Posts Tagged ‘parenting’

Imperfect Parenting: Lies, Stealing, and Other Survival Methods

Posted on: May 27th, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

Last week, I wrote that I’m going to a mini-series on imperfect parenting. Remember when I told you that while toilet training Henry I told him pants were a privilege? This week I’m pretty stoked to share all the immoral things I do to survive mommyhood. Just kidding, I mean, it’s not that immoral.

Photo of woman smilingIn becoming a mama, I, like anyone else, had this grand idea of what it would look like and who I would be. I spent 6 months building the perfect nursery off my Pinterest ideas, deciding what outfits were Henry’s “style,” and buying things off my baby spreadsheet. That happened. All of it. It’s hysterical to write now.

When Declan was just about due (3 weeks to delivery) I had turned him from breach and was on rest. I sat around my home and realized I had bought nothing, I’m serious, nothing for him. You know why? Because I co-sleep my babies, breastfeed them, and use cloth diapers. He didn’t need anything. I tell you this because in my dreams of having a baby I thought it came with all this stuff. Once I had a baby I realized it wasn’t the stuff or the picture I created. Being a mom is just like that.

Creating Your Own Mom Values

In being a mom, I, of course, have a list of values, ideas, and dreams that I want for my children. On my best day I’m able to be present and implement small pieces of this. This can look like being super present, playing, reading, cooking, and talking to listen with my children. In my head, every day looks like this. In reality, moments of each day look like this–the rest is up for grabs.

I’m going to tell you some things I do to survive. Don’t judge, we all do them! The first and most important lesson I have learned as a mama is to lie hard. This little lesson came to me when I was teaching Henry to stay in his big boy bed. I would lay him down, he would cry for me to stay and I would gently whisper, “It’s okay mama needs to go potty she’ll be back in 5 minutes.” Henry would feel assured and fall asleep. I never came back, ever. Martin would sit on our stairs and shake his head. What’s worse is I’ve now taught Dametrius and his babysitters to simply tell Henry they are going potty when they lay him down. We are all lying and it’s working.

I also lie almost every morning to Henry. It looks like this; Henry watches a show while I get ready for work (go back and read my post about technology prior to COVID for other parenting fails). I set a timer for 30 minutes and when the TV goes off Henry needs to get dressed. He asks me “Mama can I watch Daniel Tiger downstairs?” I say, “Sure baby, let’s get dressed and brush our teeth.” Henry always pops up and does his routine. We get downstairs and he asks again. You know what I say, “Maybe later.” I also tell Dametrius to do this when he gets Henry ready.

Do you know why I lie to Henry? Because it’s easier, plain and simple. If I told him TV is all done he’s gonna scream and I don’t want to deal with this. Neither does anyone else in our home. I know it’s wrong, I know I should just take a deep breath and say, “No,” but I don’t want to. I want to get my little man dressed without feeling like I’m wrestling an alligator. I won’t lie about the important stuff, promise. But as long as my kids don’t have long term memories I’m using this one.

I suggest using the line “maybe later,” instead of, “No,” I swear it works wonders. “Can I have a popsicle, ice cream, pizza, watch TV, see Grandpa…” The list goes on and on. “Maybe” avoids tears in our home.

Surviving as a Mom

OK, so now you know I lie to survive. I also steal! I told you about a piece of this last week. That in toileting training Henry I would take his prizes every night and put them back in the prize bin. What I didn’t tell you is that in the middle of COVID I realized I was spending my entire day picking up toys.

One item on my pre-baby Pinterest board was wooden toys organized in bins. Almost 3 years later and we are overflowing with plastic toys. After a few glasses of wine one Friday night, I announced to my husband I was becoming a minimalist again. I was one before a husband and kids. Well, more of an imperfect minimalist. Our Amazon delivery driver disagrees but I digress.

On this particular Friday, I told my husband that we never wanted our kids to have so many toys because they don’t appreciate them. So why are we living this way? During naps on Saturday, just like the Grinch, I packed up their toys. Like 75% of them. I put them all in the basement and set a timer for a month. If no one noticed they were gone I was going to donate them. It’s been a month, no one noticed, so those toys are long gone!

There was one tiny T-Rex that I hated and kept putting in the garage donation box that Henry kept rescuing so I finally gave in and stopped stealing that. It actually felt so good to downsize. Now I have to remind myself not to downsize on a daily basis. We picked the toys they have and we now have a one in one out rule again. But man, getting rid of the stuff not only freed up my time it also helped me get realigned with my own values on materialism. On a side note, I’m also doing the 33 challenge and loving it.

A Few More Parenting Tips

I think lying and stealing are the biggies at our home to survive parenting. To give you some smaller ones that I think are helpful I’ll list a few. Bribing is always lovely. If you’d like your child to do something, like come inside without chasing them, I recommend it. We give a lot of chocolate for coming inside vs. chasing. Passing the problem to your partner is a good one. For example, Henry wants a toy to do something very specific, I can’t figure it out, and say “Daddy knows how!” I also recommend making it a pattern to have your partner doing things you don’t want to. Henry likes someone to lay with him after books, so I told him “only daddies do that.” It’s almost a year later and you know who Henry asks to put him to bed every night? Daddy. But hey, maybe that’s because I lied. Who knows?

Parenting is hard work and raising small humans means every day is going to be different. At some point, you just have to do you. If what you choose to do causes no lasting harm to your children sometimes you just have to do what works for you.

I hope reading this brings some joy to all the imperfect parents out there. I’m not perfect, but being naughty can also be a blast (even for parents).

Xoxo,
Jessie

PS

As I write this, Henry is sitting behind me with an empty flask. Don’t worry, we’ve never actually used it… we don’t have anywhere to go!

Imperfect Parenting: Toilet Training Edition

Posted on: May 20th, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

In my last blog, I wrote about accepting being an imperfect parent. I’m going to take a few weeks to do a mini-series on all my failures and wins as a parent because the joy of imperfect parenting is honoring both. I’m walking this path right alongside you. Ain’t no shame here!

