Autism + Parenting: Helpful Caregiving Tips

Dr Daniel Amen and Tana Amen BSN RN On The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast

The experience of parenting a child with a disability such as autism or cerebral palsy is vastly different than the usual parenting experience. There’s often grief, guilt, and shame, and even feelings of underperforming or letting your child down. In the second episode of a series on caregiving, Dr. Daniel Amen and Tana Amen give you tips to change your way of thinking to enable you to help guide and care for your child in a more productive way.

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Dr. Daniel Amen: Welcome to the Brain Warrior's Way podcast. I'm Dr. Daniel Amen.
Tana Amen: And I'm Tana Amen. In our podcast, we provide you with the tools you need to become a warrior for the health of your brain and body.
Dr. Daniel Amen: The Brain Warrior's Way podcast is brought to you by Amen Clinics, where we have been transforming lives for 30 years, using tools like brain SPECT imaging to personalize treatment to your brain. For more information, visit
Tana Amen: The Brain Warrior's Way podcast is also brought to you by Brain MD, where we produce the highest quality nutraceuticals to support the health of your brain and body. To learn more, go to
Dr. Daniel Amen: Welcome back. We are in caregiver week day two. I have a great podcast review. Super short. Just the right length of time. Great guests. Practical, helpful, and actionable.
Tana Amen: I like that.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Great podcast.
Tana Amen: See? In our last one we said fewer words. That was great.
Dr. Daniel Amen: From Bill Edmonds from the United States. Bill, thanks for listening. We are so grateful. We're talking about caregivers in caregiver week, and in this one, I want to talk about kids.
Tana Amen: Yep.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Being a child psychiatrist, I've seen autistic kids and ADD kids and kids with mental retardation and kids with aggression and learning disabilities and I know how hard it is on their moms and dads.
Tana Amen: It's really hard.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Part of what makes it so hard, and I know this with our granddaughter, Emmy, who was born with a genetic microdeletion syndrome who had seizures and developmental delay, and as much as we love her, and we do, there ... the first thing parents have to deal with is this sense of mourning.
Tana Amen: The grief.
Dr. Daniel Amen: It's a sense of loss of what they thought the experience would be.
Tana Amen: Prom dresses and weddings or whatever it is that you had in mind. Sports.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Right. We saw a fun movie this week called "Instant Family," with Mark Wahlberg and it's where these two sort of bored adults decided-
Tana Amen: They should take on older kids.
Dr. Daniel Amen: They would become un-bored and foster three kids in the same family.
Tana Amen: It was really good.
Dr. Daniel Amen: All the sudden they were not bored. But they sort of hated the children and hated themselves because it wasn't what they thought it would be.
Tana Amen: Right. They had to learn a new normal. That was ... what I got out of it was they had to learn a new normal and they had to learn how to optimize not just their skills, but the children's, and appreciate it.
Dr. Daniel Amen: So for caregivers, know that grief is part of what you're dealing with.
Tana Amen: One thing that I've noticed, I worked for a year with kids with cerebral palsy. So that's a community where you get a lot of that, you see a lot of that. We've certainly, like you said, we've certainly seen a lot of that, but what I remember is in addition to the grief, there is just a tremendous amount of guilt over feeling grief. So what I saw was that so many parents almost hated themselves because they had a different expectation, and it's like "Why can't I just expect ... why can't I just be happy with what I have, and why am I grieving this?" It made them feel selfish and that's not helpful either. They would feel this push/pull because they did feel these feelings but they hated themselves for feeling them. That's what I saw. What would you say about that?
Dr. Daniel Amen: I would say it's normal. It's common and they need to do the work with that. So-
Tana Amen: I'm a terrible mom because I'm grieving what I feel like I should have or could have had with this child.
Dr. Daniel Amen: And in every age you grieve.
Tana Amen: Right.
Dr. Daniel Amen: You grieve at kindergarten, you grieve at potty training that doesn't stop.
Tana Amen: Like I know I should just be grateful.
Dr. Daniel Amen: You grieve-
Tana Amen: I know I should just be grateful, I know I should just love this child for how they are, but I can't help but feeling sad and I'm a bad mom because of that.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Okay. I'm a bad mom. Is that true?
Tana Amen: Well not always. Obviously I take care of my child.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Okay. Can you absolutely know that it's true? You're a bad mom.
Tana Amen: No. I do my best to care for my child, but I still feel bad.
Dr. Daniel Amen: How does that make you feel when you believe the thought, "I'm a bad mom."
Tana Amen: Guilty, sad, stuck in my grief, like I'm not enjoying the moment with this child and helping them and really appreciating the milestones and the progress that they're making, because I'm focusing on what they should be doing.
Dr. Daniel Amen: So you feel sad.
Tana Amen: Yeah.
Dr. Daniel Amen: You self loathe.
Tana Amen: Yeah. I can't appreciate them for what they're doing because I'm focused on what they should be doing, what I wish they were doing.
Dr. Daniel Amen: With those feelings, how do you treat the child or your spouse?
