Parenting the Abnormal Child

Normal is a charged term when talking about children. I actually hate the term. What IS normal?! But I’m also a mathematician, and I understand and value statistics. In a logical, mathematical sense, normal has a clear meaning. And so does abnormal.

Abnormal – not normal, average, typical, or usual; deviating from a standard: (

One of my children is abnormal. He’s also very smart, cute, and funny. He’s gregarious and loving. There are many, many things about him that endear him to me. But he’s not normal. By that, I mean that he doesn’t fall into statistical means on most anything. Below average on some things; above average on others. Frankly, I don’t mind having a child that doesn’t fit the bell curve. Most days.

But there are certain times that I am overwhelmed with the responsibility of parenting an abnormal child. My child doesn’t look abnormal, and his issues are not nearly as serious as many of you have experienced with your children. Our diagnosis is PDD-NOS. Those of you who have been through the battery of testing know exactly what that is. It’s the junk drawer for children who don’t fit the bell curve yet also don’t fit the set of symptoms and characteristics that define someone, say, on the Asperger’s spectrum. Our big issue is how my savant deals with new social situations. One of my children will walk into a room, evaluate it, and join right in with whatever is going on. One day, his easy conformity to the social norm is going to be a big problem. But when he’s 5, it’s helpful. My other son, in contrast, is doing his own thing before he walks in and will keep doing his own once he’s there. He’s aware of what’s going on inside of himself, but he is oblivious to how his actions affect others. And he hates change, especially change forced on him so he fits into a group.

At the beginning of the month, we moved. On the first day of school. Bad timing, Mom!! I was stressed moving, glad enough to drop the boys off at school and hurry on to my major To Do list for the day. Immediately, the troubles began. My child felt out of control, didn’t know how to navigate his new social setting, and his attempts to regain control and power were very destructive. Pinching kids, pushing kids, passionate melt downs at church, school, and play. There were problems EVERYWHERE EVERYDAY. I felt like I had post traumatic stress disorder at the end of each day.

Paul Miller recounts raising an autistic daughter in The Praying Life, and the Lord ministered great grace to me as I read through his struggles. The stories of her meltdowns struck a nerve with me, though our family’s struggles are not nearly so intense. My primary take away from the book was Miller’s statement that he did his best parenting on his knees. Of late, there have been many days that my best practical efforts to prepare my children and myself for whatever situation we faced failed in a puddle of great negative passion. In those moments, all that is left is prayer. There remains no naïve notion that I have it together enough to navigate the minefield of parenting. In fact, I am absolutely certain that I do not!

So I prayed to God privately. And I prayed to God with my son. And the Spirit reminded me that God parents me through relationship and that I need to parent my son through relationship. So he and I talked, and I realized I had to get involved with him at school. I started sticking around his classroom in the morning to figure out what was causing his outbursts. Then the teacher asked me to read with him in the hall because he was having difficulty reading silently in the classroom when others were reading aloud. After about 3 days of this, he was confidently reading the little books that he previously was throwing across the table in anger. Then he asked me to come to recess because that was where he was having the most problems with other kids. I did, and it was like Lord of the Flies. I volunteered to monitor recess a few times a week.

After a week of this, he has made a 180 degree change. The anger is gone. He seems committed to showing kids grace if they cut in front of him in line (previously quite the sore spot with him). He is proud that he defended a kid in the lunch room instead of being the one who hurt him. I’m still a little stunned at the turn around.

I know where I was last week, though. I remember clearly staring at a bunch of kids practicing soccer at the playground and wondering, in a PTSD stupor after a particularly traumatizing outburst by my child at karate practice, what it would be like to have normal kids? All I could do was lean into my relationship with God through prayer. And then the Spirit pushed me to lean into my son through relationship as well. The contrast between my relationship with my son last week and this week is staggering.

Not all problems resolve that easily. And I know that some that seem resolved will resurface. I’m simply reminded by yet another round of parenting trials that it is on my knees that God parents me and that I can in turn best parent my own child, even one who does not fit society’s norms.

13 Responses to Parenting the Abnormal Child

  1. Amanda Jo September 26, 2011 at 8:50 pm #

    Oh, how I needed to read this today! At the age of 4 my son was diagnosed with Conduct Disorder (common to but more severe than Oppositional Defiant Disorder) and was put on an antipsychotic to treat bi-polar disorder symptoms. He is now 7 and while these medications have helped, we still battle with behavior, academic and social issues on a daily basis.

    This post is an encouragment for sure but more-so has served to convict me of my lack of prayer over these situations and my little guy. Thank you for your obedience to God and for posting this today.