Almost eight years ago I opened Instructional ABA Consultants for business. I was a loud, proud, young business owner with a full heart and mission. I still have that full heart and mission today. At the time I did what most business owners do; I got a cute outfit, took a gorgeous photo, and wrote my professional bio for my website. It’s still there today (picture updated because no one is 25 forever…). In my bio, I wrote a great many things including my areas of expertise. One of them was toilet training. During my undergraduate studies, I worked in a preschool and toilet trained dozens of children. Later on, when I received my master’s degree, I also toilet trained children for my caseload. I even held parent lectures. I’m laughing that this is still listed as an area of expertise… Enter my son Henry.

Toilet Training Your Children

photo of a child potty trainingI began toilet training Henry around Memorial Day last year. Prior to that, he was showing interest in sitting on the toilet so I started my own training methods following his lead. Henry wasn’t yet 2 years old which is very young for a boy. But hey, I was not complaining because at the time I had two babies in cloth diapers!

We started with Henry sitting on the potty at every diaper change to get used to just sitting. Once we made it through this phase I created a schedule for Henry with a prize box for successes. I took him to sit every 30 minutes, set a timer for 2 minutes, and then gave him a small prize! I then stole these prizes when he went to sleep at night and put them back in the box (he never found out….). Henry started to pee on the potty and life was good!

I entered phase two per my own training; remove the diapers. Holy hell. When I removed diapers we entered a solid 8-month process of trial and accidents. During this phase, I used just about everything I could think of that I had used with my own clients. I tried going more often to catch the accident. I tried going 15-20 minutes after he drank water. I tried reading books, singing songs, and even the damn potty song on youtube (“Come on Henry what do you do, come on Henry it’s time to go poop!.) Yes, I just wrote that from memory. No, I can’t come back from that. There’s more.

I tried bare butt over Labor Day and Christmas break (except naps and bedtime). Yes, he smeared poop on his playroom wall. I tried having him clean up. We have a sprayer for cloth diapers so this was loads of fun. I followed the rules and while we were making progress with going pee on the potty Henry was still having accidents with pee when he wasn’t supervised. This was any time he was playing alone, playing in our yard (we have a fence and I can watch him within eyesight), or mommy was crying in the bath (j/k but for real). He also was not potty trained for poop. At all.

I decided to talk with my team, who I’m sure were thrilled I was begging for more ABA potty training advice. I mean, I’m their boss, it’s in my bio, I can do this, and I’m still whining at team meetings I can’t crack this nut. Honestly, the team was super gracious. I love them all to pieces for many reasons (including letting me be human). I wasn’t willing to go back to diapers because we were 80% there for dry pants and I didn’t want to move backward. But I had nothing else to throw at this.

Toilet Training During COVID-19

Enter COVID-19 and Shelter in Place. I did what any person who is sheltering and anxious does; I made a list of all the shit I was going to accomplish (more on that later and if you’re still doing this please be kind to yourself and stop…). First on the list; finish toilet training Henry!

You know what I did? Me with my decade-plus in the field and fancy degrees? I told Henry pants were a privilege and he could earn them back when he pooped on the potty. My son wore no pants for a solid month. I once had my acupuncturist tell me she did this with all her children and it took a weekend. Lies. I tried this weekend bare butt thing before, remember?

During the first two weeks of bare butt, Henry quickly learned to hold his poop for his diaper at nap. Then it hit me. The thing I tell every parent seriously; you cannot toilet train and use diapers. I just had never dealt with nap time or bedtime (as I wasn’t a parent at the time) so I kept using them. I ordered bed pads and a squatty potty (to help him stand and poop on the potty). Then I told him, “Henry you’re a big boy, no more diapers.” I put a toilet next to his bed and thought, “Godspeed little one.” And you know what? No rewards, no schedule, no waking up at night and Henry stopped using diapers while he slept.

As Henry’s mom, one thing I’ve learned from him is that he has to do literally everything for himself first. When he was a baby we would watch him practice new milestones (clapping, standing, words) in his crib on the camera sometimes weeks before he would show us. I needed to slow down and remember how he learns, even for toilet training. This would have saved us both some tears and yelling. Remember I’m not perfect and yes I’ve lost my shit in the bathroom when we need to leave and he’s refusing to go. No, I’m not proud of that. Yes, it’s over because I know this is a trigger and give myself more time now when we need to leave. No rushing, period. It’s a rule I follow for me not them.

So now we have it right? Henry is going on the toilet, all is well. It’s the longest it’s ever taken me to toilet train a child but I’ve done it, right? Nope. Turns out Henry really enjoyed bare butt and became a nudist. This included stripping outside, peeing & pooping outside (claiming he’s a puppy…) and a few times where he peed on my carpet like it was grass. I was horrified. I mean I was on business calls, mute, “Henry no! Pants on, no pooping in the yard!”

Luckily, I do have ABA in my back pocket so I created a “wear your pants program.” This was much easier than our previous feat. I gave Henry a fruit snack throughout the day when he had his pants on and set a timer for every 30 minutes outside to make sure he had them on. Outside was the biggest problem because of our, er, problem. In about a week of rewarding pants on behavior Henry started wearing clothing again.

It’s a month later and Henry is 100% clothed and toilet trained. When he poops on the potty AND wipes, I drop the microphone and pour myself a glass of wine. Rock on mama. One down, one to go. Declan, be easy little one. Please!

Xoxo,
Jessie

Imperfect Parenting

Posted on: May 13th, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

Over the last month, I’ve written about my own personal journey during COVID to shine a light on fear. This week, in honor of Mother’s Day, I’d like to write about parenting during COVID. Personally, I’ve gone through highs and lows. Some days, I’m so grateful and proud. Other days it’s a completely different story. Through all of it, I’m learning to love myself and my boys in the midst of imperfection.

Intentional Parenting

Prior to COVID, I liked to think of myself as an intentional mama. I made a lot of calculated decisions about how I wanted to raise my boys and had some pretty high expectations of myself. I’ve shared before that when I had Henry I suffered from postpartum depression. As a trauma survivor, I had an added layer of not wanting to do anything to harm my child. Not harming my children in a physical way, I don’t worry about that, but in not wanting to make a mistake. From there I spent the better part of 18 months being 100% attentive to Henry when he was with me.

I mean, I was that Mom we all hate. Calculated floor time, zero TV, homemade meals every night, cloth diapers, no electronic toys. I was perfectly happy doing all of this but I didn’t do anything except this. I gained being a mama in my heart and at the cost of myself (a bit). Enter Declan (my second boy) and keeping up at this pace was just not achievable at the same rate. I went through an angry phase, being angry at myself for not being able to keep it up. Then I realized while I could love all the different ways I could parent my children, the most important was having a full heart. That I needed to find time for Jessie and not just the mama in me. I’ve quoted it many times but truly, “How Not to Lose Your Shit with Your Kid,” changed me.

