- My son feels things very intensely and can get overstimulated easily.
- I started avoiding doing things with him in an attempt to protect him and myself.
- Eventually I realized that I have to let him fail so he can learn.
After being in labor for 26 hours, my son, Max, was born via emergency C-section. A nurse quickly placed him on my bare chest. He was squinting back at me accusingly, as if I had somehow already failed him.
The first year, Max barely slept. He refused to nurse and cried nonstop. As a toddler, Max was extremely dysregulated and wouldn’t let anyone touch him. Groups of people overstimulated him and he’d have epic meltdowns. Eventually, I started avoiding activities I knew might be difficult for him, like birthday parties and team sports.
It felt like I was failing as a mom
In kindergarten, all of Max’s friends were playing soccer, and he begged me to sign him up for the team. At the first practice, he yelled at the coach and stormed off the field. I carried him to the car kicking and screaming.
That evening, I cried to my sister, “This isn’t normal behavior!” She had twins, but somehow parenting Max seemed harder. My husband told me to stop comparing, “It’s like they are playing tennis and we are playing football.” Still, I felt like I was failing as a mother.
Over the next few years, different counselors diagnosed Max with different things, but they all gave us the same book, “The Explosive Child” by Ross W. Greene. My husband and I joked that copies were piling up on our nightstand.
My son feels things very deeply
My friend, an art therapist, once described Max as “a raw nerve exposed to the world.” This diagnosis made the most sense to me. Max feels everything, deeply. I once asked Max to describe what it felt like when he got frustrated. “Like there is a fire-breathing dragon inside my head trying to get out,” he said.
I was determined to slay the dragon. I scheduled countless counseling and occupational-therapy appointments. I fell asleep at night listening to podcasts about the neurodiversity movement. I started Pinterest boards of sensory-seeking activities. I was trying to build our parenting toolbox, but my husband, Alex, felt like I’d become obsessed with fixing our child.
“You need to stop,” Alex said. We’d been driving home from the third neuropsychiatric evaluation I’d scheduled that month. “Max is starting to believe there is something wrong with him.”
I turned to look at my son. He was frantically pulling off his shoes and socks and yelling that they were “strangling his feet.” “But isn’t there something wrong with him?” I asked myself.
I had to let him fail
I thought about what my husband said. By trying so hard to set my son up for success, I’d become laser-focused on his weaknesses. In an effort to protect Max and myself from a negative outcome, I’d been robbing him of important childhood experiences. I knew I needed to give Max the space to grow into himself — even if it meant he might fail.
A few months later, Max asked me to sign him up for spring soccer. He hated it, again. But over the season I watched him gain skills — and not just in kicking or trapping a ball. He showed up in the hot and sometimes windy weather wearing an itchy uniform. He wasn’t the best player — far from it — but he learned how to celebrate his teammates’ goals.
Recently, Max started third grade. He is still discovering who he is and what he needs; we both are. Some days are harder than others. When it feels like I’m failing, I try to remember that my child is walking through a world that, to him, feels like a minefield. I can’t pave the way for him, but I can walk beside him and hold his hand, if he lets me.