Posts Tagged ‘raising children’

Picking Your Mountain to Die On

Posted on: December 1st, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

Okay, okay I hear you. That title! It’s a loaded one. I thought I’d just have a little fun this week with wrapping up our series about functions of behavior. I’ll explain the title in a bit.

Over the past month, IABA has republished my series on functions of behavior because it’s such an important part of working with children. It deserves an annual highlight! As a BCBA, owner of an Applied Behavior Analysis company, and boy mama this little piece of scientific knowledge guides so much of life. 

Functions of behavior give us the framework for why a behavior continues to happen and lets us breathe easier knowing that all behaviors have a reason. We can start building our plan of action to address whatever it is we’re interested in changing once that behavior is identified.

Learning About Functions of Behavior

Picking Your Mountain to Die On blog. A photo of Jessie's sons playing outside.Let me back up a little and tell you why learning about functions of behavior was so life-changing for me. In doing so I’m going to go ahead and date myself. Thirteen years ago I was working as a line therapist with adolescent boys with autism who engaged in high levels of aggressive behavior. At the time there was little regulation in the applied field and while I was supervised by a BCaBA. I was not using function-based intervention because she wasn’t designing her treatment following this principle. As a new undergraduate, I knew I didn’t want to continue to work with children with autism if I couldn’t be effective. I was so frustrated for the children that our interventions weren’t working. I then decided to apply for my master’s degree with a goal to better understand behavior. I’ve been enjoying this gift for 12 years now.

One of the first things I learned in my master’s program was that behavior is maintained by the four key functions I’ve reshared this past month; escape, attention, access to tangibles, and automatically maintained behaviors. When a problem behavior occurs you want to make sure not to reinforce the behavior with what the learner is seeking. 

My beautiful clients from back home? We were directed to put them in time out every time they engaged in aggression and their behaviors were maintained by escape functions. This meant each time they engaged in aggression, putting them in time out told them we were saying, “yes! That’s what I want you to do.” What should have been done instead is follow through with demands and teaching the boys how to tell us they needed a break. Their lives could have been changed using our science properly.  This is a large piece of why I love ABA so much; lives change.

Using Functions of Behavior at Home

Fast forward to today and the wrap of our series. Learning about functions of behavior can be overwhelming. To think that all human behavior can be categorized into four sections and then studied from there is work by itself! This is the work we love at Instructional ABA Consultants but let me tell you this first hand as a mama, that shit is hard at home.

Raising Henry has been one of the greatest blessings of my life (Dametrius and Declan are the other two). Henry, as I’ve written, is a strong-willed child with a great big heart. Henry feels and responds to things the moment his feet hit the ground. This brings me to the title.  

About a year ago I was transitioning Henry to a booster seat from his high chair. It’s a value of mine that my boys eat at the table and don’t wander around eating or zone out eating in front of a screen. I love food and want us to enjoy it together as a family. Henry? Henry had wanted no part in this family value. 

I knew the function of his daily battling was escape from the table and followed him through each time for sitting. He would not back down. Frazzled, I went to my team saying I was now six months in and I still had to use strict follow-through at every meal to get Henry to sit and the end was nowhere in sight. One of our BCBAs (now supervisor & PhD!) Allaina Douglas said, “Jessie you have to pick your mountain to die on.”  

What she meant was if this was an important value to my family that I would need to let go of other demands through the day that were less important and literally buckle into sitting at the table. So that’s what I did. I sat down and thought about what was really important for me with Henry so that when I made any demands, including sitting, I knew I had to be ready to follow through. This allowed me to lighten up on what wasn’t a value (PJs all day? Sure! Tv all day? No way) and hone in on what I did want to see out Henry.

Henry responded beautifully to this regarding the sitting. We then of course entered the 8-month potty training saga but hey, you win some, you lose some, but I digress. In the end, I understood that as a mama and clinician I couldn’t be function-based all day every day. That shit is exhausting. I could pick my values so that I could decide which behaviors will be allowed in my home and which ones won’t be. As my children grow up this will provide them their own moral compass to follow. I parent Dametrius way differently than Declan and Henry (as he is older) but our values are still the same.

Functions of Behavior and Being a Mom

This leads me to the second “purely mama” part of this. When you are choosing to live in a home where you are the leader and not your children it takes an incredible amount of energy. It would be super relaxing and wonderful if we could all say yes to popsicles for breakfast and binging Netflix every day. For most of this, we have different values than that for our kids (zero judgment here if these are your values!). 

Being a leader in the family means you will have to implement rules and therefore boundaries. This is work! In order to do this, we as parents have to learn how to rest, reflect, and take care of ourselves so we can implement our values in the home. When we don’t we risk either giving in or blowing up. While this happens to the best of us, I know personally that I want this to be the exception to my parenting, not the rule.

In order to do the meaningful work of choosing what goes in your home and standing on that mountain, we as parents have to be at home with ourselves. That means spending time with our own thoughts, deciding our own values, and creating a self-care plan. The time with your thoughts and deciding values provides a compass for your home. Remember, attacking every single behavior and function in your family home would be exhausting! Picking your mountain means picking what’s important to you. 

The self-care plan is included because, let’s be honest, as a mama or papa shit gets real fast. At any given moment our children are doing the next “please don’t do that thing.” We can navigate through our days with intention (most of the time!) when we’re rested and healthy. For me, this looks like morning meditation, evening journaling, and drinking more tea than wine these days. It also looks like saying I’m sorry when I do slip up and yell or holding myself accountable if I gave in when I didn’t want to.

Last night Henry had a high-emotion night because it had snowed and he really wanted to go outside to play at bedtime. I had to say no, it was bedtime. But I sure as shit could say yes when he asked me for a cool down bath with his swimsuit on. Rock on Henry, rock on Mama! We followed our values and I sat on my mountain. I hope this helps you find yours.

Xoxo,

Jessie

Raising Love Warriors

Posted on: October 14th, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

You guys, this past week has been a long and dark one. I’m so thankful for being able to write this blog. You see, I believe the universe has divine timing when we are connected to it. It always provides the lesson we need if we’re willing to listen.