Changing Your Parenting Style

After I realized I couldn’t keep up the same pace of my “perfect parenting,” and with two children under 2, I gave myself a hell of a lot of grace. I let myself fail, break my own rules, and most importantly spent time taking care of myself too. I was able to keep the things that were important to me for Henry and Declan. This looked like eating whole foods, limited TV time (none for Declan he was not yet 1), being present when I was with them, and allowing myself some alone time when we were home together. This felt good. Really good. Enter Shelter in Place. Without my village, it all fell down.

I had gotten into this groove with my children because I allowed myself access to support. I made sure I didn’t expect myself to be with my children 110% of the time. My children went to who I consider their second mom’s house (Dana!) three days a week. Martin and I were rocking date nights at least every other week. I was going to the gym. I was regularly cooking at home (while still appreciating occasional restaurants). I was balanced. I was happy with myself, my parenting, and so grateful for our new son Dametrius finally coming home. Then, overnight, it was just our family and our responsibilities increased as a family increased exponentially.

I’m pretty lucky in the sense I had already laid the foundation with myself that it was OK not to be perfect as a parent. That to be a mama didn’t mean to be on point every second of the day. But a big piece of this was letting myself have some alone time. With sheltering in place, alone time is SO much harder to achieve. My husband works 40 hours a week from home with little relief from his work to help with childcare. Owning my own company means I have to be the flexible one with fitting my work schedule around the kids. It also meant I’m with our boys way more than my husband. I’m learning how to teach our new 8th grader. Dametrius just moved into his new home, so I had no idea what he knew academically.

Add my own hippie heart of loving organic foods (but not able to go to the store), limited technology, and being present to everything else and you’ll realize this was a tall order!

So I did something radical. I’m serious, this was big for me. I threw away my script. Seriously! I decided that the most important thing was something I already knew after healing from postpartum depression and parenting two very young children. It’s love. That’s it. Love is all my children need to grow and thrive.

Realizing What’s Important as a Parent

Don’t get me wrong. There are still things that are very important to me as a woman and mama. But if I kept up with my pre-COVID rulebook I was going to crash and burn. Honestly, looking back, I don’t know how I wasn’t crashing and burning anyways! Sure, I had help, but my expectations were sky-high. So now I expect failure from myself and my kids on a daily basis. We fail, we cry, we kiss, and we move on.

I still want my children to eat well but, honest to God, cooked my first boxed mac and cheese for them ever. I still want them to play in the dirt more than behind a screen but we have movie night every night. I still want to be present with my kids but I allow myself to check emails on my phone while drinking coffee each morning. Some days we have free days. This means jammies all day, movie mornings, coffee, and picking up a toy or something small in a pickup order. I’m resting for myself, eating as well as I can, and moving or getting any exercise when I have a few minutes for self-care. When I can’t do these things I give my heart a big hug.

Mostly, I’ve realized that while my village made my pace possible it wasn’t what my heart wanted. Being home with my children for this amount of time has taught me to follow their needs and my own together. I’m not the mama I was before COVID. I’m messier, louder, and I cry a little more. But you know what? In accepting imperfection I’m happier too. I hope through reading this that perhaps you can love your imperfections in parenting too. And hey, maybe you’ll become a bit closer to your authentic self.

Xoxo,
Jessie

Behind the Fears During COVID-19

Posted on: April 22nd, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

Last week in my blog I wrote about compassion and grace. I hope it served you. After identifying my own fears, I realized that so much more was going on behind them. It took guts to accept this followed by a bit of hard work to find what was really behind them.

Let me backtrack for a minute. There is nothing wrong with fear itself. Fear is a very useful instinct and absolutely necessary to survive. Fear tells us when we are in danger(remember, the amazing Tara Brach teaches about this). Fear told us over 10 thousand years ago how to survive; it’s instinctual. The problem with modern-day fear is it often becomes a story we’re making up versus a true danger. Sometimes it’s a little bit of both. So when we go behind our fears we have to sort them. Is the fear real, a story, or a mix? How do you know what type of fear you’re dealing with and what do you do with the fear once it’s named?

Recognizing Fear

photo of a woman in a park reflecting on lifeLet’s start with the types of fear we deal with as humans. The first is physical fear within our control. This is a lion charging at you, a car that ran the red light, and anything else that could cause you physical pain or death. Our limbic system kicks in when we are dealing with these kinds of fears. Fight, flight, freeze. Our body ramps up to tell us how to respond and protect ourselves. If we have the right resources in that moment of fear (ex: brake pedal for the car coming at you) we can protect ourselves from the threat. This fear is super helpful and protective. However, our other fears like to dress up like physical fear and, in this guise, tell us they too are helpful. Let’s talk about them.

The next type of fear is fear beyond our control. This fear is a threat that comes into our lives that we cannot control. There is no brake pedal for this metaphorical speeding car coming full speed at you. These fears are almost always medical or life-altering in nature. These fears are a cancer diagnosis, heart disease, a baby born too early, divorce, being fired, a house burning down, etc.

These fears present themselves to let us know they are there. We usually have some options available to us to address them, but fears we can’t control often have outcomes we can’t control. When you or a loved one receives a cancer diagnosis, you/they can choose the treatment course with medical guidance. But what we can’t control is how the body will respond.

If you are fired from a job you cannot control working there again, but you can find new options for employment. These fears hurt. They just do. We see them, do what we can, given the resources available, but the outcomes are almost always beyond us. Not being able to control an outcome when a threat is present is hard. COVID-19 falls right into this category.

Rejecting Irrational Fear

This leads to the last type of fear; make-believe fear. This is the sticky, icky fear that we, as humans, create to try and cope with physical fear and fears beyond our control. It’s the story we’re making up and it causes anxiety. Make-believe fear tells us it’s helpful while driving us absolutely crazy at the same time.

