I’ve stepped back. When the baby cries every fibre of my being urges me to go to her, but I have had to dig my fingernails into my palms and leave Lizzie to soothe the baby her own way. I’ve watched her doing things in ways that I would not and have bitten my tongue. And Lizzie’s confidence, and enjoyment of the baby, have both increased immeasurably. She is doing so much more, and without complaint, all because I’m letting her get on with it.

For the first time in around thirteen weeks, I feel like we are joint parents with equal responsibility for the baby – there is no longer a primary and secondary carer, much as it pains me to admit it, because I loved being the primary carer. But this is the way it should be.

So, all parents reading this blog: don’t make the same mistake I did. Unless you want to look after two babies, you have to be your partner’s partner, not their parent. They’re not doing things wrong, just different. And if you don’t allow them to figure things out for themselves, you’re denying them the greatest thrill of being a parent. So shame on you!