I talked about why we care what others think of us and how that affects being a love warrior in last week’s blog. This led to a week of clearing a lot of energy to pave the way for living connected to my own divine nature and authentic voice. Through finding the strength in my voice I’m able to give my children the example they need to grow up using theirs. I can then also use my voice to empower other mamas to raise love warriors. Let’s dig in.

Embracing Love by Denying Hate

Okay, I said this past week has been a long dark one. The universe has been sending a lot of negative energy my way through different interactions. People have been coming into my life with their own insecurities and I have been asking them to leave (politely). I’ve been doing this using vulnerability and defenselessness. For, as my friend Heather reminded me, “Our strength is in our defenselessness.” I have nothing to hide and no space for hate.

As human beings, we all have traits we exhibit when we are in fear and therefore in defense of ourselves. In the current world climate, I believe we’re unpacking generations of keeping up appearances at all costs. Then, when our perceived sense of self (our ego) is brought into question, we may explode at others. Does this make sense? And that’s been exactly what’s been happening to me, people are exploding and I’m calming saying, “hate begets hate, this is not the way.”

It’s like a mask to protect ourselves from what we fear to be true about ourselves. The most common example is when someone points out something to us that reminds us of what we’re ashamed of, so we attack. Everyone does this but most people don’t consciously do it to hurt other people. If they do that’s a whole different issue.

In this defense of self versus defenselessness what happens is we can become the person other people are saying we are. We think by lashing out and becoming the biggest person in the room that we’ll “show them” how wrong the attacker is and how right we are. You guys, this is totally backward and the foundational problem to almost every human problem in the world.

You see, we are all born divinely. The spirit creates us for this perfect path. And then we meet our environment. The environment is the people, places, words, and experiences that we all go through. If we’re lucky, we’ll be born into a home that lifts us up and teaches us to live with a brave heart. If we’re not that lucky, we’re taught to fit in and push down who we truly are.

This could be from well-intentioned parents who don’t want their daughters to be fat and bullied, or gay and bullied, and so on & so forth. Or it could be from your own childhood insecurities or your perceived identity that you want your family to look like outside of the home. Even worse, it could be from an emotionally or physically abusive home. But here’s the thing; at any time we can all collectively decide to call bullshit on who the world is telling us to be. That’s a love warrior. And love warriors need strength and armor to protect them from an environment that can crush their divine nature.

Raising Your Love Warriors

There is only one way to raise a love warrior; be a love warrior yourself. That’s it, you guys. Our children demand that we love ourselves with our whole hearts because it shows them it’s okay to love themselves with their whole heart. If we continue to conform ourselves to fit into the new mom group, the gym, work, finding a ‘perfect’ partner, or living up to our family’s unrealistic expectations of ourselves, all we are really doing is telling our children to fake who they are.

If our children fake who they are they will lose themselves. I don’t know about you but I’m a grown-ass woman just now fully waking up and standing tall as myself. I’m not going to lie–it’s hard as hell. I have to model this strength for my children so when the world gets noisy they have the armor they need to be true to their own hearts.

I don’t know about you but I do not want my children to ‘fit in,’ ever. I want them to soar through the world on the wings God gave them, roots in the earth. In my house we stand up to bullies, we stand up for ourselves, we stand up for what is good and what is kind. We honor our imperfections, hold space for failure, make mistakes, and love freely. In my house we believe who we are is exactly who we are supposed to be.

Noisey world or not, we’re at home in our hearts and nothing matters more than that.

Xoxo,
Jessie

P.S. Total credit to the amazing Heather Shannon, my soul sister. And with love to my Aunt Linda.

Shining a Light on Shame

Posted on: October 7th, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

Last week I wrote to you about being authentic both at home and work. This is a big topic and I feel like I’ve only identified one wave in the ocean of authenticity. Today I want to write about one big way I believe we all get lost. It’s the next wave per se I’d like to ride with you on this journey. The wave I want to discuss is why we care so much about what other people say about us and how this blocks authenticity.

Teaching Our Children to Deal with Hurt and Shame

Photo of Jessie Topalov with a babyDoes anyone else who grew up in the 90s remember this little phrase; sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me? I sure do and what total bullshit. During my childhood, I was picked on a lot for how I looked and behaved. I was not a model-thin child but was by no means fat. That didn’t stop the bullying and actually caused me to gain a lot of weight that then led to some awful eating disorders.

I was also socially awkward (still am!) and got made fun of when I didn’t behave like the quote-unquote cool kids. Parenting techniques of the 90s? Push it down, it doesn’t matter, move on, and focus on school. Now, while I realize most parents were doing their best, this did nothing to heal the wounds caused in the schoolyard, as well as growing wounds at home.

Fast forward to 2020 and today’s topic is still a pervasive problem. Why?

The first is that we live in a world where people, both children and adults, put each other down. The second is as a society we’re not emotionally responding and providing healing when someone is emotionally hurt on a large scale, including ourselves.

Now I know some amazing mamas and papas raising their children to live authentically, develop shame tolerance, and show up as themselves despite what the world is saying. They’re raising love warriors. We need more parents like this and children raised like this. Yet, on a large scale, dealing with hurtful words isn’t being addressed.

To address this issue, I believe we each need to take a different individual approach. This approach is to work through our own demons which cause us to stay small. We need to fill up our own cups and overflow the world with the light starting with our children. From there we’ve got some work to do because people are marginalized everywhere based on their differences.

Starting the Learning Process

So how do we do this? My sister actually posed this question to me last night. My answer? A lot of therapy. Just kidding! Well, kind of. You see, I’m 33 years old and I’ve got a long learning history of giving when I don’t have the energy to give, pushing down my own desires, personality, and labeling what’s in my heart as selfish. Was anyone else raised that way? To label their own needs as selfish? Are you unintentionally raising your children this way? Or is there another label that’s pervasive in your home?

This is shame plain and simple. Shame tells us who we are is not good enough and we should push down our desires and stay the same. It’s a tricky little bastard and why we care so much about what the world is saying.