As an example, let’s look at sanitizing per COVID-19. The truth is there are good sanitizing measures we can all take to reduce our exposure to COVID-19. A story you may be making up is that you need to sanitize your high touch areas 10 times a day and that if you don’t everyone in your family is going to contract COVID-19. Let’s look at another one. If you are afraid of how you’re parenting during COVID-19 you might tell yourself you are failing terribly. In response to this, you either step it up or scale it back to validate the fear. In both cases, you’re exhausting yourself mentally and putting yourself down. The reality is you can’t control kids being home 24/7 but you can just show up and do the best you can.

Is this making sense? Let’s keep it simple. Each fear we hold that is a story we’ve made up is not helpful or kind. This type of fear convinces us that if we behave a certain way that the fear will magically disappear. But it’s not gone–it’s amplified! The fear is driving the car. To put this fear down for good we have to name it, shine a light on it, and stop engaging in the behaviors associated with this fear. When we stop engaging in the behaviors associated with the fear it always hurts. That hurt sucks but is far kinder than tearing ourselves up in behaviors to avoid outcomes we cannot control. And in that hurt is a truth about what we really, truly need.

Using Fear to Stay Safe

Each story we’re making up is unique to all of us but as humans, it’s usually along the lines of needing love and belonging. To be seen. To be accepted. To be safe. Here’s the thing. We can be safe by identifying real fears versus stories. We can be seen by others once we see and know our authentic selves. Being accepted. That lives in your own heart, not anyone else’s. But when you love and accept yourself you can honor what you need from others.

This is my ask beautiful ones. Take this week to find some of the stories you are making up. Then put down the behaviors surrounding those stories and pick up some behaviors that show yourself some major love. Find a way to take care of yourself and through this, I promise you’ll be able to care for those you love too.

Xoxo,
Jessie

A Telehealth Heart to Heart

Posted on: April 8th, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

Over the last several weeks, our country and world have changed more than I believe we ever imagined. Each person and business has had to rethink what our new “normal” looks like because of COVID-19. For the autism community and ABA (applied behavior analysis) providers, one aspect of our new normal is telehealth.

I can say with confidence that very few BCBA’s or ABA providers were savvy to telehealth prior to COVID-19. Telehealth was used on a very small scale in regions that are remote and therefore barren of service providers. Outside of these outliers, we are a face to face field. So what do we do with this new service delivery model? How can we as service providers use telehealth for ABA to help our clients and their families get as much access to care as possible during COVID-19? At Instructional ABA Consultants (IABA) we’re approaching this in a few different ways. I also think from a mom’s perspective there are several aspects I would personally consider if it were my child. I’d like to share both.

Telehealth at IABA Consultants

Photo of an ABA therapist telehealth providerTo start, at IABA we first had to consider the clinical standards we want to see for all of our clients. It’s one of our core values that clients make progress every week. In eight years of business, I know this piece has always been true for us. Our data speaks volumes. With COVID-19 I knew as the owner I was willing to approve new policies to support our families so long as this value held true. I hold a great deal of trust in our team of directors and followed their guidance to ensure clinical quality.

Now please remember that we are essential workers and many of our clients are receiving direct care with supervision via telehealth. The reason for all supervision being by telehealth is to decrease the number of people gathering (#socialdistancing). There is a portion of our clients whose families are choosing not to have ABA providers in the home during Shelter in Place. For these families, we created three options for telehealth to address the variety of clients we serve.

Telehealth Options at IABA Consultants

The first option is for our clients who can independently respond (understand conversation through technology). In this option, we are doing direct telehealth sessions with them. This option allows clients to get the same content of their ABA session over video sessions.

The second option for our clients who can learn via telehealth, but cannot respond independently, is to require a moderator (family member) to assist during telehealth sessions. During telehealth sessions with a moderator, the ABA therapist will send over data sheets & materials prior to the session then coach the moderator on how to run goals.

The third and final option is for clients whose families are either not opting into any type of direct session (one on one goal work) either in person or via telehealth. This option is also available for clients who BCBAs do not feel their programming is appropriate for telehealth (remember our value of progress!). This third option consists of weekly or bi-weekly parent training sessions. During these parent training sessions the BCBA reviews goals, provides materials, datasheets, and trains the parents on their child’s ABA programming.

All of these options provide a spectrum of care for our clients. With ABA therapy we know that the amount of hours impacts learning and behavior reduction. One sacrifice that is made via telehealth is that hours are reduced so the speed of progress will slow. However, the benefit here is that for all families who are opting out of ABA therapy in the home, but into telehealth, progress will not stall and their child will not significantly regress.

I like to think of telehealth options as a good fitness program. When you are able to go to the gym and get goals from your trainer you will most likely make steady progress toward your goal. If the gym is not available and you’re now jogging outside you’re still making progress, but it’s not as fine-tuned as the gym. It’s progress, as you stay fit, but maybe you lose 2lbs instead of 5lbs this month. Telehealth tailored to our clients is like a really good jog and I’m beyond grateful for the response of the insurance providers to make this an option.

Telehealth from a Mom’s Perspective

Now, as promised, I want to take a moment to talk about telehealth as a mama. If my children were receiving this service I know that there are two things that would be important to me. The first piece I would want is for the telehealth session not to act as a babysitter. I would want my child to be actively learning not sitting and zoning. I can turn my own TV on. To monitor for this I would make sure the BCBA on the case was overlapping these sessions (also remotely), updating data, and providing weekly summaries of learning.

The second piece I would be mindful of is how much time my child is spending with the telehealth option. As I said above, ABA therapy improves outcomes based on the amount of time a child receives therapy each week. I don’t think this is true for telehealth. I would be wary as a mama if my service provider still wanted to do 40 hours of ABA via telehealth. At IABA we’re looking at between 30 minutes to an hour at a time based on the learner. These can be multiple times per day but eliminates the worry of just keeping a screen on all day with no progress. If both of these pieces (progress & length) were monitored for my child I would feel at ease with telehealth as a short term solution.

I hope the way IABA is approaching telehealth and my views as a mama serve you. We’re all in this together and together we’ll all be stronger for it.

