Autism and Co-Occurring Disabilities

I recently wrote a chapter for a textbook related to counseling children with disabilities. My chapter focused on children with autism and co-occurring disabilities.  “Co-occurring” means that there is another type of problem that the child is experiencing in addition to autism.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2014) state that about 1 in 68 children have been identified with autism.  Many are unaware of the fact that autism often co-occurs with other “developmental, psychiatric, neurologic, or medical diagnoses” (Levy, Giarelli, Lee, Schieve, Kirby, Cunniff, Nicholas, Reaven, & Rice, 2010, pp. 267) and that the co-occurrence of one or more non-autism developmental diagnosis is an alarming 83% (CDC, 2014).  Yes, you read that correctly: 83%!  While I was aware that many of the young people with whom I work suffer from other disabilities, it stunned me to know that the number was so high.  As I did more research for the chapter, I was alarmed to find that the rate of occurrence of each disability is several times higher than for those in the general population.  Here are some of the co-occurring disabilities and the rates at which they occur.

Cognitive Delays, Neurological Issues, and Epilepsy

            A high percentage of children with autism, especially more severe forms of autism, experience cognitive delays and problems with reasoning and intellectual functioning.  Neurological development is disrupted because of delays in brain development or due to certain areas not developing at all.  Epilepsy is common among children with autism.  Tuchman (2011) found that a person diagnosed with autism is 10 to 30 times more likely to have epilepsy than those in the general population and that the long-term outlook for a person with autism and epilepsy is poor.

Gastro-intestinal and Eating Problems

            Gastro-intestinal (GI) problems and eating problems co-occur with autism.  Wang, Tancredi, & Thomas (2011) conducted a large study and found that 42% of children with autism had GI issues, as opposed to only 12% of their neurotypical siblings.  Eating problems such as refusing certain foods, craving other foods, as well as acting out during mealtimes are problems that many parents of autism children report (Durand, 2014).  Stress, which is a common part of the autism child’s world due to the triggering of the sympathetic nervous system (Bodenach & Bogdan, 2012), is believed to be a factor in GI problems, while sensory issues and hypersensitivity to texture are a factor in children with autism having difficulty tolerating new and different foods.

Psychological Problems

            Anxiety and mood disorders co-occur with autism at an alarming rate.  Durand (2014) states that “roughly 50-80%” can be diagnosed with an anxiety related disorder (p. 58).  The activation of the “fight-flight-freeze” response and release of neurotransmitters such as cortisol and adrenaline create a sense of disorder and danger, leaving the child feeling unsteady and unsafe.  The behaviors that result in an anxiety related diagnosis (obsessive-compulsive disorder, separation anxiety, phobias, etc.) are all connected to the child’s attempt to restore a sense of safety and equilibrium.  Depression occurs at rates of between 25 to 34% (Ghaziuddin, Ghaziuddin, & Greden, 2002) in individuals diagnosed with autism.  Problems from social situations, family stress, and trips to therapists, doctors, and special school classes, leave children with autism feeling overwhelmed and many turn their negative feelings inward resulting in overwhelming sadness and self-rejection.  Many children with autism have difficulty understanding emotions and due to an inability to put feelings into words, the child buries it all deep within resulting in a sense of despair and hopelessness.


            Attention-Deficit-Hyperactivity-Disorder (ADHD) is yet another co-occurring diagnosis with autism.  When one considers the constant triggering of the sympathetic nervous system and the upheaval that results in high levels of anxiety, it seems logical that ADHD is part of the landscape for a child diagnosed with autism.  The demands of joining a confusing, fast-paced world often outweigh the child’s psychological resources.  In my experience, nearly every child diagnosed with autism usually receives an additional diagnosis of ADHD or is mis-diagnosed with ADHD instead of autism.  I believe that the reason for this is that the intellectual intensity and the inability to tolerate negative emotions creates a constant triggering of the sympathetic nervous system (“fight-flight-freeze”) which makes the child appear to have severe impairments in the areas of impulse control and self-regulation. 