To answer my sister’s question authentically, my true answer is to first shine a light on the problem. Shame cannot survive when we expose it but once exposed your open wounds need care and attention. It would be a wonderful thing if this shame was identified and the world wrapped its arms around us. In truth, we’re lucky to have two or three people in a lifetime who can do this; one being ourselves. For our children, this has to be us because it is a rare thing for a child to meet another child with an open heart when they are shame spiraling. When children do know this, you’re dealing with an angel on earth. We need to raise our children to be these angels! I’m Dametrius’s new mama and fully aware of the angel in my home. I’ll be a lucky mama to have Henry and Declan follow in his path.

Responding to a Shame Spiral

So how about you? How do you respond when you are in a shame spiral? Do you begin to believe either the things the world is saying about you or the terrible things you may say to yourself? Do call yourself names or agree with the insults? These can be subtle or large in nature. It could be you love math and someone tells you you’re bad at it, that your jeans don’t zip and you call yourself fat, or it could be you’re in a heterosexual marriage and fully know you are gay. Small, big–they are all wounds.

What do you do when your body is hurt? When you’ve fallen down and are bleeding. You grab a band-aid, right? You provide care to help the wound heal. It’s easy when you can see it. But when wounds are inside of us it’s easy to shove them down and ignore them. What happens then is a mess.

We begin to lose who we were born to be, can’t give what we’re designed to give to the world, and oftentimes we start taking our shit out on everyone else or ourselves. Personally, I take my shit out on myself but I know a great deal of people (sitting President anyone? The backyard bully to all of Washington) who take it out on other people.

How do we fix this pervasive problem in our own lives and thus society?

This week we’re just addressing wave number one and, if you’re brave enough, trying to dive into someone else’s wave too. This week I’d love my readers to walk alongside me and think about ways you are calling yourself names (mine is selfish, among others) and begin to unpack it. Once you see why you’re name-calling, give your great big heart a great big hug and do something to recharge. If you’re brave maybe reach out to a friend and let them know something you love about them. Or notice someone struggling and offer a listening ear. Then get ready because next week we’ve got to talk about raising love warriors at length. We’ve also got to spend some real time on people in power and marginalizing minorities, something I’ve been thinking about as I write through this week’s topic.

I don’t know about you but I refuse to raise my boys in a world that they can’t be who they are. Step one? Mama needs to be who she is.

Xoxo,
Jessie

Authentic Love Warriors

Posted on: September 30th, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

This past week has been a long and eye-opening one for me. It started with Henry and my first trip back to Illinois since our move out to the farm in Ohio. I crammed every second with people I love to work with. I couldn’t even walk into our old sitter’s home, now a dear friend, without crying because I miss her so much. But that’s the good stuff right there. Loving someone so much your heart explodes when you see them. I’m so lucky to have such wonderful women in my life and a work team that accepts me as I am. I think they’re lucky to have me… but I’m even luckier to have them. It’s reciprocal.

Living Authentically

Jessie Topalov BCBA and ASD expert sitting outsideDuring my time away from home, I was able to take a deep dive into my emotions. Remember, our feelings are messengers. I wrote to you all a few weeks ago that I haven’t been feeling like myself for awhile at home. I thought self-care would fix it; it didn’t. During the trip back to Illinois I spent time reflecting on the “why.” A very good therapy session later it was loud and clear; I’m not being authentic at home.

Guys! This is tough stuff. One of my content buckets is authenticity. I show up at work each and every day with my whole heart. To have it pointed about that I’m authentic at work and holding back my true self at home was hard to hear. It was also necessary. A lightbulb went off in my head that indicated I needed to feel like myself again. I’m not joking–as soon as I saw it for what it was I felt like myself again. This reminded me about “A Course in Miracles,” that a miracle is shifting back to love. That’s it. What more is authentic than loving ourselves?

Let’s dive in.

Losing Authenticity

Over the last five years, I’ve slowly shifted away from living authentically at home, which corresponds directly to becoming a wife. I somehow got this tiny, mad idea that I was responsible for how everyone was feeling (gender norms anyone?). Day after day, year after year, I started giving away pieces of myself to keep the peace. Now, while I did and still do activities I love, I still wasn’t showing up as myself. I was overwhelmed by the idea of making my husband uncomfortable because of the way he responds to my preferences. Holy crap, what total bullshit.

It’s not that my husband said, “hey you need to make me happy all the time!” but he sure didn’t and doesn’t stop me when I make concessions for myself if it benefits him. For me, this looks like giving up the things I hold to be true for myself that come across and bossy or uptight. I have a very specific way I like to do things based on my values. I love my values (they’re mine!) and yet I hate being labeled as a perfectionist, overbearing, and the like. I know that this is because I am a woman. If I was a man who was detail-oriented, confident and organized I would be labeled as sexy. Dare I say women can be labeled as bitches for this characteristic?

So I held back, pushed through, and fought. This looked like giving up on arguments surrounding how we eat, how I clean the home, how I organize bills, activities I like for the boys, not using shame, screen time, and so on. Sometimes I would fight the fight and sometimes I would concede because I was tired. On and on it went. This is how I lost my authenticity. Because I don’t want to be called bossy. Seriously Jess? Girl, it’s time to stop that bullshit.

You see, I actually am bossy. I employ over 75 people and run a multimillion-dollar organization built from my own heart and with an amazing team. I have to protect my company, employees, and clients which calls for being precise, protective, and loving. I hold the line on quality and values at Instructional ABA Consultants. I love what I do and love my team. Ask any one of them if my directness means they are not heard? That will be a resounding no because even though I’m holding the line, it’s my job to listen to my team. I honor their skills, they honor mine.

Learning to Be Yourself (Again)

So why is it that when I became a wife I adopted this story? That to be assertive at home isn’t Okay? I’m guessing I’m standing beside millions of women who may be asking themselves the same damn question. My idea? Society benefits from keeping women small and in their homes. Period. So even if my husband doesn’t outwardly say, “I need less of your personality,” he doesn’t have to. I stepped into a female role and while I fought sometimes it wasn’t always the case. I still found myself doing the laundry if no one else did it or wiping counters at 10:00 PM because crumbs bother me.

After I realized this is not self-love and to keeping myself small doesn’t serve my heart or the world, I did something radical. Ready for it? I woke up and embraced myself and told my husband I would never compromise my worth again, not ever. That ladies will be the daily practice of my life.