Xoxo,
Jessie

A Simple Autism Support Guide

Posted on: March 25th, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

Over the course of the past week, our lives have changed rapidly. Here in Illinois, as in many states, we are formally following Shelter in Place. ABA therapy is medically necessary for children with autism and ABA therapists are categorized as essential workers. That being said, we gave our families and staff the option to pause services or work until the Shelter in Place lifts on April 7th in Illinois. We gave the same option to our Colorado families. There are still families receiving services and staff working, but we have more families currently on pause than those continuing with ABA therapy (as a personal choice). As a clinician and mama who is now going on week 2 home with my own children, I know how hard it can be. This week I’d like to provide some insight on simple tips for children with autism who are at home without their usual support team.

photo of mom journalingTip #1: Make a Daily Routine

I know that this tip sounds simple. I’ve even seen this tip on several parenting sites not specifically meant for children with autism. Having a daily routine during a time when life feels uncertain can be comforting. It’s also an easy way to ensure you are doing what’s important for you and your children every day.

For children with autism, routine has been, and will be, important beyond the COVID-19 outbreak. People who have autism often think in patterns and sequences. Life itself is one big pattern! To a person with autism, knowing what comes next can bring down anxiety levels. If anxiety is low, problem behaviors surrounding a change in the routine (the next task on the schedule) are less likely. The more predictable you can make each day for your child with autism, the calmer they are most likely to feel.

Tip #2: Single Task

I’ve mentioned this before, but in “How Not to Lose Your Shit with Your Kids,” single tasking is brought up A LOT. Maybe after COVID-19 the book will be a New York Times best seller! Just kidding. But in all seriousness, if, while you are implementing your child’s (or children’s) daily schedule, you are trying to multitask you are setting yourself up for failure. Single tasking is just what it sounds like. Do one thing at a time.

With millions of us now working from home, while our littles are there as well, I know what a large feat this is. You are trying to work and keep your children happy, which is multitasking in itself!

How I’ve personally tackled this is by setting up my children’s schedule (minus naps & food) around my day. What this can look like is taking breaks from work to transition your children through their schedule. It may look like cutting yourself some slack and when you really need to work. Things like putting a movie on or setting up play time that you don’t need to be involved in may seem like sub optimal parenting. While I know the mom guilt can be real, knowing our own boundaries makes for a calmer house. Do one thing at a time the best you can to keep your nervous system at bay. If you do lose your shit, go ahead and give yourself a great big mental hug. It’s OK, we’re all struggling.

Tip #3: Choose Small Goals

I learned this tip working with children with autism well over a decade ago. I was working with a boy with autism back in Ohio and he had a goal to learn to shower independently. In order to learn the full task of showering we broke the skill of showering into small steps. The goal was broken down into steps like taking clothes off, turning on the water, checking the temperature, and so on so forth. The whole process was over 25 steps! We taught one step at time and, in time, he learned to shower by himself. In ABA we do this for all our clients in their programming.

While you’re home with your child with autism, pick a few goals that are really important to you–ones that will bring pride or joy to your child. These goals can be new communication (pick 2-3 words/signs, communication cards), play goals with siblings, play goals alone, eating goals, or self care. Think about things you’d like your child to be able to do. Observe your child and write down all the steps they would need to know in order to accomplish the full goal. From there, you’ll pick the first step of the goal. Teach, teach, teach until that first step is learned. After you see success on the first step, move to the next. You may not get to the full goal by the end of Shelter in Place but your child will be learning!

Comment on our Facebook post your questions about goals and we’ll reply!

Tip #4: Celebrate Success

It’s so easy to become frustrated with each other during Shelter in Place. I mean, we’ve all seen the Shining… Staying in place can be filled with wonderful family moments, as well as some pretty real human moments. To help your child with autism know what they are doing well, make it a point to praise them! Try to find 10 positives a day to praise your child. Knowing that they are doing something correctly gives your child the confidence to continue their positive behaviors. And hey, while you’re at it, maybe thank your husband or wife for dumping clothes in the hamper not the floor.

Tip #5: Remember Functions of Behavior

Over the course of the winter, I wrote about the functions of behavior. I explained how everything happens for a reason and how in ABA we use four categories to explain why behavior happens. These categories are attention, escape, access to tangibles/activities, and automatic. During your time at home with your child, if a problem behavior occurs start to observe it the best you can to find the function. Here’s a quick guide:

  • Attention: Parent is busy-problem behavior occurs, parent provides either positive or negative attention
  • Escape: Parent requests-behavior occurs, parent removes demand
  • Access: Child requests an item or activity-behavior occurs, parent gives access
  • Automatic: this one is complicated, please reference my previous blog here

Once you notice what your child wants with their tantrums or problem behavior, it’s important to do two things. First, try to be preventative and fill them up with what they want before the behavior occurs, when feasible (for escape this is lots of breaks/attention & access is self-explainable). Then, if the problem behavior still occurs, do not give your child the consequence they are seeking. You don’t want to reinforce bad behavior. Stay consistent and sooner, rather than later, your child will realize the behavior isn’t working and it will go down. Also, remember to teach language skills to help your child request their needs more safely!

Tip #6: Give Yourself a Break

Life is disrupted for pretty much everyone right now. It’s easy to start your day with a plan only to have that plan change–sometimes only minutes into the day! It could be from work, your child’s particular mood at the moment, or that you yourself are just having a bad day. Try hard not to judge yourself and instead provide grace. Say kind things to yourself when you’re struggling and make sure you’re carving breaks out for yourself. These should be things you love to do. Mine look like naps, a kid-free hour, and running. If I’m overwhelmed I look to when I can schedule a me moment in. I hope you can too.

Xoxo,
Jessie

When You Think You’ve Surrendered, Surrender More

Posted on: March 18th, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

Over the course of the last week we as a nation have, and are still, struggling to make the best decisions possible in response to COVID-19. As individuals it began as laughing with friends over the toilet paper crisis to within days social quarantining. Many of us started stocking our freezers and cupboards to create supply. In my home my husband has lived through times without food in Bulgaria, this is no joke to him. We have enough food to feed an army after his trip to Costco, I’ve blanched A LOT of veggies, and he’s still scared. Our government and businesses are rapidly making new decisions each and every day. People are losing work temporarily every day. I’m working around the clock with a beautiful team and trying not to make this my employees reality, all sixty plus of them. It’s a scary time, one none of us have lived through. So how does surrender fit into this scenario?

photo of family walking at forest preserveSurrendering, to be clear, does not mean we are stopping. To surrender means to recognize that no matter how hard we try, sometimes things are out of our control. On a larger note, for my soul sisters and brothers out there, it also means to give an outcome over to the Spirit or Divine. I have used surrender in every darkness I have walked and it has always brought me home to myself and to whom I call God.