Sleep Problems

            A final problem that often plagues the child with autism are issues with sleep (Durand, 2014). Trouble falling asleep, sleeping too much, as well as insomnia are all characteristics of those diagnosed with autism. Sleep problems affect the mental and emotional functioning of the child as well as academic performance and overall coping skills (Staples & Bates, 2011).  From a family perspective, sleep problems of the child with autism can create stress on the family system and the bed time routine is often a major problem area that is mentioned during the initial counseling intake session.

What Does All This Mean?

            This information has several implications for families with a child with autism.  First, parents should not feel shocked when they discover that their child has something else going on in addition to autism.  For whatever reason, the rate of a co-occurring disability is high, and knowing this can help parents be prepared to find coping skills and strategies to keep stress at a minimum.  Second, investigating the co-occurring disability and finding effective treatment will be helpful to lessen the effects of stress and anxiety on the child and everyone involved.  Third, routine and structure as well as building relationship are of utmost importance.  It is hard enough to parent a child with autism but for those parents who have a child with autism and a co-occurring disability, it is an overwhelming task.  However, creating routine and structure with a clearly defined system of rewards and consequences, in addition to making time for play and relationship minimizes stress and allows the child to stay on track developmentally.

The Role of Counseling Children with Autism and a Co-Occurring Disability

            Counseling for children with autism who have a co-occurring disability has many benefits.  Learning to put feelings and thoughts into words, developing a sense of self-understanding and self-worth, as well as learning coping techniques to deal with stress are just a few of the benefits.  Play therapy and relationship-based therapy provides the child with an affirming environment wherein the child uses play to express thoughts and feelings which helps manage stress and anxiety.  Play therapy can be tailored to address a specific problem such as low self-worth or anxiety, and it can be taught to parents in family therapy sessions so that they can take the techniques and implement those in the home environment.  Play helps build self-worth and create a sense of identity and self-understanding. 

A Final Word…

            Autism and co-occurring disabilities occur together at an alarmingly high rate.  Children with autism who have a co-occurring disability face immense challenges in daily living.  Families with a child with autism who have a co-occurring disability experience high levels of stress and many parents carry a sense of despair at being unable to help their child and to meet the child’s developmental needs.  Counseling offers a safe haven for children with autism and co-occurring disabilities and their families.  Play therapy and relationship based therapy are ways to help children with autism and a co-occurring disability deal with stress and increase self-worth and self-understanding.  Family therapy is useful to teach parents coping skills and learn effective ways to manage stress, create routing and structure, and build relationship with their child. 


Badenoch, B. & Bogdan, N.  (2012). Safety and connection: The neurobiology of play. In L.Gallo-Lopez and L. C. Rubin (Eds.), Play-Based Interventions for Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders (pp. 3-18). New York, NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Autism. Retrieved from


Durand, V. M. (2014). Autism spectrum disorder: A clinical guide for general practitioners (First Edition.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.


Ghaziuddin, M., Ghaziuddin, N., & Greden, J. (2002). Depression in persons with autism: Implications for research and clinical care. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 32(4), 299-306. doi:10.1023/A:1016330802348


Levy, S. E., Giarelli, E., Lee, L. C., Schieve, L. A., Kirby, R. S., Cuniff, C., Nicholas J., Reaven, J., & Rice, C. E. (2010). Autism spectrum disorder and co-occurring developmental, psychiatric, and medical conditions among children in multiple populations of the United States. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 31(4), 267–275.


Staples, A. D., & Bates, J. E. (2011). Children’s sleep deficits and cognitive and behavioral adjustment. In M. El-Sheikh (Ed.), Sleep and development: Familial and socio-cultural considerations (pp. 133–164). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.