You see, a love warrior, as I’ve written, is someone who knows they are good, whole, and true despite what the world is saying about them. Sometimes that world is as small as our own homes. I’m committed to living this life authentically. Will my fellow love warriors join me? What a gift that might be.

In putting down what I felt my role was and the title of “bossy/uptight,” given to me by my husband, I am standing fully in my power through my heart. I poured a glass of wine last Thursday night and made charts for my home. How the boys and I eat, love charts for myself and the kids (for connection styles), labeled my pantry, wrote our values, wrote my boy’s daily schedule (the littles). Then you know what I did? I folded Martin and Dametrius’s laundry one last time and left a note, “You both need to clean up after yourselves, this is so not my job,” and left it on the stairs for when they got home.

Because you know what? It’s not my job to take care of the whole house, it’s my job to live authentically so my boys can live with their whole hearts. The cleaning crew comes tomorrow. I’ve got other things to do.

Xoxo,
Jessie

 

P.s. Proof

photo of a laundry basket with clothes

What’s Your Wish Mama? Building a Brand for Parents

Posted on: September 16th, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

Okay, so I’m beyond excited to write this blog. It’s short but it’s a good one! I mean, I know I tell you week after week that I’m loving writing but this week I get to do one of my favorite things; dream.

Ever since I was a little girl I would spend hours a day dreaming about what I could create. As a child, it was more whimsical dreams, like “Wouldn’t it be cool if we built Japan for our Barbie dolls?” On a side note, we did this among many creative and scrappy things. Today that dreaming is still in me but I’m using it for the real world.

photo of brothers on a farmWhen I wrote to you all at the beginning of August I alluded that I’m building a new chapter in my life and company. I can’t wait to tell you more! But today is about you and all the parents we support. Today is about dreaming together.

Turning Dreams into Reality

Instructional ABA Consultants was built on my dream over eight years ago. It was all about building an inclusive company for children with autism and adults with disabilities. I was (and am) on a mission to close the funding gap that causes the disparity in service models.

I also wanted a place where Board Certified Behavior Analysts, now Registered Behavior Technicians, and our administrators could be fully supported in their work. I’m no dummy, my employees are my most valuable asset and deserve to be treated as such. They are also human beings and you all already know how I feel about equality, humility, and grace. This was my dream, I’m living it and just like any good dream, I’m adding to it.

I’m in this awesome space at work. We’re dreaming, building, and preparing for the next steps at Instructional ABA Consultants. We’ve gotten the ABA thing down and our clients have come to expect a one-size-doesn’t-fit all treatment plan and therapists providing care with their whole hearts. What we also know is that in behavior analysis our client is not just our client. Our client is also anyone who surrounds the client. For kids, that’s their family. That’s what I want to write about.

As a mama, the amount of resources that I need to wrap myself in on a daily basis is incredible. Prior to having kids, I wish someone would have told me the luxury I was living in. Things like waking up when I want, going to the bathroom by myself, going to the gym, leaving the house, you know basic freedoms. Day after day I’m presented with challenges in how I want to parent, what I want for my children, running a home & a business, and being plain human. I burn out, tune in, recharge in some ways, and start the next day all over again.

I also know I’m very lucky to have resources I can plug into academically when I’m struggling and a loving community personally. I also know that a huge part of my success and evolution as a human comes from asking for help and connecting with others. I’m curious about what you need and want if you’re a parent of a child with autism. You see I’m a mommy but I’m not a mommy of a child with autism. I need your voice.

In a therapeutic relationship you’re used to us serving your child but what about you? What additional support do you wish for from a therapy company? Is it an online platform to connect with other parents? Is it in-person (I mean COVID, but you feel me, right?) parent groups for both mom and dads? Is it educational nights? Date night outs? Self-care workshops? A playdate forum? More company events the kids can come to? More training from us about ABA? I could go on and on because as I’ve told you I’m a dreamer.

ABA and Your Dreams

But what about you? If we at Instructional ABA Consultants added a Community Corner what would be there for you? While I can’t promise to build everything I can promise to listen, really and truly. As I listen to our parents and readers I can get a better understanding of the wishes. Once I understand the wishes I can start seeing what is possible to build. I’m really good at building things, remember? And I just spilled that I love dreaming. I also thrive when I’m able to create.

I hope by reading this today you feel inspired to tell me what supports you’re looking for. I’m building a Tribe for us, so it’s best to start by hearing from the village.

Xoxo,
Jessie

The Other 25%, Leaning into Love

Posted on: September 9th, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

Last week I wrote to you about the gift of applied behavior analysis to mamas and children with autism. I had every intention of talking about building a brand that works for mamas this week. Hang tight, it’s coming up next week! You see, when I sat down to write I realized I hadn’t finished the story from last week. Please let me try.

In writing to you last week I wrote about my little lion Henry and how applied behavior analysis helped him once again. As Henry’s mama, I’ve used function-based intervention with him since he was about 18 months (hang tight Declan! You’re 18 months this month baby boy). It’s been a wonderful tool I can use outside of work with my children, letting Henry know what behaviors will receive reinforcement and which won’t. ABA creates some really great boundaries we can operate from as a family. I noted last week that Henry’s behaviors had decreased by about 75% after returning to an ABA approach with him.

Changing Behavior with ABA

What I want to write about today is the other 25% of Henry’s decrease in behavior. Let’s get going!

Now to start I want to let you know this will be controversial. In applied behavior analysis, we would look for the final decrease in Henry’s challenging behavior based on the success of his intervention. While this is correct, there is another piece to this I think is monumental if you are a parent running the behavior plan. To be able to truly change your child’s behavior I believe you have to re-evaluate both your and your child’s internal needs. We don’t talk enough about this in ABA.

When I became a mama something incredible in my awoke. In birthing both Henry and Declan, I chose medication-free births to stay connected with my body and babies as they made their way into the world. I know them because I’ve birthed them and my body knows them. Now please don’t get me wrong, children can be deeply connected to non-birth parents too. I’m walking this connection with my son Dametrius. What I’m saying is that as parents we all have a deeper connection than I think we often remember that can guide us and our little loves.