As a type 8 on the Enneagram, a Challenger, I can tell you honestly that surrender and I fist fight until I call, “Uncle!” It’s in my nature to fight obstacles, to rethink systems, and to always find a solution for the greater good. To serve the underserved at IABA (and my soon to be third company with fabulous Nicki Worden for postpartum mama’s) is easy as breathing for me. Please don’t roll your eyes, we’re all built differently and I honor you however you are built! Slowing down and realizing that there are actual things outside of my control is an actual process for me.

Going Through the Surrender Process

The process isn’t easy. It typically starts with a healthy dose of anger over the thing I’m trying to control. Just ask anyone how well I take to being sick! In the past it could have been a bad boyfriend, components of my marriage, business outcomes, and hell yea mommyhood. It now also includes COVID-19.

I think about how much I want a different scenario, self evaluate and then work my ass off (in the wrong direction) to change it. It’s the fight after anger. I say it’s the wrong direction because in all these scenarios big and small there are pieces to each of them I cannot control. Once I let my mind finally stop the fight and realize the outcome is either up to the other person or the universe I can surrender. In this surrender I’m honoring a couple of things. The first is that not everything is up to me. The next is that other people need to be given space to be their best self or to fail. It’s not my place to stand in anyone’s way of either. The last is in giving it back to Spirit I know it will be taken care of. By following this process what I’m accepting is that controlling outcomes isn’t accomplishing anything. That there is always a higher way to think about life and any situation in it. That everything is not up to me, really. My job is to be my best self and to show up for the work Spirit puts in front of me; that’s it. And I can tell you every instance of surrender things have worked out. They do not work out how I wanted them to be when I was stuck in fear or control, they turn out better.

So how do you or I surrender in the face of COVID-19? First we can go back to the first lesson of surrender; this is out of our control. COVID-19 is a virus rapidly spreading that none of us have antibodies to fight with a luckily low mortality rate. It just is. We can’t control that. We can control our own actions surrounding the outbreak.

Making Amends With Reality: Putting it into Practice

This means most importantly social distancing. In our social distancing comes another level of fear about our work and interruption of daily lives. Again, this is out of our control. What is in our control is either working with our employers so long as they have resources to employ us or with the state for emergency unemployment. It’s also within our control, for those who have more, to be aware of who has less. If we notice families without it’s our duty to step in and help provide; whatever that looks like. Personally I’ve seen so much love these past five days in my community alone.

In regards to our daily lives being interrupted, again out of our control. We can find peace in simplicity. Meals are less varied and always at home, more time outside, less consumption of goods, more time together. Perhaps instead of paper towels you’re now using wash clothes; mother earth thanks you. No, it’s not our normal lives and I miss what is available just like anyone else. But, in its place now that I’ve surrendered to the fact we’re here I’m finding ways to be grateful each day. That gratitude is building joy in my home.

Work is still unknown for our field. We’re actively working to ensure children with autism continue to receive our care. ABA is medically necessary for a child with autism and I can’t imagine pause in service for so many of our clients. If there is a state or nationwide quarantine, then there is. From there, together we’ll rebuild our therapy sessions but hope it doesn’t come to that. In the meantime my staff are doing a beyond fabulous job supporting each other and their clients through the crisis.

Me? I’m enjoying extra baby snuggles in my home, working my ass off for my company, and praying for the best for all.

Xoxo,
Jessie

ABC’s & 123’s Don’t Really Matter Much to Me

Posted on: March 11th, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been sharing some of my favorite parenting practices, practices that I believe have a direct impact on positive development. In writing these blogs, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about my take on academics and young children. In a world that has growing expectations concerning what children should know, I’m more than happy to write my spin. That being said, I have to admit that my opinion on this topic stems from my grandma.

As a child, family was really important to my dad (it still is). He made a point to see his parents and to keep us connected with our aunts, uncles, and cousins. One way he kept my sister and I connected with my grandparents, who lived on a farm about an hour away, was to leave us with them for a week every summer. This was my favorite week of the year!

During the week on the farm, we would help take care of the animals (well, mostly me!) garden (again, me ) and learn to sew (mostly my sister). We got this amazing exposure to a slower pace of life and to learn about my grandparents’ take on the world.

My Grandma Virginia was the matriarch of the family and a force to be reckoned with. There was really only one opinion that mattered: hers. I loved her. Originally my grandma went to college to become a teacher but met my widowed grandpa who had two small children. Her life quickly changed when they wed. They had four more children of their own and she spent her years raising them while my grandpa worked as a traveling minister. When all her children were grown (all 6!) she went back to get her master’s in special education, which was right around the time I was born. She then went on to teach 6th grade and special education.

Learning About Education

In talking to me about children and education, there was something my grandma said to me that has always stayed with me. She told me that when she went back to college she was amazed by how many new theories had been created and how expectations had changed yet children were still just children. To her, this new world of education was based on adults wanting to “make a system better based on their own take,” versus really just following a child. She was concerned about the new level of academic work being pushed at a kindergarten level that then, of course, lead to the age of standardized testing.

Now, mind you, I was born in 1987, which was the year my grandma got her master’s. It was most likely the mid-90’s when she shared this opinion with me. But sitting here this morning, writing this to all of you, I can’t help but feel she was onto something.

I’ve now sat across the table from hundreds of parents with children who have autism and are worried that their young children are behind academically. In speaking to these parents, I have learned they are concerned with things like their children being unable to sit in a group, or solo, for a long period of time, not knowing shapes, colors or ABC’s, and not being able to read by kindergarten. I also know my mom-friends of young neurotypical children have the same concerns. These parents want to make sure their children are set up to be successful at school. This is a great goal, but, if you ask me, the academics really don’t matter in early childhood. Here’s why.

Childhood Development: More than Academics

To me, in regards to education, I have one skillset to emphasize to my children before they go to school; love to learn. That’s it. As I’ve written about before, children are naturally curious and ready to take on their world every single day. This thirst is what will drive them to learn just about anything we ask of them later in life. At an early age, forcing rote memorization of facts (colors, numbers, letters, shapes) doesn’t match the level of curiosity children have; it confines them to a small space versus the world. In doing table time work with small children, we’re teaching them to follow a rule (sit/see/do) versus teaching them to learn. Please don’t get me wrong; sitting at a table and doing work is super important as a child gets older but up until age 5 or so I really don’t see a benefit.

