Parenting, Groundhog Day and FASD

Sharing (with permission) a wonderful piece about parenting a neurodivergent child and Groundhog Day by Lisa MacColl (Motherwell Magazine). While there is no mention of FASD, these are definitely similar experiences to supporting an individual with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder which is why I asked to share.

Groundhog Day, February 2nd, conjures any number of instant associations. Whether you think of the prognostications of a sleepy rodent dug out of his warm burrow to predict the end of winter, or the 1993 Bill Murray movie about a reporter sent to cover the event who then wakes up to relive Groundhog Day until he figures out some solutions, most people instantly relate. When you say Groundhog Day to me, a parent of a child who is neurodivergent, it has a different meaning: Groundhog Day describes my daily existence, with no eventual resolution.

When you have a child with executive functioning issues, things like cause-effect, action-consequence, abstract concepts like time, ownership, impulse control, money and math are challenging. There may be a bonus of issues with short-term memory, so what worked last week, last month or yesterday may not work today or tomorrow. Kids like mine need stable, predictable routine with little surprise or variation. Running out of a favourite cereal can trigger a huge meltdown. Stress, unexpected changes, or unpredictable events can exacerbate any or all these issues. A snow day can trigger chaos, so imagine how 2020 was.

Groundhog Day means I repeat a million things constantly every day—garbage in the garbage, not on the floor, hang up your towel, go to bed: you have school in the morning. Brush your teeth. Brush your hair. Flush. Wash your hands. I live in a state of repetition, while resisting the temptation to create a best-nag playlist and call it a day. Daily, I re-start as if I never said anything a million times the day before. It’s tedious and relentless.

Every parent needs respite, and that is especially true if you live in Groundhog Day. Enter COVID-19, and coffee dates, hobbies, gym, yoga, parties, live theatre or whatever a parent needs to stay sane disappeared faster than alcohol-based hand sanitizer evaporates. Groundhog Day with no break is exhausting.

Consider: parenting advice is based on action-consequence, reward-punishment: If you do X, you get Y. If you hit your sister, you get time on the naughty step. If you skip school, you miss the sleepover. Reward good behaviour and punish negative actions. If X, then Y.

Here’s the thing: if X then Y only works if the party of the first part understands it, can remember it, and apply it to a future situation. My kid is literal and deals in absolutes. So, in her mind, “if you do not go to school, we do not go for ice cream” is incident-specific. It applies to that occurrence only, and woe be it to me if ice cream is denied the next time the kid ditches school because I didn’t tell her ahead of time, even if I said “any time you ditch school” at the time. Every new instance is a new event. Every. Single. Time. That’s Groundhog Day.

The quickest way to end a conversation with me is to utter any phrase that begins with “well, you should just.” “Well, you should just take the phone away if she doesn’t do schoolwork. Well, you should just turn off the internet if she doesn’t go to bed.” Because “well, you should just” is grounded in if X, then Y. And I have been there, done that, made the sticker charts and felt like a failure when it didn’t work. Applying neurotypical solutions to a neurodivergent child is a recipe for frustration for both parent and child, plus bonus judgement from the outside observer.

The education system is predicated on learning, independence and action-consequence. While it is true one of the goals of parenting is to teach children critical thinking and self-sufficiency, when you live in Groundhog Day, you also know that there is a 100 percent likelihood that papers that are supposed to come home will enter the locker/desk witness protection program, never to be seen again if the teacher doesn’t act as an external brain and put the information in the folder I provided. Every. Single. Time. Math, science and critical thinking skills are predicated on if X, then Y. Groundhog Day is incident-specific. So, it doesn’t matter how many examples are completed to show how to solve a math problem, each of those examples is incident-specific, and isn’t going to help my kid find a solution on a math test if it isn’t identical to a problem she had already seen. Raising the concern with educators, or worse, including the information in an Individual Education Plan (IEP) is a quick trip to a label as a helicopter parent who isn’t willing to let the child become self-sufficient. Ask me how I know. Better yet, don’t.

Unlike Bill Murray, who eventually figured out how to break the loop, there is rarely resolution for parents who live in Groundhog Day. So, if you notice me cringing at the mention of Groundhog Day, it likely has little to do with a prognosticating furball and more with an ever-present reality. So, skip the judgement or “you should just” and buy me a coffee. As Bill Murray discovered, Groundhog Day is exhausting. ~ By Lisa MacColl

Thank you Lisa for writing this and putting into words what so many parents feel.

3 thoughts on “Parenting, Groundhog Day and FASD

  1. maryannbunkowsky says:

    Thank you LIsa for sharing this indepth description of the term Ground Hog Day often used in FASD training. It is important for people to undetstand why ths movie can be a great tool in helping others understand the need for repitition in supporing indiviuals with FASD.