The Damage Done: Over-Indulging the Aspergers Child

Question

Our son is a 34-year-old with Asperger's who is living in supported housing. He went into his first apartment 2 years ago. It was very difficult as he was so angry and upset and even took revenge on us by smashing a television. He has had a lot to deal with. He has Crohn's Disease although it is in remission, with two operations at 17 and 19. He is defiant at times, super communicative, although of course it’s very much like verbal diarrhea. We haven't been too effective with parenting him, I think because of feeling sorry for him. This is coming back to bite us.

He sees a psychiatrist through the community mental health services (about once a month) and also a caseworker more frequently. About a month ago, he hit his psychiatrist (glancing blow on the shoulder), however the doctor has now charged him with assault. We are at our wits end. His MD says because it's a first offense, he will not go to jail but probably get a warning, maybe probation. His psychiatrist, a young fellow, told us a couple of years ago that he really doesn't know much about Asperger's as our son is his only AS client.

We know we have to change our communication with him, but my husband is feeling very sorry for him and not drawing a line in the sand very much. Our son is rude often, and often escalates into anger. Other times he is loving and almost normal. Can you offer any immediate suggestion?

Answer

Parents with an Aspergers (high-functioning autism) child often have trouble knowing how much to help out their “suffering” child at certain times in his life. But, is it really bad to “cushion” him or to “feel sorry” for him? Unfortunately, the answer is a profound YES!

Let me be very clear about this: If the Aspergers child hasn’t had to work for most of his materials things and privileges over the years …and if parents have “stepped-in” time and time again to over-protect and over-assist the child …it WILL cause serious problems for that child later in life. Parents are not doing their Aspergers child any favors by over-indulging and over-assisting, in fact, quite the opposite – THEY ARE HURTING THEIR CHILD!

We’re talking about over-indulgent parenting here. Over-indulged children have too much stuff, too much assistance, and soft structure (i.e., lax rules, few chores, aimless). As a result, this child grows up with very little “self-reliance” (a critical skill to have to “make it” in the real world as an adult).

Over-indulgent parents often view themselves as loving their child unconditionally by permitting most requests and offering their child free reign with few restrictions. They also believe that being good parents entails supplying the child with most of his wishes – and assisting at the first sign that the child is struggling.

Being “taken care of” all of your life has grave consequences. Children who are over-indulged have great goals, but because they are so accustomed to being catered to, they do not have the skills or drive for achieving their ambitions. Impulsivity, refusing to take responsibility, abusing drugs, continuing to live at home as an adult-child, spoiled behavior, and so on, all stem from needing control – but having no ability to appropriately exercise it.

The “easier life” makes for children who feel “privileged” and who actually miss out on some important social skills (e.g., how to make friends, work with others, achieve self-sufficiency, etc.). Doing well in college, finding and keeping a job, and raising a family takes individual hard work, but if the child is used to not having to work for his money or interact with people in order to do well, his lack of determination will be the catalyst for his downfall.

Over-indulged children don’t know the difference between “needs and wants.” Ultimately, knowing what you “want” versus what you actually “need” is something that comes with maturity, but when a child is so privileged that he gets most of what he wants, it’s hard to know the difference. In general, children that are used to being the center of attention and not having to work for their share at life are disadvantaged as adults.

Parents are supposed to set a good example and give their child a strong background in the “real world” so that he can succeed on his own someday. If children don’t learn early on that making a living doesn’t come easy, their lives won’t be as fulfilled because they’ll have a strong sense “entitlement” (e.g., “You owe me …I shouldn’t have to work for anything”).

Directives for Over-Indulgent Parents—
  1. Allow your child to experience the negative consequences and painful emotions of poor choices.
  2. Differentiate between your child’s wants and his needs.
  3. Discipline rather than nag.
  4. Discipline without later reducing or negating the discipline.
  5. If you have tried to correct your parent’s mistakes by attempting to be a “better” parent, know that (a) you turned out all right, and (b) you may be erring on the other end of the extreme.
  6. Keep an eye out for your child’s guilt-trips.
  7. Know that your child does not always have to be happy in order to have high self-esteem.
  8. Know when to be your child’s parent and when to be his buddy.
  9. Learn to say, and stick with, “no”.
  10. Make sure you and your child’s other parent are united and bonded on most issues.
  11. Pay attention to your feelings of guilt about how you have parented, and know it is a sign that you are – once again – beating up on yourself.
  12. Think in terms of “everyone has a responsibility to the solution” rather than attributing blame.
  13. When you catch yourself feeling sorry for your child, know it is a sign that you are – once again – taking on too much responsibility.
  14. When your child needs to be comforted/cheered-up, do so with active listening, empathy, paraphrasing, validation, hugs, etc. rather than giving him things (e.g., unearned privileges, food, gifts, fun activities).
  15. Your child is a priority, but allow your marriage to come first (it’s the foundation for the entire family).

In Summary—

Overindulgent parenting (i.e., parenting from parents who fail to enforce age-appropriate limits) is associated with children who:
  • are ill-tempered
  • are manipulative
  • are overly dependent on parents
  • are self-centered
  • are verbally/physically aggressive
  • have less concern for others
  • lack assertive skills
  • lack motivation

The methods of indulgence are:
  • over-nurturing
  • soft structure
  • too much freedom
  • too much stuff

The reasons parents over-indulge their children:
  • correct their own parent’s mistakes/repair their own childhood issues
  • don’t have much money (so give too much freedom)
  • feel guilty
  • feel sorry for the kid
  • parent fears confrontation/lacks assertiveness
  • response to a major life event
  • the parent was overindulged as a child

…as a result, they parent their child based on what THEY want for him rather than on what he actually needs …or they parent their child the way THEY wanted to be parented by their parents.

The results of overindulgence:
  • child believes the rules do not apply to him
  • child depends on the parent to give him what he wants, but at the same time, resents being dependent …and this resentment comes out as anger and ungratefulness and a strong desire for more and more and more
  • child does not get along well with authority figures
  • child feels entitled to privileges but not responsible for his actions
  • child has adjusted so completely to (a) being catered and/or (b) not having to be responsible for anything that he cannot function on his own
  • the child is in charge rather than the parent (tail is wagging the dog)

Parents who overindulge have trouble:
  • believing the fact that they are overindulging their child
  • defining the difference between nurturing behavior and overindulgence
  • enforcing discipline and setting limits
  • knowing when to be the child’s “buddy” and when to be his parent
  • saying -- and sticking with -- “no”

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