When a child is little I want to see them sit to eat, read books, play, and with family around 5 to 10 minutes at a time. Going potty is also a time to sit. If a child can sit through these social scenarios and understand the expectation, awesome! I really don’t expect more than that before age 5. The reason for this is children are natural movers! They learn through exploration and don’t have an attention span longer than their age. Asking a child under 5 years old to sit and “do homework” is really just an expectation of the institution versus something developmentally appropriate. Now, I know A LOT of educators might read this and not agree; that’s OK, that’s your right. I can tell you, however, that by working in a preschool with young children with autism and by watching my own children that I strongly believe in what I’m saying.

Children learn in their world. If we, as educators, parents, and therapists, begin forcing academic behavior and content before a child shows interest (between the ages of infancy to 6 years) then I do not believe we’re helping them get ahead. What I have seen as a huge benefit in development working with young children with autism and my own children is to just follow their interests. This means play, play, play or read, read, read! And if there are opportunities to teach during moments of play or reading? Go for it! It’s totally OK to ask for letters, shapes, colors and so on while playing or reading. By doing this, we’re teaching children that learning is exciting and to love to learn! There’s no pressure in this way of instruction and children learn to seek out this type of interaction. It reinforces curiosity & learning. This is what I want for my children and, more so, what I would want for a child with autism.

Encouraging Childhood Curiosity

If children are curious about adult interactions and finding new interactions within their world, the rest (like academics) will come. Really! For children with autism, learning the value of social interaction is a key component of their treatment in ABA (applied behavior analysis) therapy. What I don’t want to see in a young child with autism before the age of 4 is being brought to a table to learn and memorize information as the primary part of their therapy. I want to see them working with their therapists through play with only a small part of therapy reserved for focus and tabletop work. In my children and other neurotypical children, I don’t see any value in tabletop work before age 5 unless a child initiates it.

Children are magically curious, with an appetite to know more each and every day. What my grandma noticed when she returned to college all those years later was an increase in the expectations from institutions yet no change in the child. In her words, “we don’t need to reinvent education.” It’s been some time since my years on the farm and my grandma has since passed on but today I feel close to her and in complete agreement. Let them be little, let them be wild, let them be a little wild!

Xoxo,
Jessie

Straight Talk about Technology: Parenting and Screen Time

Posted on: March 3rd, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

Growing up, my parents were very structured and very strict. From a child’s perspective, I had a laundry list of things I did not agree with and regularly challenged (sorry Mom and Dad!). I can still relate to ways in which I was raised that still don’t resonate with me as an adult. This is not to say my parents were bad people, we just had very different perspectives.

That being said, one thing I thought was a top injustice of my childhood was my limited TV exposure. I know I felt on the outside when it came to what other children my age were allowed to watch, both in content and length. Now, as an adult, I’ll humbly admit “Mom & Dad you were right.” I do not believe in exposure to TV before age two and believe in continuing to control exposure through all of childhood. This is my belief as a researcher and a mama.

Limiting Exposure to TV During Childhood

Photo of a toddler with snack cupSo, why do I have such a strong belief in monitoring exposure to televsion? Why do I feel so strongly about not want my children exposed to television at an early age? Why do I want TV used with control and boundaries as my children grow up (Dametrious can tell you how unfair his screen time limit is!)?

I believe, and research supports my belief, that the use of technology in children under the age of two has a direct negative impact on language development. Per Welcome to Your Child’s Brain; “U.S. babies of seven to sixteen months who spend more time in front of the screen know fewer words. Two or more hours per day of screen time before the first birthday is associated with a sixfold increase in the risk of language delay. Even Sesame Street Viewing by babies correlates with language delay, though this program has lasting beneficial effects on three-to-five years olds.”

To elaborate, repeated exposure to technology builds new neural pathways in our brains teaching them to look for instant responses at a speed the natural world cannot keep up with. This can enhance symptoms of ADHD and autism, create antisocial behavior, and start an addictive engagement with technology. In sum, technology is built to teach us to engage with it and not the world around us.

Raising Children with Little or No Screen Time

For these reasons, I choose and teach to limit technology with all children, my own included. I know reading this might trigger some mom guilt. Trust me, I feel it too! This is why I think it’s important to talk about children and screen time.

As a working mom of young children, there is chaos at my house at any given moment. There are times every day where I feel I’d just like an easy out. An out that makes my children sit quietly so I can do, well, anything. TV is a huge temptation to use as a pacification tool. For me, however, the “sit and zone out” quiet time TV provides is not worth the cost on a daily basis.

When children are in front of a screen they are not interacting with their social world, period. This means that all their beautiful, developing synapses, synapses only available to them for their first three years of life, are going unused. When a TV or screen is on my children are not learning and many critical social and lingual milestones may be delayed. As their mama, knowing what I do, I just can’t stand in the way  of my children when it comes to development.

Substitutions for Screen Time

So, my opinion is that any lengthy screen time is not an option for young children. What do I do to distract my children in stressful situations? First I have to tell you that limiting or eliminating screen time is definitely a lifestyle choice. Not using screen time as a tool means I have a lot of messy moments in my house.

For example: Every morning when I wake up around 6AM my husband is leaving for work, which leaves the task of getting three children ready for the day solely up to me. My youngest, Declan, nurses first, followed by Henry and Declan playing in my room and bathroom while I get ready. They take EVERYTHING out and turn my room upside down. Specifically, Henry enjoys “ice skating’ by putting lotion on his feet in my bathtub or maybe shredding cotton balls for his dinosaurs to eat.

My brain can get overloaded with all their quick little interactions with the environment of my bedroom or bathroom. A bouncy seat with Sesame Street on TV sounds SO nice. But I know if we start the day that way, all the beautiful energy and curiosity in the world will switch to a pattern of behavior to crave technology every morning.

So, Henry ice skates, Declan turns everything upside down, and I do my hair (while taking a lot of deep breaths). I play this scenario throughout our days together because being home with small children alone is HARD WORK. Whether it’s getting ready for work, being home during the day, bedtime–you name it–single parenting is no joke. If you throw in children with different abilities, like autism, and life may feel totally overwhelming. For me, keeping technology rules in our home is really helpful for dealing with the feeling of being overwhelmed; it gives me a structure to lean on every single day.

