Overcompensating for our Children

The title art for the RDIconnect podcast
Autism: A New Perspective
Overcompensating for our Children

When a child has autism the parent/child relationship is disrupted and it can be easy for the parent to fall into a role of overcompensating for the child. As parents, we need to take a step back and be mindful of how we are participating in the relationship, is it producing growth or not? RE-establishing the Guiding relationship between a parent and child is the core foundation of the RDI Model. Listen as Dr. Rachelle Sheely explains more.

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Full Transcript

Kat Lee: I think overcompensation for our children is a hard topic for so many reasons, and I’ll start with the first one, which is just the mindfulness of going through your mind and thinking about where am I overcompensating for this child or adult, or what have you, where I’m just in a habit of doing it and it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it actually is.

Dr. Sheely: It’s a very big deal. And I wonder as a mom, you know, we’re both mothers and how did you deal with this? Did you feel yourself getting pulled back in? You know, you let go and then you get pulled back in?

Kat Lee: Well, I think so and particularly, you know, under stress or an event where you’ve kind of released and then things got messy and that I think as moms and we both know this, you know, can make you kind of reach back and take responsibility again instead of working through why it got messy. And I think that this is just with all children, parents can overcompensate for their child. So I think that’s one reason.

Kat Lee: I would say I don’t feel like I’ve experienced this, though I watch for it. The other reason, Dr. Sheely, is sometimes parents feel very comfortable in that role of the overcompensator, whether they would identify it as that or not. It’s almost a giving up of something which I think if a person wasn’t a mom, they might not understand, but it can be more comfortable to overcompensate then to let go. I don’t know if that makes sense.

Dr. Sheely: Well, I think it can be satisfying, too. I mean, if you think about the guiding relationship I’m getting thrown off from the very beginning, or pretty early on before the first year, before the first birthday, if any relationship gets thrown off and one of the ways you find yourself feeling like a good mom is to do things that are actually overcompensating things.

Dr. Sheely: And those things are often necessary in the beginning, because the child is not learning from you and so you simply do it because you don’t know how to enable him or her to become independent in the things that he needs to be doing. So I think what happens is it starts out very early and it starts out with the child maybe not being able to soothe himself. So the parent takes on the responsibility of not only soothing, but making sure nothing happens to upset the child.

Dr. Sheely: So you’ve already got a pattern in place. It’s not a good pattern for any of us and I’m not just saying parents of children on the spectrum do that. I think a lot of us do that.

Dr. Sheely: And then because your role has become the role of a compensator and not a guide, you start compensating for more and more things and sometimes children grow past the need for compensation. They’re doing fine, but you can’t let it go because you don’t trust they’re where you think they should be or they’re going to be, or that something terrible won’t happen – that they’ll make good decisions and so, that compensation actually takes on a life of its own. And I believe that the compensation can, not saying it always does, but I think it can take the place of a relationship, particularly when you think about the role of parents and children as being one of individuation, guiding and individuation and independence.

Kat Lee: Wow. And I was touched by what you said about the self-satisfaction that a mom or dad can have by feeling that way. And I agree with you. It’s not just the children with vulnerabilities. It can happen with parents of all children. That we see as almost a fulfillment of a role for them that they get a lot from, which there’s nothing wrong from getting something from being a mother.

Dr. Sheely: No.

Kat Lee: For sure, right?

Dr. Sheely: That’s good.

Kat Lee: But it’s that process of letting go. And I feel I’m really saying that too simplistically. Letting go. We’re not talking about free fall. We’re talking about being in the process and I think with children who are vulnerable for whatever reason, we can form habits as parents that are, for lack of a better word, are enjoyable to us.

Kat Lee: I’m going to use a really small example, but maybe there’s a nighttime routine or something that we’ve come to really enjoy, but our child perhaps has become able to very independently take care of all those nighttime needs, yet we find ourselves in the place of just enjoying to take part in that. I think all parents can say that there’s a certain giving up of that at some point, because you realize, what you said is it’s time, maybe recognizing the time with a child who’s more vulnerable is more difficult?

Dr. Sheely: And I think also another thing that occurs to me when I think about overcompensating is that if we don’t have a clear plan for how we’re going to help our child become more independent and more responsible and more capable, that that has an inverse relationship with us giving up a little bit.