Tuchman, R. (2011). Epilepsy and encephalography in autism spectrum disorders. In D. G. Amaral, G. Dawson, & D. Geschwind (Eds.), Autism spectrum disorders (pp. 381–394). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/med/9780195371826.003.0026


Wang, L. W., Tancredi, D. J., & Thomas, D. W. (2011). The prevalence of gastrointestinal problems in children across the United States with autism spectrum disorders from families with multiple affected members. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 32, 351–360. doi:10.1097/DBP.0b013e31821bd06a





Navigating the YouTube Landscape

YouTube. The very name can send shudders down a parent’s spine. That internet monster with endless tentacles that reaches for your children to devour their sense of reality and shape their social awareness. YouTube is yet another example of the culture coming into our homes and taking our children captive right under our noses. But let’s be honest, you actually like YouTube. Well, at least sometimes. Based on statistics you probably watched a video from YouTube today. I did. I hear about YouTube from parents a lot, and I’m often asked questions regarding if it is “okay” for their kid to watch videos on YouTube. That is why I’m writing this today.

I’m keenly aware of YouTube because it has become a favorite app of the many young people with whom I work on the Autism spectrum. Whatever the passion of the young person, there is a YouTube channel devoted to it. Young people are loyal to their favorite “YouTuber,” fiercely defending them against anyone who dares criticize the person, and many young people feel as though they have a relationship with their favorite YouTube “celebrity.” Many young people characterize being a “YouTuber” as a viable career, and before you laugh, you might be surprised if you check out the annual income of some of the most popular YouTube personalities. But what happens when a young person wants to watch YouTube for two, five, ten hours a day? “Is that healthy?” parents ask. Before I jump to an overall answer, let’s examine some of the pros and cons of this cultural technological juggernaut.


·         YouTube shares knowledge and important information. Can’t deny it, folks, there is some great stuff on YouTube. Topics from nature to world history abound, along with information regarding the junk your mother always told you which turns out to be false (Nope, a tooth will not dissolve in Coke overnight; Sugar does not make kids hyper).

·         YouTube allows ordinary, everyday people to share their passions and create an online classroom to teach others. I found out I could use a form of Superglue (gel form, without acetone) to attach orchids to tree bark and rocks. I also fixed our dryer, patched our roof, and replaced the headlights in both cars, not to mention a ton of other stuff simply because an honest person decided to make a short video to help someone else. And trust me, when you save yourself $300 by avoiding a service call, you are grateful that YouTube exists.

·         A way to catch up on things or relive memorable events. Remember that spine-tingling scene in…You get the idea. Want to watch it again? How about a hundred times? Whether it is a sports play, scene from a film, a musical performance, or a speech, there it is. Savvy parents can use YouTube to piece together a series of events to enhance their children’s sense of history, such as the civil rights movement or the “miracle on ice.” Do you believe in miracles? “Well, as a matter of fact I do, son. See, there was this hockey coach named Herb Brooks…”.   

·         A way for kids to get to know the world. Wanna see the lizard that walks on water? What is it really like to survive 24 hours in the Sahara? Wanna go to the deepest part of the ocean? Did you see the guy who sold everything to dig wells in Africa? Well, watch this. Have you noticed that young people of today value the experience of things over the simple facts? This is a good and bad thing, but at this point of our discussion, YouTube provides the good side of this urge to be there, see it with my own eyes, and do my own research.


·         YouTube puts adult content in the hands of anyone. I have parents tell me that their kid learned all the cuss words because of various YouTube videos that were supposed to be “kid-friendly.” Welcome to our world. I reassure them that they would have heard them eventually, but I get their point. Parents feel like they should at least be able to keep the culture at the front door, but when it seeps in there is a sense of violation and anger.

·         YouTube is addictive. For many young people, especially those on the Autism spectrum who tend to have the ability to hyper-focus, YouTube becomes a sort of drug that lulls the young person into a make-believe world. The feed just keeps on rolling and one video flows into another and it is easy to spend hours just sitting and watching.

·         Distortion of Reality. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Steph Curry never misses;” or “Lionel Messi always scores a goal on every kick.” I can’t really blame them, YouTube is one big highlight reel that can make anyone look invincible and perfect. I’ve heard from coaches that YouTube has killed the urge for kids to practice because the child doesn’t believe that athletes practice or train – they Just Do It. It isn’t just about sports. Kids can watch someone play guitar perfectly, build a masterpiece in MineCraft, or create the illusion that baking a cake is effortless. The result? Surprisingly, instead of being inspired to go “do” whatever it is they’ve seen, kids and teens often feel depressed or get a sense of despair. “Why should I do it, it has already been done? And besides, I’ll never be able to make it as good as that guy.”

