Dear Director: Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Edition

Dear Director,

I adopted my wonderful 9-year-old daughter, Emma, when she was 3-years-old. I knew her mother drank during her pregnancy and Emma now has a FASD diagnosis.

Recently we were at an Easter Egg Hunt at my sister’s home and my daughter got so overwhelmed by all the people and different activities, that she ran screaming out of the house. Later I overheard my mother talking to my sister and called Emma a naughty little brat. I tried, yet again, to explain to my mother that her brain basically shuts down in certain settings and she is literally unable to control herself. My mother just looked at me and said maybe you should give Emma some consequences then.

A Very Frustrated Mom

Dear Frustrated Mom,

I am so glad to hear that you have taken the time to learn more about your daughter’s diagnosis, and how it may impact her day to day life. I am sad that your family is still struggling to understand how to be her best supports, and how her diagnosis impacts her daily functioning.

Diagnosis are funny things.  To people who don’t know what is wrong with themselves or their children, a specific name for it can both bring relief (at least I know now, at least I know I am not crazy) but also fear, as this means you have actually met the “criteria” for a specific label. What I mean by criteria is that, in all issues both mental health and physical health related, you don’t say “I have a cold” and it looks like this and it has the exact same symptoms as every other cold you or anyone you know has ever had. Every cold feels different and the same cold has different symptoms in different people. Criteria are a list of symptoms, and, especially in mental health diagnosis, you don’t have to have all the symptoms to meet those criteria. So that knowing your daughter has FASD does not mean she looks, acts, or struggles like every other person who has that diagnosis.

But you are Emma’s mother, and you know both what her symptoms and challenges are related to this diagnosis, and what her strengths are, or where she may not have symptoms or has learned to overcome them through skill building and maturity. And you know best how to help her manage them, through therapies, changes you make in her environments, and also by avoiding situations that she may not be ready for emotionally. These have to be your decisions until your daughter has the capacity to make her own choices about what makes sense for her. I know it may be hard to hear, but if being around your family in a situation that is overwhelming to her sensory capacity, you may need to not go, or keep it short and sweet or pay close attention to when Emma needs go home or to a quiet part of the party or outside to the car for a break. She needs you right now until her brain builds the ability to manage more on her own.

As for your mother, well, remember you cannot change her. Since you have already talked to her about your daughter, and she continues to say she does not understand, then I suggest remembering that you cannot make her get it, and go about doing what is best for your daughter. Get the support you need for your parenting from someone who does understand. Don’t take it personally, even if hearing this from your mother makes you question your parenting ability-she is not your daughter’s mom! Try to laugh off the consequence statement, since you know what your daughter needs best. And keep loving your daughter for who she is and who she will become.

P.S. I bet you felt like running screaming from your sister’s house, too!

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