So back to the present, to today, and Henry’s other 25%. As his mama, I knew (and have known) that my own energy inside of the home contributes to his outbursts. When I’m able to stay calm and be grounded within myself I let off energy to Henry that he can be calm too. And that when Henry isn’t calm (or Declan, or Dametrius) that I won’t match his unrest with mine. I will stay in my peace. I set the energetic example of what I want to see in my home. I’m going to be real with you, I haven’t really been this example since October last year.

Pushing for Inner Knowing

On a very personal level, I’ve been going through something that is incredibly hard for me that I can’t fix or think my way out of. Trust me I’ve tried and it’s done nothing but create frustration in me. I’ve been holding onto an outcome that I can’t force and refuse to surrender to. I’m not ready to say what this situation is to the public but can say I’m going through something. What I realized this past week when I was working on being calm for Henry again was that I had forgotten myself and my deep connection with my children during this period of unrest. I had pushed my inner knowing and connection to my children’s inner worlds aside.

Have any of you been through something like this? A death, job change, loss of income, divorce, an international pandemic? I’m guessing I’m not the only one who has gotten lost in themself and forgotten to attend to their own inner world and children’s consistently. I know personally I feel a lot of shame around it. To break this shame I can name it and shine a light. That’s exactly what I did.

Stepping Back & Detoxing

In order to help Henry finish decreasing his bursts in behaviors, I took a huge step back. I’m actually still taking this step back. It will take time to detox all the stress I’ve been holding in my body and the same I’m guessing is true for him. I’ve made a choice to surrender the outcome I was so desperately hanging onto and notice when my body is operating in frustration or anger. Personally, I feel a little flicker of heat at the top of my head when I’m operating from this space. Once I notice anger has come I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and come back to peace in my body. Becoming calm and placing peace in our home is the most important thing I can do for my children’s alignment. To let them know uncomfortable emotions do happen and peace is always waiting afterward.

This step back into my own alignment helped me to look at my little lion beyond ABA. I immediately saw Henry was reflecting on controlling outcomes (holy shit) and demonstrating bottled emotions (double shit). While Henry, as a child, needs me to step in with an intervention on what behaviors aren’t OK, he also needed me to be his positive model, not the negative one.

So I surrendered and decided for a full weekend to sit in full alignment with my children. To put myself and them first. These past three nights Henry has found his way to my bed and co-slept which we haven’t done since babyhood. We’re hugging more, kissing more, laughing more. Declan still fills my days with giggles and hugs. He’s my lamb. Dametrius gives me an attitude and a smile that will break many women’s hearts someday. I’m a full-blown boy mama with a heart full of love for each of them.

To decrease the negative behaviors in my family home I had to lean into love for myself and through that love lean into loving them fully once again.

Xoxo,
Jessie

P.s. No burst from Henry three days and counting!

ABA Works: It Doesn’t Have to Be Like This

Posted on: September 2nd, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

These past two weeks have been rough from a parenting perspective. It’s completely understandable. Our Henry’s defiant behaviors flared up big time during the move. I’ve done a ton of work in the past on myself to stay calm when working with Henry. In the middle of moving to a new state, though, I had zero reserves. I’m guessing I’m not the first (or last) mama to be emotionally entangled with my child’s disruptive behavior and also contributing against my own wishes.

Photo of Jessie Topalov with child outsideLet me back up a bit. Henry is a strong-willed child. When he was a baby, about six months or so, we started sleep training (future blog here!). We would watch Henry on the monitor and you know what that little stinker did? He would watch the door to see if we were approaching, popping his pacifier in and out of his mouth, and when he heard us he’d flip over and start crying. I’m not joking! At just six months old. I knew at that moment I was in for a long parenting journey.”Buckle in Jessie,” I told myself, “this one is brilliant.”

Through Henry’s short lifetime he has met every milestone early and used each new phase in life as an opportunity to let us know why he knows more than us. From the crib into today. Henry believes Henry knows best.

I absolutely love this brilliance and fierceness in Henry. I tell him he was born to either save us all or take us all down and honestly I don’t know which one. Don’t worry–if he’s taking us down it will be systems that don’t serve us like his mama! Yet this fierceness in Henry also means he does not want to accept that grown-ups or his parents are in charge. As a child in our family, it’s our job to let Henry know what behaviors he can use to let us know his opinions and which ones he can’t.

It’s also our job to teach him we’re not on call for him 24/7 and sometimes no is no. All kids need this. This means that, in parenting Henry, I’ve put in more interventions that I can count. This does a hell of a lot of calming down my own nervous system (See “How Not to Lose Your Shit with Your Kids”) while parenting him.

Even the Best Parents Struggle

As a mama who is also a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) I realize that I have a gift not all parents have. This is what I want to share with you! Let’s jump back to the present day.

Our family is in the middle of the move and I’m a wreck too. I wasn’t able to step back and look at my child objectively. While I did some simple things, like time outs, his behavior wasn’t getting better. The reason is I wasn’t being consistent with him and had no plan of action to follow in response to what he was going through. Now I know I sound all bookish here but let’s be real. The moment I realized I was in the weeds with Henry went like this.

We were at my aunt’s house, day two of our transition to Ohio. Henry was engaging in a ton of screaming when I asked him to do anything, followed by running out of the house without permission. This led to a ton of chasing. I also was trying to say yes whenever possible, leading to Henry thinking he had the green light to be in charge (which he happily took).

I decided to take my own advice and be present with him. I took my coffee outside and sat to watch him play. I was also reading while he was swinging to cool myself down.

…and then I heard my car horn beep.

I jumped up and saw Henry in my car pointing to something. I opened the door and to my horror, he had taken a shit in my car! He was honking to inform me. That was it guys. I was done. My emotional parenting (being a ‘yes’ mama & punishment for challenging behaviors) was not working. I asked my aunt to objectively observe our interactions. I also started listening to the Podcast “Unruffled” and running again.

Through this experience, I was able to reset my own emotional responding to Henry, cut myself a huge break, and put together a behavior plan for Henry. It took being calm, having outside support, and Applied Behavior Analysis to begin changing Henry’s current spike in challenging behavior.