·         YouTube allows ordinary, everyday people to share their passions and create an online classroom to teach others. Recognize this from the pro list? Sadly, it is a con as well. Meanies, bullies, perverts, liars, “trolls” (ask your kid) all have somewhat free reign in the mega-sphere of YouTube. Violence, tragedy, and “shocking video” (that’s your local news too, by the way) are all available which desensitize a young person’s sense of compassion and limit their perspective. The danger is that young people don’t have the capacity to put information in perspective, which makes it easy for them to become overwhelmed which often results in the young person dismissing the reality of what they are seeing and cause them to put up a “wall” of indifference. Over time, this results in a lack of empathy and for some young people creates an urge to lash out at others in a similarly aggressive manner.


“Okay, so what am I supposed to do as a parent?”


I was raised in a culture that simply sought to destroy or remove any outside cultural influence. By banning movies, getting rid of a television set, not allowing any music but classical or a rousing rendition of “Nearer My God to Thee” by George Beverly Shea, my parents and others like them believed that encircling children with the wagons of denial and forced separation would magically protect us from the evils of “the world.” With lots of rules, do’s and don’ts (mostly don’ts), my friends and I lived in a real-life “bubble.” I have no bitterness towards my parents because they did what they thought was best and honestly, in a way, it was wonderful. We played games every night after dinner and went on bike rides. I developed a love of reading, writing, and Chopin’s Etudes. My times with my youth group at church and being at summer camp are some of my most cherished memories. The downside was that when I was forced to meet the demands of the “real world,” I was overwhelmed. Many of my friends were sucked in due to being denied everything as children, thus, they wanted everything – sometimes all at once. I was naïve and believed everything I saw and was told. I lacked discernment, especially in the dating and marriage department.

I don’t believe that we can ever stop the culture from reaching for our kids, but we can teach our kids and equip them to think and have discernment, while we provide limits. We can limit what comes into our homes. However, the answer isn’t to get rid of technology in your home, because the truth is that your kid will simply watch whatever when he’s with his friends and your denial will create a hunger for what he or she can’t have. The answer lies in Balance and Limits. Look at the pro list above. Pretty good stuff, right? Check your listings on your TV. Some pros and cons right? How about what is on the news right now. Pros and cons, correct? You get the idea. Nearly everything that our children come in contact with in this culture has potential positive and potential negatives. Do you know the one constant in whether or not young people become swallowed by the culture? That’s right: The parent. Parents who provide a balanced view and who create limits regarding what is viewed and for how long and watch what their children watch (relationship, sound familiar?) tend to keep children and adolescents balanced and prepared to face a topsy-turvy world. The parents adopt the role of a teacher and in essence, the parent is the filter of the information that flows to the child, but does so in a way that fosters relationship and thinking.

Don’t fear YouTube. Use it. Be a teacher. Build relationship. Find out what makes your kid tick. Laugh at the Asian zookeeper trying to keep the Panda cubs out of her leaf basket, and watch as your kids sit mesmerized when they see the “I Have a Dream Speech” by Dr. King. Let your grandkids know where you were as you show them Walter Cronkite shedding tears as he announces JFK’s death on live TV. Show them the world, and explain the greatness of visionaries. Set limits, use it as a reward to instill a work ethic, and carefully monitor who and what your kids are watching. For example, while you may like your 8-year-old kid to use headphones because you can’t stand the voice of the Game Grumps, think again. You need to hear what is going on and what is coming across the screen. Wise parents of young children only allow YouTube time when they the parent is present and within hearing distance. Parents of teens, you need to connect! Check in, build relationship, and keep an open door of sharing and dialogue. Young people of today are sharp and hunger for truth and experience. But they are often lacking in the discernment area. Parents are usually mistaken in believing that most schools of today teach young people to think – not so. That is your job! Use YouTube as a way to guide and point out discrepancies between what is real and show how the real world works. Point out and share dialogue with your teen regarding what the guy on YouTube basically made up during his rant about how he is going to “move to Europe if Donald Trump or Hillary is elected.” Sure you will, okay.