  2. Melissa B. September 27, 2011 at 3:36 am #

    Wow… sure needed this today. I pulled my 14 year old bi polar son out of public school where he was floundering a few weeks ago. We've been doing an online academy for two weeks and now I have first hand knowledge of how little he knows and how little he comprehends. And I had to admit to myself today that I can NOT homeschool him. I don't have the magic pill to “fix” him, to make him suddenly become a successful student and “get it”. He is limited and at some point I am going to have to be ok with his limitations. I'm not sure what we're going to do yet as far as school is concerned. I'm overwhelmed by him and his behavior and needs and I certainly don't understand him or his way of thinking. But for some reason, God entrusted this child to our family (he miraculously brought him into our family when he was five months old). I have to cling to that on days like today. I know God sent me your post today to encourage me. Thank you.

  3. Beverley September 27, 2011 at 1:13 pm #

    Thank you! My child has a terminal heart condition and there is much she cannot do or cope with…. I have been anxious over the role of discipline/responsibility. Much of her behaviour comes from pain but if I fully medicate the pain she will be a fast-dying bump on a log (suppresses to many organs). When I redirect her and she gets upset she is taxing her heart !!! Ahhhh…. on to my knees!

  4. Bern September 27, 2011 at 3:06 pm #

    What an encouraging post, despite having “normal” children – it seems that really…. that as a parent – I've simply to be faithful to my calling as a Christian and then pray, pray, pray. Thank you!

  5. Jessica September 27, 2011 at 6:48 pm #

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Jessica September 27, 2011 at 6:51 pm #

    Sorry, my first comment didn't post well. We have a family with “abnormal” children too. Both of my children have what we think is primary mitochondrial disease. My oldest was always socially astute and cognitively advanced, but her little body was broken in every other way. Parenting her meant living in the hospital for most of the last 5 years, mostly apart from my husband and other child. She died at the beginning of July. Now we are parenting another child with more abnormal challenges and gifts, in a family with abnormal issues of coping with grief and years of medical crisis. He also is thought to have mito, but unlike his sister, his most affected area is his central nervous system. Like your son, he is diagnosed with PDD-NOS. He is only 3, but his behaviors are very difficult. We are struggling with how to treat them through the standard intensive therapies generally required, while not exacerbating his medical conditions. It is only going somewhat well, some of the days. I appreciate your perspective, as occasionally when I see the five year olds tripping off to kindergarten I wonder what it would have been like if my daughter had been healthy like them (she died 3 weeks before her 5th birthday; this was the year she “should” have started school), and if my son will ever be able to attend kindergarten either…. God's ways are higher than ours, and his thoughts higher than our thoughts. It is well to be reminded to parent on our knees.

  7. Anonymous September 27, 2011 at 9:12 pm #

    I'm so glad Luke got a wonderful mother who will tackle each day head on and make it the best she can make it for him. So many little fellows are not so lucky. I love him so much. I want him to have the best life possible and I know he will because with you and God working together how can he not. I can point out to you several instances that worked out perfectly with loving intelligent parents involved… and one really bad one. So many parents will put their child on medication and say they did the best they could. NOT YOU. Luke will grow up to be a fine man because he has very good, loving parents who will make that happen. I thank God for you every day. Hang in there.

  8. Elizabeth Vaughn Do September 28, 2011 at 12:02 am #

    Every time I see someone cite Paul Miller's book, it is a different experience of his that ministered to the reader. It's humbling to think on the days when I'm cursing whatever lot I've been dealt that God is so infinite that he has purposes for trials not just in our lives but through them. Miller inspires you to prayer and you inspire us! Thanks.

  9. Prasti September 28, 2011 at 7:05 pm #

    it is on my knees that God parents me and that I can in turn best parent my own child

    this is so true and yet i take this for granted. often times, i turn to myself or others for the best help/advice when i should be turning to God first.

    our oldest has always struggled in school and this post was a great reminder that first and foremost we need to be parenting on our knees.

    thanks again for providing us with wisdom and insight.

  10. Betsy Markman September 29, 2011 at 2:59 pm #

    I needed this today. Thank you!

  11. joyfullytiredmom September 30, 2011 at 4:48 am #

    I can relate. My son has FASD, ADHD, SPD and aspberger-like traits. There are often days I wonder what if. But I'm learning that THIS is my normal. I can't do it without Gods help.

  12. Amy Lynn October 3, 2011 at 5:19 pm #

    I just read this and can't thank-you enough for the reminder to go to my knees as I deal with my daughter. She is PDD-NOS also. With other things going on. She is 13! UGH! PMS makes it's rounds and raises it's ugly head and my daughter is unbearable to be with. This past weekend I didn't handle things well with her. I need to go to her and try to talk her through this also. To focus on parenting through relationship. I didn't do that. I am and will do that better now. Thank-you again

  13. micrognathia October 19, 2011 at 4:20 pm #

    Having a parent of an abnormal child is really a hard thing to do. But you have to exert so much effort and patience in order to give your child the love and attention they need.