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A story about one family’s experience of behavioral dysregulation.

An article in this past Sunday’s New York Times magazine by Melissa Greene captured our imagination and our hearts.  This article details the journey of a family, whose adopted son, Iyal, has been diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Like many of the families we work with, Iyal and his family contend with significant behavioral explosions and implosions. Iyal’s special relationship with this therapeutic service dog, Chancer, also figures centrally in this story.

One of the things we most liked most about this article was Donnie’s (Iyal’s mother) forthright description of what it feels like to be
Iyal’s mom. As Iyal became more and more explosive and oppositional she said, “I assumed everything was my fault, that I was not a good enough mother.” We know what a widely shared sentiment this can be for parents with behaviorally dysregulated kids. Donnie goes on to describe the complexities of parenting a child like Iyal—complexities which many of our parents also experience first-hand. Donnie says, “We never considered dissolving the adoption. We fell in love with our son. . . staying in love with him has been trickier. People with brain injuries (referring to his FAS) aren’t able to reciprocate the love in the ways you expect. You’re struggling with clusters of emotions towards your child—love, but also anger, bewilderment, resentment, frustration, and yearning. This open description captures many of the opposing yet equally true feelings that parents’ of the kids we work with feel at times.

It was interesting for us to think about the intervention effect that Chancer has for Iyal. In the language of the Thinkkids model, does Chancer function at times as Iyal’s surrogate frontal lobe? The author writes, “When Iyal is distressed, Chancer is distressed. Unlike Iyal, Chancer knows what to do about it.  Iyal rages by crossing his arms, sitting down hard on the floor and screaming and kicking. Chancer unknots the crossed arms by inserting his wide muzzle through the locked arms from below, opening them up and nuzzling toward Iyal’s face, licking and slobbering, until the boy’s screams turn into tears of remorse or to laughter. Donnie also shares, “Lately, and this is the best yet: if Iyal gets distressed, he goes to find Chancer, and he curls up next to him. He picks up Chancer’s big paw and gets under it.” Greene observes, “It’s the closet the boy has come to mood self-regulation.”

One of our favorite lines in the article, because it contains a key kernel of the Thinkkids philosophy is in the 3rd to last paragraph. Greene is talking about how gaps between Iyal’s emotional and cognitive functioning will likely not catch up to his chronological age on account of his FAS,  “few outsiders perceive the difference between ‘neurological noncompetence and ‘behavioral noncompliance’ in other words, that Iyal’s doing the best he can.” Here, Here!!