Culture and technology will never stop merging to form a formidable presence in the lives of our young people. But don’t see it as a bad thing. Later this evening I’m going to lecture to my class through the use of online technology to students scattered all over the United States, they can see me and I can see them – Amazing! Without technology, my ability to reach them would be limited, as would the information that I need to give them. We must be willing to stretch ourselves and learn and grow, and above all, connect with our kids in relationship as we guide and prepare them for life in the “real world.” Set limits, but also provide balance through teaching and relationship. Oh, and check out my YouTube channel…just kidding!  

Relationship Building: An Alternative to Consequences and Punishment

I work with many parents who have “little people:” Children that fall into the 2-5 age range when the urge for independence and assertiveness create all sorts of behavioral problems. This is also the time when separation anxiety appears and children become clingy and controlling. The urge for independence creates power struggles between child and parent and parents often hear the word “No!” coming from their child and see folded arms and tantrum-like behavior. Parents are often shocked by this and feel fear and the need to “nip it in the bud” and deliver harsh consequences in order to prevent the behavior from happening again. The parents are often surprised to see the behavior raise its ugly head again just a little while later. Our culture has labeled this time as the “terrible two’s” and new parents will often live with dread as they look upon their precious infant and think that in just a few years this precious baby will sprout wings and scales and spew fire killing us all. I hate this. The real reason behind society’s view of the “terrible two’s” is the idea that I, the parent, should be able to have my life the way I want it and my kids just better get with the program or else they are “bad” and “stupid.” Many parents will use spanking repeatedly, thinking that this will extinguish defiant behavior during these years, and most who’ve used it sheepishly admit to me that it doesn’t work.

Now, I am not a counselor who thinks that a child should not receive consequences, in fact, quite the opposite. I am a teacher of consequences but the consequences that I teach are those that are natural consequences (“Those who refuse to pick up their toys will lose the privilege of playing with them” “When you scream at me I can’t hear what you’re saying” “Those that want to play sports will have their homework done and get good grades”) The consequences that I teach preserve and create relationship; these consequences teach the child something and help build character and responsibility. Spanking says, “If I catch you you’re going to get it!” Spanking is usually done out of the parent’s fear and anger and I always ask parents “If spanking worked, why do you have to do it again and again?” I don’t want to get into a dissertation about spanking, it is a topic for another time. However, I want to help parents understand what is going on during this “defiant” stage and help you see an alternative for coming up with consequences for defiance.

First, the brain is doing some major changing during the ages of 2 – 5. Cognitive awareness increases, emotional maturity expands, and the process of being able to reason, think, and make decisions develops. The result: The child can do more for herself, think better, converse about all sorts of new things, and understand more of how the world works. The downside: FEAR. The child begins to see that things die, people move away, babies are born which takes away time from ME, Mom might forget me, etc. You get the idea. Children instinctively know that to be connected to caregivers is the number one way to survive, but they also are beginning the journey of independence which will take them into adulthood. The child’s behavior that appears to be negative is usually a way to get Mom or Dad’s attention. I spoke with a parent last week whose four-year-old began waking up in the middle of the night and asking for water, a story, even a Band-Aid for a “boo-boo.” I helped Mom see that the real issue was fear, and that what her child wanted was reassurance and comfort because at her stage in development the increase cognitive awareness had made the child realize that she could be forgotten or abandoned. The mom and I created a plan for the mom to build relationship with her daughter for 10 – 15 minutes each evening, instead of punishing the “clingy” behavior. The mom let me know a few days later that the negative behavior was gone and she was grateful. The girl was sleeping through the night again. The mom told me that she joined her daughter in play by simply sitting on the floor while her daughter played around her and the mom let her daughter join her in some new chores that satisfied the daughter’s desire to help and be in control. The mom was very grateful and she realized that her efforts to punish the negative behavior had only made things worse.