Tana Amen: And without even realizing it probably, I either withdraw emotionally, I am not present, I am just not in a loving mood when my spouse comes home, I don't feel like having sex because I feel bad about myself. I'm tired.
Dr. Daniel Amen: More irritable?
Tana Amen: More irritable, yeah. I'm sad.
Dr. Daniel Amen: More likely to have a couple glasses of wine.
Tana Amen: Yeah, I'm just sad.
Dr. Daniel Amen: More likely to go to the doctor and say, "I'm depressed" and end up on medication because you believe the thoughts that go through your head. Who would you be or how would you feel if you didn't have the thought I'm a bad mom?
Tana Amen: I would feel more present. I would feel more free. I would probably have more energy. I would feel more appreciative and the way I think that that would translate into treating others, if you add that part again, is I think I would be able to be more aware of the strengths of that child instead of focusing on what I think I'm missing out on, so the milestones and the little things and the progress that they do make and maybe even help them optimize that more.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Let's take the original thought, "I'm a bad mom," and flip it to the opposite.
Tana Amen: So I'm not a bad mom.
Dr. Daniel Amen: And then to yourself and then to others.
Tana Amen: I'm not a bad mom.
Dr. Daniel Amen: So the opposite, I'm not a bad mom. Is that true?
Tana Amen: Yes. It's true.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Give me an example.
Tana Amen: I spend my entire day caring for this child and for my entire family, actually. I feed, I bathe, I love, I do doctor's appointments, I make sure that this child is completely cared for.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Wow. So let's turn it around to yourself. This is sort of a hard concept for some people, but over the podcast, we've gone through these four questions and turnaround a fair number, but this is so powerful. When you take the original thought and you turn it around to the opposite and then you apply it to yourself and then the other person, and so to yourself could be ...
Tana Amen: I'm not being a good parent to myself.
Dr. Daniel Amen: I'm a bad mom to myself.
Tana Amen: To myself, so I'm not-
Dr. Daniel Amen: Is that true?
Tana Amen: That's ... wow. I'm not taking care of myself. I'm not sleeping. I'm drinking more. I'm angry, I'm irritable. I'm not protecting my marriage. I'm just bitter and depressed.
Dr. Daniel Amen: In grief week we actually talked about how when parents go through grief, there's a very high incidence of divorce, in large part because of minds that become unmanageable. Infested we always say with ANTs, with automatic negative thoughts. How would we turn it around to the child? For an example, the child triggers me.
Tana Amen: Oh that.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Or you trigger me.
Tana Amen: But then you need to do the work on that thought all over again-
Dr. Daniel Amen: Which could be-
Tana Amen: Because that is not taking responsibility for your own thoughts and feelings.
Dr. Daniel Amen: I trigger the child.
Tana Amen: Right.
Dr. Daniel Amen: And I trigger myself. That is. If we just do another example quickly, so too often the caregiver will attack themselves, "I'm a bad mother," or they'll attack the child and they'll say, "You trigger me," or "You make me act this way." Well, is that true?
Tana Amen: Some people would say yes.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Yes, it's absolutely true and some of my intractable patients will, "Yes." I'm like, "Well how does that make you feel?"
Tana Amen: Out of control.
Dr. Daniel Amen: It makes me feel out of control.
Tana Amen: Right.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Who would you be or how would you feel if you didn't have that thought? More in control of myself. Then the turnaround becomes you trigger me, the opposite is you didn't trigger me.
Tana Amen: Right, I trigger me.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Well, no. That's to yourself. So just the opposite. You don't trigger me. It's like, okay, in what situations are that true? Then they'll find all the ways their relationship is more positive. When you flip it to yourself it's I trigger me.
Tana Amen: Right, and then I allow you to trigger me.
Dr. Daniel Amen: No. It's I trigger you.
Tana Amen: Oh, that's a good one too.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Because so often the caregivers, because it's so lopsided if you will, that they never acknowledge their part in the difficult behavior.
Tana Amen: But isn't that true of almost all situations?
Dr. Daniel Amen: Well, often. But I almost always in couples I start with how do you make the other person crazy? How do you make them mad? They go, "I don't." I'm like, "I want you to think about it. I said you are a powerful person. How do you make them crazy?" Then they'll go into all the reasons why just to say this is you're a powerful person and you can today make things better or you can today make things worse.
Tana Amen: You want to feel powerful. The problem with not taking responsibility and saying someone else is triggering you is you then can't change it, especially if it's a child. You're supposed to be the parent, so if you take responsibility, you have a lot more power.
Dr. Daniel Amen: So when we come back, we're gonna talk about teenagers and young adults. Stay with us.
Tana Amen: If you're enjoying the Brain Warrior's Way podcast, please don't forget to subscribe so you'll always know when there's a new episode, and while you're at it, feel free to give us a review or five star rating as that helps others find the podcast.
Dr. Daniel Amen: For more information, give us a call at (855) 978-1363.