One evening, after wine, I re-identified that Henry was still escape maintained, secondary to attention (ref. said shit story above). Hen’s plan is this:

  • Mama & Daddy = increase attention & decrease demands (watch the number of requests we make, so when we make one Henry isn’t overwhelmed)
  • Screaming = planned ignoring, let him feel his feels while not providing attention (positive or negative)
  • Refuses to do something = escape extinction (follow through every time)
  • Tolerance to no = positive reinforcement earns one star
  • Listening behavior = positive reinforcement earns one star

Each morning we pick out a small prize (I got a 50 piece Pokemon set for 20 bucks) and through the day Henry earns stars. He needs 10 stars to earn his toy at bedtime. Through this little plan, we’re filling Henry up with attention and lower demands (attention/escape prevention) and then not providing him the consequences he wanted from his negative behaviors. We’re also rewarding him with what we want to see more of. It’s been a week and we’ve decreased Henry’s screaming and refusals by 75% already. Mamas, Papas–that’s the joy! That’s the message. ABA does work. It doesn’t all have to be poop in a car.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy for Everyone

Applied Behavior Analysis is available to all parents when we need it. I’ve been in the field 12+ years and I forgot it during the move (give me a break! I was overly stressed too!) and yet, I was able to rely on it to create the change I want for my child and my family. I didn’t blame Henry’s behavior on his personality or developmental age. I took a step back and used science with self-care (remember I need to calm here) in order to shift our dynamic at home.

If you are having trouble with any of your child’s behaviors (um, yes please for all of us??), Applied Behavior Analysis is a wonderful tool to change behaviors by decreasing problem behaviors and increasing desirable behavior. It’s also the only empirically-based therapy for children with autism. If your child has a diagnosis of autism, ABA goes much deeper than I described above and studies the missing neurological milestones to decrease symptoms of autism over time. It’s this beautiful scientific gift to us all.

I hope by writing this I’ve spurred a little interest in all my readers to take a look at how ABA can help their family. And, if you need support for your child with autism, come check out Instructional ABA Consultants to see how my beautiful team of therapists can support your child.

Not in your neighborhood yet? Missing a service you’d like to see more of? Next week I’m coming to you to ask what you need. We’re expanding and building a brand for mamas. Starting dreaming mamas, I need you to build the best ABA-based company you’ve ever seen. We’re building a Tribe.

Xoxo,
Jessie

Love Warriors

Posted on: August 25th, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

It’s been two weeks since I picked up my laptop for work and writing. I thought after writing “Going Dark” that I would be fully rested and ready to conquer the world by the time this blog was due. I must have forgotten the tiny detail that I’m still a mama to three little men and was starting an out of state move. The rested part will come but clarity is with me, and for that I’m grateful.

Coming back to work made me realize it wasn’t a simple break for me. I didn’t take off to come back to the same job–I took off to prepare my heart for what’s to come. I’ve always been this way. Once I’ve learned all I need from one chapter of life I start the next chapter.

I shared a piece of this process in “Going Dark” to explain my career in the field of applied behavior analysis and autism thus far. I’ve got a gut feeling that these rest cycles will become more frequent as I fuel up inside for the next chapter because it’s a big one. I’d like to share my vision with you.

My Vision of the Future

Since childhood, I have always challenged authority and was misunderstood. A rebel, if you will. Looking back, I wasn’t a rebel, I was a misunderstood love warrior. I felt and still do feel that much of our human experience and suffering is brought on by arbitrary systems. We become so conditioned to these systems and rules we forget who we are. We become stuck.

I was stuck and broken-hearted for decades not knowing that my constant questioning was my gift. As I write this I need to remember my little lion Henry because he has this gift too. Gosh, he’s easy to love but my oh my he’s hard to parent! When I look at my sleeping son I know in my bones that if I love him fully he will not be broken-hearted or get stuck. My son will fly free. This is my vision for humanity, to fly freely with us.

This seems simple in writing but in reality, is a mountain to climb. To deconstruct the systems around us–who holds power, money, food, social conditioning, and the like–would take a lifetime of work. But if we do this together, my loves, could we deconstruct the world? I’d like to think we can and, in deconstructing it, we can rebuild it in love.

I believe every woman, man, and child can be exactly who they are and be fully loved for it. If we all stopped confining ourselves to the labels others place on us who would we be? I think the world is scared to find out and there is a reason people in power want to keep others small.

Over the past two weeks, I was really struggling with my victim story. All survivors have it and when I go there it’s tough to get out of my inner child. I believe the Spirit around us delivered me to my aunt who held me in a cocoon of love for three days. I needed her. Once I was whole and we moved into our new farm, a card literally fell out of a mantra deck onto my feet that read “I am not the victim, I am the lighthouse.” Hell yes, I am! And whatever the story being said of you, a story that may be keeping you small, you can be healed too. You are a lighthouse too.

Making My Vision of the Future a Reality

In finding the fire and light inside my sisters and brothers of peace I hope, as I’ve written before, to build a new world. You see, I’m very good at building systems that work. I bet you’ve got some wonderful talents too. I want to find those already enlightened in love and those yearning to heal. And from there find their talents and what lights their hearts on fire. I can offer my gifts to the autism world, to the world of motherhood, survivors, my readers, families, and friends. But you? Who can you offer your gifts to once you unlock them?

Today I’d like you to join the narrative. Leave a comment below, tell me your story, what you deeply love, and who you want to see live more freely, with more support, or more love. Together we’ll connect, with compassion at our core, and become Love Warriors.

Xoxo,
Jessie

P.S. If you’re wondering where all the beautiful photos for my blog come from:

Photo Credits: Amber Riveria our beautiful friend and artist

Going Dark

Posted on: August 6th, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

When you work in theatre, a common phrase is “go dark.” Leading up to a production, there are endless hours of work put in from the actors, tech crew, and directors. In order to give it their all, the entire cast and crew does not rehearse on the days leading up to the performance. That is “going dark.” I was in high school theatre when I learned this practice. My sister is a production manager at a private college and they still “go dark.” I think this is a fitting introduction to what I have planned for the next chapter in my life.

Always Learning in Life

Let’s back up a bit. I want to give you a full picture of why I so dearly need rest to prepare for the next act of my life. We can rewind to, dare I say, high school? You see, this is an important chapter in my story.