Dr. Sheely: If we don’t see that happening, then we always feel like it’s sink or swim. We don’t realize that there are small steps before anyone learns to swim. You know? We’re not born fish. And so we don’t … fish, sink or swim, but we don’t sink or swim and thinking about those small steps which in RDI, we introduce so early on with the just noticeable differences and the challenges, and the parents considering how do I help my child become competent, feel competent about himself, but how do I feel competent about him too? How do I open up this new world where he can actually operate pretty much on his own?

Kat Lee: Well, I think about what we always talk about in RDI is that the relationship to self is as important or more important than relationship with others. If we don’t have a relationship with our self, then how can the children fulfill that if they don’t have that sense of I’m doing this on my own, with my own self? It’s almost, and I say this as a mom, but it’s almost as if you’re inadvertently taking away some of that self to self.

Dr. Sheely: Yeah. It’s an easy thing to do. And sometimes, I don’t think we should key in too much on the parents being responsible 100% at least for overcompensating, because there’s also some secondary gain of a special relationship if you’re the person who’s being overcompensated for.

Dr. Sheely: And I’m reminded of a family where I was talking about independence and I said, “You know, I feel like he can put on his own shoes right now.” And the mother said, “But why would I want him to do that?” And you know, I realized there are questions to be asked and there’s a road we travel together with our parents when we’re dealing with something that has become so successful and so basic. And so from putting on one’s own shoes, we become people who drive cars and have jobs.

Kat Lee: Exactly.

Dr. Sheely: But putting on of your own shoes. I mean, I love that. I love that image of, you know, a little guy putting on his own shoes and walking and taking off and getting ready to come on this journey that he’s ready to go on.

Kat Lee: Yeah, that’s beautiful. I mean, I look at that as really profound that you had that conversation and it came to my mind, and I know this can get really complicated for parents, but all of us who’ve had children get older, go through preadolescence and adolescence, and then even older, know it’s just a process of release. Take a little back. Release. Take a little back. It’s a process. And I do wonder sometimes families, being a mom myself, have that transition of preadolescence, adolescence, adulthood, if there’s a desire to keep them younger.

Dr. Sheely: Absolutely. And you also have to wonder about something that nobody intends and nobody wants, but a child fulfilling a role as the family and the person in the family that has, that is needy, so the person in the family is needy. And so the child takes on that role. Well, there’s some gain to that, because people look out for you and people make sure you have what you want and nobody wants to rock the boat for you, and you sure don’t want them to. So there’s a special role you’ll have. And that role, that special role feels good.

Dr. Sheely: When you become an independent person, and you know, we become independent in various things at various stages of our life, but when the person becomes independent, then they’re also giving up their special role. Then they’re just becoming like another brother or sister and they’re expected to do the things that, you know … they’re expected to get themselves up in the morning and take care of the morning routine and pack their own lunches and get to the school bus on time I don’t know, whatever. But they’re expected to do it, all the same. So there’s nobody, you know, “Oh, I’ll fix your lunch for you.” I’ll wake you up with a cold wash cloth on your forehead. I mean, wouldn’t we all love that?

Kat Lee: I was thinking that.

Dr. Sheely: You know, everybody gives something up. When overcompensation stops, everybody gives it up, but hopefully it’s given up in such small steps that it feels good all along the way.

Kat Lee: Yes. I think that’s so important, kind of back to what we were saying in the beginning, we’re not talking about just throwing you in the pool and hoping you can swim or, you know, a free fall. “Well, I’m done doing for you.” That actually is not a process. That’s just a, “I’m not doing this anymore.”

Kat Lee: But I also think it’s important for people that think about what you said, which is you have to have a plan and revisit that plan on a regular basis, I think, don’t you?

Dr. Sheely: I think you have to have a plan and I think you also have to have trust in yourself that yes, I can help this child become independent. Trust in the child that yes, the child can become independent.

Dr. Sheely: But you know, Katherine, I think there’s another … I think there’s something else that haunts us a little bit in this process of individuation and, you know, trying to not overcompensate and I feel there’s something that comes back and haunts us, even when we think it’s gone. And that’s the trauma of hearing that this beautiful child you have has a problem and that it’s a serious problem and that you’re going to have to work on it, so you’ve always got in the back of your mind that kind of traumatic response. It gets triggered by who knows what, but it gets triggered.