Second, when you see your child’s new “defiant” behavior don’t be shocked. Think “Aha, this is my child growing to a new level.” Welcome it, and celebrate it. How do you do that? Make time for relationship and find outlets for the new energy. Some examples are:

-New Chores (washing dishes, helping with the yard, washing the car, unloading groceries, etc.)

-New Challenges (learning to ride a bike, introduce an instrument, climbing, building, painting, etc.)

-New Cognitive Awareness (going on nature walks to notice new bugs, animals, and plants; reading higher level of books together, going to museums, libraries, etc.)

-New Play (learning a new sport, practicing a new skill like a video game or pretend play with puppets, LEGO figures, Dolls, etc.)

Each of these has one common component: RELATIONSHIP. Each gives us a chance to teach, be taught by our child, and both learn through spending time together. Shoot for 10-15 minutes a day, and a bit longer on weekends or when there is more “down” time. I often tell parents that they are great “managers” but lousy companions in relationship. Kids at the ages of transition, regardless of the age, need relationship with parents or caregivers to remain emotionally stable. For example, many teens are “bored” and hibernate because the parent has given up on attempting to build relationship because they are waiting for the parent to come to him. The teen is really wishing for the parent to notice them or create a space for time and relationship but they won’t put it into words. Defiant behavior at the teen stage is a clear indication of a need for new chores, responsibility, getting a job, and also relationship with the parent.

Remember to examine your child’s defiance and I hope you see it in a new way. Outright disrespect needs consequences and you as a parent should have a “policy and procedure” manual to deal with it. However, don’t discount the need for relationship and that often, building relationship removes the need for consequences because the real reason for the kid’s behavior is a desire for reassurance, comfort, and connection. They are discouraged or feeling insecure, but they can’t put it into words. I hope this helps you as you move forward in your parenting journey!


Pathways to Better Communication...

Ever heard this before?

“How was your day?”


“What did you learn?”


“Got any homework?”

“A little.”

“Wanna talk about anything?”

“Nope, I’m good.”

I call this a “communication pit.” To some, this is a daily routine. Nearly every parent I talk to wants to communicate better with their kids, and nearly every kid and teen I talk to wants their parents to listen. So what are we missing?

The most common issue is timing. When we want our kids to talk to us, they aren’t ready, and when they want to talk to us, we’re not ready. Thus, we miss each other and then later wonder what happened. I have some ideas about improving communication and staying out of “The Pit.”

Shatter the Old Routine: For those of you who say the same things at the same times every day to your kids, it’s time to switch things up. One way to do this is to use open-ended questions (“Tell me what happened at lunch today.”) Closed questions make kids feel interrogated or that they are in trouble. Another is to not accept one word responses (“Nuthin’”) or shoulder shrugs. Demand full sentenced, articulate responses – and demand the same out of yourself. Another way is to tell your kids about your day. I find it interesting that parents expect kids to share all about their day but the parents never tell anything about their day. It has to go both ways.


Create “Space” for Communication to Occur: Zinging questions from the driver seat in the car back to the 3rd row of the SUV or family van doesn’t work very well. Good communication happens when there is a face-to-face or an equal body position. Eliminate distractions such as phones, TV, or outside influences. Tell your young person, “Hey, later on let’s take 15 minutes and talk about today. How’s 7:30 sound?” This creates expectations and sends the message that talking with them is important. Once you’re in position, listen and don’t interrupt or make snap judgments. For example, when your 15 year old daughter is telling you about how disappointed she was when her friend wore a skimpy outfit to the football game, don’t jump in with a comment or judgment (“I’m tellin’ you, if she was MY kid I’d really tan her hide!”). Your daughter has told you that she’s already disappointed in her friend; the lesson is learned and the point is made so shut your mouth. One interesting factor in getting kids talking is where you, the adult, decide to sit. I’m amazed when I sit on the floor while a kid sits on the couch how comfortable they are talking to me. Remember: What works with one kid may not work for another. Be willing to be flexible and don’t get discouraged.