Screen Time Rules for Kids

With all the above being said, I still believe that TV and screen technology in general can be OK in moderation. But screen time must be my choice not my children’s. I have to admit, it’s been a real balance test for me since my husband and I introduced TV to Henry at 2 years old and I’m constantly fretting over his exposure. Declan still has not been exposed (minus seeing his brother set up for movie night on Sundays) at almost a year old.

TV rules at our house are keeping movie nights to Sunday night outside of special events like my husband wanting a boys night (Star Wars is out on Disney Plus). We also limit Henry’s access to 20 minutes a day or, sometimes, every other day. Up until Henry was 2 ½, there was almost zero daily exposure to TV. If I know I’m going to need a minute to myself, I plan 20 minutes around me, not him, for TV time.

We also allow zero screen time on Ipads, unless it’s a long trip or public place where we really need Henry to sit (Acceptable example: getting an Xray at the doctors. Bad-example: going out to eat). Every once in a while, I cut myself some serious slack, usually due to extreme outside stress, and use TV outside of our family rules. Because life happens. Just remember not to use every excuse you can to break the rules!

I know it’s a lot to digest the WHY of limited screen time from a practitioner’s standpoint. As a mama, I know reducing or eliminating screen time is not the easy route, trust me. But I chose this route for my children because I want them to be curious, messy, loud, and in love with everything that goes on around them!

If I make a choice to make TV part of their day or not, I’m making a choice to teach them to disengage from the screen world in front of them. And I think in the growing age of technology we could all be a little messier & engaged.

Xoxo,
Jessie

Ain’t No Shame

Posted on: February 25th, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

As we continue to walk through some of my core parenting practices, I’d like to spend this week talking about shame and vulnerability.

Years ago, I was introduced to Brene Brown, a shame researcher, through her book, “The Gifts of Imperfections.” Since then, I frequently refer to Brene as my spirit animal and one of my soul sisters. I highly recommend her work!

photo with quote on itBrene, of course, can tell you more than I can about this shame and vulnerability, but I’d like to give my take on how it impacts how I parent (and impacts being a partner to my husband) every single day. Brene teaches how shame is our barrier to wholehearted living. Vulnerability, in turn, is the birthplace of joy. Now, I understand there is a lot in just those two sentences, but they mean the world to me and we’ll unpack them together.

Working with Shame

Let’s start with shame. Brene defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” Wow.

How many of us struggle with this? I know first hand I struggle with this every single day. Just last night I was celebrating with my sister, making enough breast milk, down to the ounce, to feed Declan for a year because she had donated milk which (we’re now using to wean). She responded, “that’s great! You were a just-enougher.” I responded she had just defined my entire childhood!

I can’t remember a time that what I did was enough. So, of course, I struggled with love and belonging. I don’t fault my parents, they were doing their best at the time. I think we all experienced this to some extent because our parents didn’t know that their standards or their own judgments for us were creating shame.

In women, we usually associate shame in our body image with being, “good.” While men struggle with being a “man,” (whatever that is….) and beind “the great Oz, fixer of all.” Or so Brene tells me. I absolutely REFUSE to use shame in my home.

What this looks like for me with my children at their age is that I do not put them down for their mistakes, ever. A core family rule is no name-calling. We talk about the action, not the person when a mistake is made. For example, if Henry drops a dozen eggs I don’t say things like, “Look at what you’ve done!” instead I say, “Henry we need to be more careful, Mommy & Daddy paid for those eggs let’s clean it up.” The first sentence is a shame sentence. The second is a teaching sentence using guilt. Per Brene, guilt is a valuable way to teach us how our actions affect others while not telling us we’re bad or wrong. To build on this, if anyone is in a bad mood in our house (trust me this happens…) we excuse ourselves BEFORE we use shame language. On a daily basis, this is an active practice. I’m a human with three young boys, two dogs, and a husband. Sometimes I can lose my temper. But I’m not teaching anyone in my house that they are not enough. They know if I’ve lost my temper it’s on me, not them. That is a powerful lesson.

Working with Vulnerability

OK, so now that we understand shame a bit let’s talk about vulnerability. Vulnerability is the birthplace of joy and belonging. This is the peanut butter to the jelly of shame. About a month ago, I asked my husband (who as I’ve mentioned is Bulgarian) if he knew what vulnerability was. There was some laughing, confusion, and then agreement to watch Brene’s special on Netflix.

As a man, vulnerability was a new concept to my husband. I think men in Bulgaria hear the phrase “be a man,” at about 10x the rate men hear it in the US. This is unfortunate in both cases. I am well aware that I am raising little men and I do not want vulnerability to be a new concept to them as adults.

Vulnerability, per Brene, is, “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. But vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our most accurate measure of courage.” This is a big concept for an adult, let alone my little men (now eleven months, 2 ½ and our newest addition at 14). What vulnerability means for me and my littles is not using shame when my children show their emotions. I encourage them to fail versus doing everything for them. We applaud all attempts at courage.

With Declan, this is pretty non-existent right now (he’s too little). With Henry this looks like me sitting back as he tries new things (a lot of gross motor skills right now…) and when he fails I praise his effort. It also looks like me modeling his emotions and what he can do to calm down. If he’s pissed, if he’s been dumped by his dump truck stool (OK this happens like every day…) I say, “I’m mad!” then we practice breathing. I’ve done this since he was 18 months old. And you know what? This weekend Henry got mad and came running to me saying, “Let’s make sounds!” He then proceeded to do deep breaths on his own. How freakin’ cool!

For Dametrius, I’m sure the journey to unpeeling shame and living with an openness to vulnerability will be longer. It’s my hope he walks this path with my husband Martin. I’ve only started to lay the foundation Dametrius. When he moved in, we talked about failure. I told him I never want to see him pass on an opportunity because he’s afraid to fail. That so long as he tries he’s won.

Living with Shame and Vulnerability Every Day

Living with a house full of men, I do not want them to hide behind the label and expectations of “man.” I want my men to be loved fully for who they are; emotions, mistakes, failures, and triumphs. I know they love me the same way and together we belong to each other. Should I ever have a daughter, I will want the same for her. And in 20+ years, when my children succeed as adults, they won’t snicker to each other that they’re “good-enoughers.” They will know they always have been, and always will be, enough.

Xoxo,
Jessie