I learned of autism for the first time in high school. I was in a sociology class and my teacher was introducing us to individuals with autism who are savants. This was the first time I heard a tiny inner nagging. “Autism” the nagging said, “pay attention.”

Later that year, a co-worker at Subway (I have held a lot of jobs) began talking about home-based therapy for children with autism. The inner nagging pinged me again. I had never met a person with autism and there was no clear sign in my life that I was going to work within the autism field, yet something was telling me to pay attention.

At the time I was actively working on a theatre career (Fun Fact: we won state twice during my time in leading roles!) and dragging my family to California. I was also still deeply suffering from abuse at home and digging for a way out. My digging looked like the wrong crowd, not respecting myself, and some partying. Yet still, I remembered the nagging more than anything.

Focusing on Childhood Education

Fast forward to my early 20’s. I had given up my dream of Hollywood and was diving deep into early childhood education. I wanted to learn how the environment shaped us and how to give every child a chance to realize their own potential. I did an honors thesis on chronic absenteeism and related factors, studying the impact of race, gender, social-economic status, and home environment. I also worked in a preschool at the Ohio State University.

At the time, autism was not being appropriately diagnosed and there were clearly children in my room who had autism but no services. My dear friend Mistique Henry (you guessed it, Henry’s namesake!) asked me if I wanted to work in-home doing therapy for a child with autism. The nagging feeling was there again. It told me to go and to learn. It was here that I learned about Applied Behavior Analysis and made the choice to come to Chicago to get my master’s degree.

In 2009, directly following college graduation, I packed up my puppy, a bad boyfriend (no joke), and the rest of my life. We moved to Chicago. I dove into the world of autism, behavior analysis and the discrepancy of services in Illinois for the next two years of my life. I also dumped that bad boyfriend.

I worked on the Illinois Crisis Prevention Network under a wonderful mentor Kim Shontz during research for my master’s degree. She’s an amazing leader and I’m lucky enough that her son, Ken Shontz, now serves as our Clinical Supervisor for Adult Services.

On the Crisis Team, I worked with individuals with disabilities who engaged in dangerous levels of problem behaviors. Ages of the individuals ran from early childhood to the elderly. I had a 100% success rate with my clients by using ABA, as it was designed. I had more luck with some amazing BCBA supervisors (Kristin, Alex, & Yours!!) who guided me.

The science during my master’s studies was all I ever wanted. It let me use my knowledge that each child is a unique gift. I was there to find out what wasn’t working in their lives. This “not working” is a learning style and ABA breaks down the learning barriers so that the person with disabilities no longer needs to use problematic behaviors to get their needs met. Turns out, it’s a missing skill. Look at our nation today and I’ll tell you loud and clear, “there’s a missing skill.”

The Crisis Team & Anger

I eventually found myself on a Crisis Team and found out why I kept getting nagging thoughts and feelings about autism. Simple, right? Wrong.

Once I found out why problem behaviors occur and how to change them, I found a new problem to solve; access to therapy. In Illinois, children with autism and adults with disabilities were (are still are) discriminated against based on their funding source. ABA companies back then (and some still today) look for high fee schedules from private insurance. If you’re a mama with a child on Medicaid you’re not getting ABA service. It was horrible. So, I got pissed.

Remember I told you a few weeks ago that anger is a messenger. With this anger I founded Instructional ABA Consultants. We are standing strong 8 years later and have NEVER turned a child or patient away based on funding sources. While we still can’t bill Medicaid (Illinois needs to make some noise here, we’re so close!) we accept Waivers for Medicaid families, do financial hardship cases, and have created grants for families who can’t afford insurance.

And you know what? On a Proforma scale we are at the top 90% of profitable companies in our industry. Want to know why? We’re treating our clients and employees with respect and care. Everyone is equal at IABA.

I’m blessed with a leadership team that supports my vision, therapists who provide top of the line ABA therapy, children slathered in high quality ABA and sprinkled with love, and that nagging is still calling to me.

I wrote to you last week that my nagging is taking me home to Ohio on our (horse) farm. I also told you I’m getting ready to light the world on fire and get in some good, necessary trouble. You see, I got pissed again.

The Coming Storm

Let’s fast forward to today. You can see that I’ve been working my ass off for well over a decade, following the guidance to support people with autism. Every hard-working minute is well worth it. And yet, my professional nagging tells me this, “you aren’t done until to have a disability is not to be disadvantaged, and to do this you cannot do this alone, you need more support.”

During COVID, I took those nagging messages the wrong way. I thought I needed investors to help grow my company larger to meet this mission. I went through talks and a high-ticket price was dangled with a clear message, “sell out, let us water down treatment, and pump out clinics to create investor returns.”

My thoughts about those type of offers: Fuck no (told you, I’d get there). In “Untamed,” Glennon writes a passage that I believe has the answer to the dysfunction of society. Glennon tells us for every disadvantaged group you can follow the profit down the stream to find out who is making money. It’s sickening and it’s true. Money is driving our society into a future I want no part of.

So, I’m rewriting my narrative and, in turn, autism’s narrative. I’m going to go toe to toe with Wall Street, to tell them, “not on the backs of children with autism.” The money that insurance provides for ABA therapy should be going to the children to improve the companies that serve them. Period. If you bought a yacht with ABA money, I truly hope you sell it and open a school for children with autism in Africa, South America, Bulgaria—I don’t care, just give it back.

Of course, you should be paid for your good work if you own a company. No issues there and I think more women need to hear this is OK. What’s not OK is to dilute treatment to create as many billable hours as possible for the sake of higher profit margins. You can fully give your company what it needs to thrive and pay yourself if you work hard and are true to your goals. Promise.

In order to follow my nagging and anger, I discovered what I must do. I’m building a future where BCBA owned ABA companies can outperform any corporate structure. A system where we can band together to change the narrative for children with autism and adults with disabilities. During this journey I’m going to meet thousands of people who want to change the narrative for their little piece of the world.

What ignites your inner fire? What injustices do you see every day? What is your story telling you?

I’m going dark for two weeks. After that it’s lights, camera, action. Baby, I’m going to build a brand-new world.