Use Toys and Art to Talk about Tough Topics: Situations like loss and rejection bring about emotions like anger, fear, sadness, and frustration. These are hard for young people to put into words. However, when you grab two LEGO mini-figures to play out the fight that your son had with a friend at PE, or you grab some paper and start sketching with your daughter while you’re listening to some of her favorite music, communication will usually start to flow. A blob of clay or Play-Doh becomes the oil that gets the communication gears going. The use of these tools creates a safe distance for the young person to look at the problem and examine their thoughts and feelings and then be able to talk about them. This is why play is so powerful: It takes the real situation that’s awful and makes it not so scary.

One thing to remember is that if you haven’t done a good job at connecting with your kid they are going to look at you like you’re crazy when you start trying. This is because they want to know that you are for real, because they aren’t going to buy in if it’s just going to be another disappointment. Be consistent, and don’t give up. Deep down, you are the one person that your young person is dying to receive attention from, even if they act like it’s not true.  

Every Day is a New Day, Every Moment a Fresh Start

“Today is a new day…This moment is a fresh start…”

I love the idea of those phrases. Most of the people that I’ve met over the past 20 years battling depression have a hard time believing these phrases. People tend to keep a record of their wrongs, their mess-ups, shortcomings…but that little phrase can release it all. I use it with kids often in the office. Just last week, I was moved to tears while a young man wept in my office over a poor choice. We discussed self-forgiveness. He discovered that you can’t forgive yourself until you find compassion for yourself.

Why do real people struggle with forgiving themselves for shortcomings? Personality is one factor: Some people are just hard on themselves, demanding perfection in every small thing. Sometimes it is something they have learned – mom or dad drilled into them that there is no room for mess-ups and that there is no way to right something once it has gone wrong. Children in these environments end pointing the finger at themselves and believing that they could have made things better.

Many of the young people I work with are perfectionists: It’s the way they make sense of a chaotic environment. They think, “If I’m perfect, and all is in order, then I’ll be safe.” But just like a cook who is trying to handle too many pots and dishes, things can get out of hand quickly. Then they are left with sadness and fear which is a terrible combination.

Are you a “parent perfectionist?” If so, you probably beat yourself up at the end of day reviewing all your failures and shortcomings with your kids. Thinking of where you snapped, that time that you angrily kicked a shoe out of the way or grabbed the whatever… “Oh, here, let me do it!” I come across these a lot and my heart goes out to them. I work hard to give them encouragement and help them learn to let things go. Many of the parents with whom I work are dealing with immensely difficult developmental problems that their kids have. This brings many frustrations and challenges that many of us would buckle under in less than an hour, me included.

The danger of not being able to forgive ourselves and see each day, each moment, as a new opportunity is that we carry the tally sheet with us into the next situation and relationship is lost. If I don’t feel worthy, there is no way that I can join my partner, my child, or neighbor in deep sustained relationship. My instinct will be to run and stay away. Or, I end up hurting others because of how much I hate myself.

What can we do about this as parents of young people who desperately need us to remain in relationship with them?

First, model the great act of accepting responsibility and making amends if you have done something to hurt your child. There is nothing greater than a parent who owns their behavior and then restores relationship. It shows the child humility and the process that love is not lost. It shows that despite human emotions which caused some fog, there is a light that blasts through it and brings love back into the picture.

Second, be mindful of what you are feeling and thinking in the present moment with your kids. When you feel anger or frustration creeping up, look for the cause then take a step back with a deep breath and regroup. Think forward – instead of being reactive.

Third, release your shortcomings through purposeful and intentional behavior that refuses to frame you as a failure or a mess-up as a parent. This is done by pushing through the feelings and going to your child or adolescent to join in relationship, even if it is plunking down next to them while they are playing a game. Invite them into your space too. Go on a walk, throw a ball, go for a drive. Don’t let a past mistake define what you choose to do in this moment. This moment is new – the past is gone.

If I define who I am by what I’ve done, then I’m a prisoner to the past. If I define who I am by who I am in this moment, I am free to choose how I will act and believe in this moment, which propels me into the future as a better, wiser person.