Dr. Sheely: And I feel like as parents, when we think about those gradient steps for our children. We’re going to do this, and then we’re going to do this, and then you know what? You’re going to go to school by yourself and not only that, you’re going to get yourself up. You’re going to do your own homework and you’re going to get there, or all those other things that happen. I think we have to be just as conscious about the letting go, and that sometimes that PTSD is going to get triggered, and to recognize it for what it is because if we don’t recognize that it’s going to feel like a truth – something speaking truth to us, and that anxiety we feel has to be felt, because we have to go in and we have to stop the child from doing it or overcompensating.

Kat Lee: Well, of course, as a parent, that totally makes sense because you only have to blink and you’re back in that moment when you’re told this and you’re told, as you said, how serious it is, and in some cases, told how hopeless it is. So those are some of the first seeds some of our parents have sown and as much as you and I wish that weren’t the case somehow, sometimes, well-meaning professionals sow those seeds, I mean, totally good intentions. They feel they’re speaking truth, but unfortunately it creates a moment not forgettable by parents. And so, I like what you said about it’s haunting. I think it’s a good term because I always think of haunting as hanging around.

Dr. Sheely: And it’s ghost-like. I mean, you can’t really see it, but it’s there and it pops up. I think just understanding that that may come back and often will come back when you least expect it. Maybe it’s one of those pivotal moments when the child is actually going to go off on a job and have his own apartment, and all of a sudden you feel the anxiety and you just have to take over, do everything again. You know, just as a mother, I’ve done that.

Kat Lee: I think of my baby when he’s two and you find something like this out. I know it’s different ages for different people, but your thoughts are what’s going to happen to him and I think that’s what’s going to happen to him just keeps coming back into your mind. I think it’s a different phrase for different people in those moments. But what’s going to happen to him?

Dr. Sheely: I think another thing, you know, I’m thinking back about this trauma of just getting the diagnosis. Nobody wants to hear this diagnosis. I mean, we have such great parents and I’m just so blown away by how wonderful they are. But in the beginning it wasn’t like they were saying, “Oh, I hope I get that diagnosis.” No, nobody wants it. And, I know that in having conversations with parents early on, shortly after the diagnosis, or having given the diagnosis myself, in my heart, I just want to say something that says to them it’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay, but I know that it’s not going to be okay for them until it is okay.

Dr. Sheely: And so I’ve come to kind of say that. “You know, I wish I could say something that would take all of this fear and anxiety and sadness away, but I know that it won’t go away until you actually see your child doing okay. So, that’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna work on that.” But there is that feeling as consultants, as professionals, wanting to ease that pain.

Kat Lee: Well, and I really appreciate that about you. And mindfulness. I think that means a lot to parents to know that you’re thinking about them in that way, but you understand that they need to hear the truth about the seriousness of the diagnosis and what we need to do. And I know as a parent, that’s what I would like to hear.

Kat Lee: That moment is one of the most important in the child’s life and how they can go forward and how those parents can move forward. And you’ve talked a lot about feet moving forward, which I love, which I think about all the time, literally. And I always want to remind parents you’re own feet need to be moving forward, too. Your feet have to go forward for your child’s to go forward.

Dr. Sheely: And I think about the overcompensation, how there’s that parallel process between what consultants do, what parents do, you kno. Where we start out by really being teachers with the parents that we work with, and we’re explaining things to them, and we’re actually setting up activities for them, and we’re role playing and we’re demonstrating.

Dr. Sheely: But the parents, one of the first things they have to do to help us not overcompensate is they have to start evaluating their own work. And once they do that and they start doing it really well, then they come up with their own ideas. I see this with the college students that I work with where they’ll say, “This is what I want to work on next.” Or the parent will say, “I was thinking that while I’m working on this objective, I’d like to use this to work on the objective.”

Dr. Sheely: If we don’t get to that place, and if we continue to overcompensate for the parents, that parallel process gets put into place between them and their children. So as consultants, we always have to be on the lookout for the possibility that we’re doing that and we are setting something in motion that we shouldn’t be setting in motion.

Kat Lee: Well, I always love your talks about the parallel process and this is just another great one, that if we’re overcompensating for the parents, then they’re overcompensating for their children and then round and round we go. I mean, that is, that is a beautiful, beautiful thought and how we-

Dr. Sheely: But Katherine, just like for the children where we don’t want them to sink or swim and we’re carefully evaluating … Every session we have with a child is a mini evaluation. It’s the same with the parents. It’s a mini evaluation where I think you’re ready to take on another piece of this, let me give it to you and show you how to take it on.



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