Xoxo,
Jessie

Changing the Narrative

Posted on: July 29th, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

Last week, I wrote about our collective back to school blues. I’m still living through this; grief is a process and I don’t know that I’ll be fine for a while. In learning about all who are impacted by COVID-19, including my own children, I feel grief. Last night, I spent almost two hours on the phone with my aunt talking about homeschooling. In my heart, I want to pour every inch of my soul into Dametrius’s education. Also in my heart, I’m grieving that he may never know “normal.” From this paradox, I actually see a piece of myself. I’m going to share it with you.

That Nagging Feeling

photo of a farm house at end of dirt road

Photo credit: Rochelle Mast (previous farm owner)

Throughout my lifetime I have always had a nagging inside of me. The nagging says to me, “this isn’t it,” as I navigate life. While many people may equate this to anxiety and unsettledness, I know differently. This nagging inside of me is a combination of my knowledge and experiences and when I follow it I always unturn a new truth. The truths I find run the gamut from personal to professional but all of them guide me.

You see, I see the world differently, and when I follow the nagging feeling I can unpack both the loving-kindness and the lion inside of me. I think everyone has this nagging feeling inside of them and when I read “Untamed,” by Glennon Doyle it was confirmed. You may not be a lion but you know what is inside of you far better than anyone else in the world.

If we collectively listened to these nagging feelings, we could challenge ourselves and our leaders to unwind from a world based on fear and build a new one based on love.

So, back to my nagging, that piece of me that pushes me. My internal nagging has moved me through every stage of my life. It’s like a path I walk along, stopping for a while at a few spots to enjoy, fight, question, and then move on. I often meditate and see myself on a path with a deep light at the end. I know I’m walking toward that light in this life and not towards death.

During the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, my nagging had me under its thumb. I sat in the middle of my beautiful home, with my dream career, 3 beautiful children, husband, and dear friends and I was utterly confused. How could this not be it? I had to sit and take a critical look at my situation to discover what was ‘wrong.’

What is Normal?

I was living in suburbia because the world had told me this was the goal and I listened. The world doesn’t know have my knowledge or experiences, so it occurred to me that I have been listening to the wrong authority for most of my life. Shit. Well, once I knew that I was listening to the wrong authority, a mental pandora’s box was opened in my mind. What else had I been believing as gospel because society told me it was so? Shit. Again. How can I unpack what is truly me and what the world is telling me is me? How can we all do this? And if we all do this, can we actually build a new world?

Deep inside of me, I believe the answer is “yes.” We can change the narrative. We don’t have to keep living in a world built on the foundation of broken systems and systemic disadvantages. There are solutions to our problems and those solutions are in our hearts. Believing in the goodness of people as a whole is the light I see in my meditations–where I want to go. And I want you all to come with me.

In order for me to honor my own nagging feelings, I had to thoroughly unravel my life. I sat with myself and asked, “well what now?” Answer number one? Get the hell out of suburbia, you hate it here.  While a great many people love the suburbs, I am not one of them. I need the country like I need air to breathe.

I also need my sister and my family. Like, I really need my sister and family.

I buried both of these truths while I built a business out-of-state and settled into the suburbs. So, I asked my team at Instructional ABA Consultants, “Can I move home to Ohio and still be a good leader?” I got a resounding yes, followed by a fabulous discussion about what all my leaders needed in their own environments to thrive. They shared their feelings. I had no idea what most of my team really wanted!

I hope with all my heart Ingrid makes her way to Paris while running our company! I know that woman can do it. Once I got the resounding message of “it’s OK, we’ll support your dreams because you are honoring ours,” I told my husband. His feelings aren’t there yet, but he’s working hard to find his own truths so when I change things up it won’t be too hard for us. He told me (lovingly) that if Ohio makes me happy and I need the country he’ll follow me there. I know we’ll struggle through this as he finds his own truths and I am so, so grateful that he’s standing beside me.

Saddling Up & Moving to a Farm

Once I realized these personal truths, that life could go on, I started looking for farms. And do you know what happened? We bought a horse farm. A fricking horse farm!* A realtor was supposed to line up properties for us to see when we traveled in June. One night we got sent information on the farm we ended up buying. I pulled the info up and if I had drawn a dream home when I was five years old this was it!

The universe honored my newly discovered truths and literally planted a 3-acre horse farm in my lap. The kicker? It’s only twenty minutes from my sister’s home! My dad agreed to drive over and see the property and within 24 hours, against all logic, we bought the farm (literally). It makes no sense! I can’t explain it to anyone, yet my heart is telling me loud and clear to go for it. For the first time in my life, I’m saying yes to my true feelings and believing that honoring them will guide me through all odds.

After we made the choice to move, a lot of other factors have come into play, as other factors tend to do. When you make a big decision it impacts everyone around you. I will deeply miss my dear friends here in Naperville. I’m grieving for my dear friend Dana who has been raising Henry and Declan for the last three years while Martin and I work. I don’t think kinder soul than her exists in our world and when she finds her true feelings I’m sure angels will sing.

Living two states away from her won’t be easy, yet I know I’ve gained a sister through our time together. It’s hard to change course, to follow a knowing beyond ourselves, but I know that the light promised by following my true feelings is real. Yes, I’m sad to leave and yes, I know that in following my path I’m honoring myself and getting ready to light the world on fire. To do this I need the country, quiet, and family.

On my farm, I’ll get to truly be myself. I will joyfully get eggs each morning, grow a garden, can food for the winter, sew, sit on a porch swing each night, and swim in the love of my family all around me. I will get closer to nature because I don’t like the accepted ‘speed’ of the modern world. I might even write letters to my friends. It’s a mystery to me what day-to-day activities will look like, which makes this unplanned future even more exciting for me.

I know to be true; when I honor myself I honor the world and the same is true for you. Your truth is probably not a horse farm in Ohio. Your truth also isn’t what the world has been telling you to do.

My aunt in Colorado sent me a quote, so I’ll leave you with this, “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise & get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” – John Lewis

 

Xoxo,
Jessie

 

  • *I can’t bring myself to drop the F-bomb in my blog. Maybe I’ll get worked up enough someday…