“I am 2. I am not terrible…I am frustrated. I am nervous, stressed out, overwhelmed, and confused. I need a hug.”
A post crossed my Facebook feed this week, written from the perspective of a 2-year-old (I’ll link to it at the end of this post). It describes the frustration and confusion of, on one hand, being prevented from doing simple things independently, while on the other, being expected to know how to do more advanced things like sharing, regulating emotions, and picking up one’s toys.
And while most 2-year-olds will eventually outgrow such treatment, disabled people often spend years or decades dealing with authority figures who infantilize us in some ways, while expecting too much of us in others. They may tell us we need to be more “independent” but seize control if they think we are doing something the “wrong” way. Without wise people in our lives, we may never be able to get out of the classic 2-year-old mindset.
There’s a thing that happens sometimes, and it happens not only with toddlers and their caregivers, but in all kinds of authority-ranking relationships. And, it happens to both disabled and nondisabled people, but tends to happen more often when the subordinate is disabled. In this illustration, I will use the generic example of a teacher and a student as a common example, but this is something that plays out in all kinds of authority-based relationships:
- Demand: Teacher gives student a demand that the student either cannot, or really does not want to, meet. It might be a demand to participate with the rest of the class in something. It might be a demand to stop a behavior, like Quiet hands! It might be a demand to relinquish control, like imposing hand-over-hand “assistance” on a student. Whatever it is, the student is stressed by the demand.
- Stress response: The student cannot comply, or really does not want to, and becomes stressed. With the aid of stress hormones, the student experiences a classic Fight, Flight, or Freeze behavioral response. They might fight (say no, push teacher’s hand away, throw something); or they might flee (run away); or they might freeze (flop down, cry).
- Counter-response: The teacher is stressed out by the student’s behavior. This was not expected and it disrupts their lesson plan. Depending on how the student responded, the teacher might feel scared, frustrated, angered or upset. All too often, they react by doubling down on the demand, repeating it more forcefully and often adding more demands: “Don’t talk to me like that!” “Stop crying!” etc. Consciously or not, they might use responses like yelling, intimidation, shaming, threats or punishments in order to regain control and force compliance.
- Escalation: Steps 2 and 3 repeat until one or both people break down. Too often, these situations end with consequences like restraint and seclusion of students or even injury or death, as in the tragic case of Ethan Saylor, a young man with Down syndrome who was killed by off-duty police officers in 2013.
This pattern is very common, but especially so when the subordinate in the relationship has a disability. Disabilities can make it more difficult to meet a variety of everyday demands. Individuals may have trouble processing requests or getting our bodies to cooperate. We may have a narrower range of accessible, preferred activities, so being pulled out of a preferred activity can feel disruptive. We may have sensory needs to do certain things or to avoid doing other things, which may not make sense to the people making demands. Or, we may be presumed incompetent and never given the chance to discover or show what we can do. Over time, we may develop a deep sense of learned helplessness.
What is the antidote to these cycles? Some people assume that the answer we are advocating is to just get rid of demands altogether, let little children do whatever they want and dispense with boundaries. That is absolutely not the case. Instead, what comes to mind are the concepts of respect and responsiveness. authority figures can engage a variation of the Stop, Ask, Listen philosophy:
- Stop. Truthfully, most things can wait a minute. If you make a request and encounter resistance, take a step back instead of another step forward. If it’s a situation that truly can’t wait, where there is imminent danger, take control momentarily and then take a step back.
- Ask. Pause and ask the person why they are struggling to meet the demand. Perhaps they don’t need help with something you are trying to help with. Perhaps they don’t understand your expectations. Perhaps there is something in the environment that is stressing them. Of course, some people will be more able than others to communicate what is wrong. If someone (like a toddler) can’t explain it, pay attention to the types of situations and demands that tend to cause upset and try to figure out what is the common factor.
- Listen. Acknowledge the person’s feelings and make adjustments to help the person meet expectations. If a demand cannot be changed, provide choices and alternatives whenever possible.
While I don’t have much experience working with 2-year-olds, I have been working with teenagers who have very similar needs for autonomy and validation. Teens are often stereotyped as “not listening” to authorities, but it is evident how often their complex feelings and concerns are ignored. I am learning that if I take a few moments to nonjudgmentally listen to a student’s concerns, validate them, and help them find a solution without taking over the process, the student is happier. But more important than that, the student comes to respect me and is more willing and able to meet expectations. The student progresses toward their goals and my life is easier in the long run. So it’s a win for all.
Another aspect of “listening” is observing without immediately stepping in. When walking behind a student or watching them try a new task, I can be present to encourage, support and advise, without taking control. The student learns by doing, and they can control the level and type of support they get. Yes this takes patience, but the end result is well worth it.
Of course nobody is perfect. There are times when we can all slip up on this. (For example, there have been times when I’ve shouted “Let’s go!” to a student who struggles with transitions). I mess it up sometimes, but I’ve tried to be more aware of my own stress responses, as a cue that I’m not being as patient and present as I should be. I reflect back on the cues in the situation I might have missed, and how I can respond differently in the future. But when we get the “stop, ask, listen” drill right, the reward is apparent in the connections we build, and the goals we reach alongside those working under our authority.