How did I Learn to Listen to my Inner Psychologist?

I quit.

Photo by Chris Benson on Unsplash

Toward the end of my first stint as a child psychologist, a high school classmate’s sister called during the ten-minute gap between patients. I took the call because I remembered her, and I was curious. It turned out to be one of those times my own thoughts came out of someone else’s mouth, which is why it’s stuck with me so long.

After asking about my training she remarked, “Don’t take this personally, but I’ve heard you’re better at determining whether or not a kid has autism than in knowing what to do about it.” 

I took it personally. 

I didn’t quit until I’d had my second child. One day when my son – I’ll call him James – was seven, we burst into the waiting room of the office where I used to be the psychologist, flinging the door open with such force that it rammed the doorknob into the wall. All heads turned to us, as if there’d been a drumroll first. Whereas I used to arrive at 8:00 AM wearing makeup, a hairstyle, an outfit, and accessories, this day I skidded in just after 3:00 PM, bare-faced in yoga pants and a messy ponytail. 

The receptionist – I used to call her my receptionist – asked our name. Either she was doing a great job keeping confidentiality, or she didn’t recognize me.

“We’re going to fight for China!” James exclaimed, muffled. I turned to find him head-down in a chair, wobbly feet threatening the pointy chin of a nearby girl. The girl was shaking her head and looking back and forth between James and me. 

“He reminds me so much of my brother,” she murmured. Her blonde pageboy haircut was awfully familiar.

Settling into a chair next to James, I remembered evaluating the girl’s older brother several years before. Within a minute, she’d done the same for my son. She looked about ten. A petite twelve, tops. 

Once I became a full-time mom, I poo-pooed those who suggested that my professional training might come in handy with my own children. As expressed during that long-ago phone call, there are limits to what a psychologist can do for a kid with autism.

Now that James is a teenager, I realize it’s time to forget that phone call. I’ve listened to an inner psychologist ever since I quit my practice. Here’s what she said:

  • Early identification is important. Identifying autism as early as possible is crucial for research, and I trained with the best. As I made the transition from research to practice, this skill rubbed some parents the wrong way. I’d often suspect autism before anyone else was ready to talk about it. When I saw signs in my own child as early as infancy, I doubted myself as much as my family doubted me. But that didn’t stop me from seeking help early. I needed help. Because of his developmental issues, James was harder to care for than most kids his age. 
  • “Mild” is far different from “not.” Friends questioned the wisdom of diagnosing a condition that can go undetected. James himself has questioned it since he first learned the word “autism” in third grade. But I knew that those with mild disabilities are most responsive to early intervention, and most likely to benefit from a mainstream school placement. They’re also likely to struggle in that mainstream placement. Nowadays, James’s autism is no secret. The amount of mothering he needs is.
  • Choose professionals for the right reasons. I already knew a lot of speech / language therapists, occupational therapists, and psychiatrists. I knew how much their services cost, and which weren’t covered by our insurance. I knew a 30-minute session would take three times that long when you factored in travel, tantrums, and waiting room time. I knew what went on in those waiting rooms. All this knowledge helped me weigh convenience and cost equally with professional competence. Every professional we’ve visited has worked within five miles of our home.
  • Developmental norms explain a lot. Kids do wacky things. Many of these are age appropriate, and you’re spinning your wheels if you get excited about them. Psychologists know how to tell a problem from a hassle. I wish I’d snapped a photo the morning I found James sitting on top of our refrigerator. It was dangerous, sure. But it was a rare act of adventure and confidence. And he was smiling like he’d won the Superbowl.
  • Excuse notes spell relief. Experts’ excuse notes have two jobs: a) communicating the course of a condition, and b) clarifying the limits of one’s ability to alter that course. Just as James’s pediatrician wrote a note to get him out of P.E. for two weeks when he sprained an ankle, I wrote myself this mental note on a rough night: These days James goes berserk at bedtime, even if you do everything right. Hang in there.
  • Consider the risk-reward ratio for big decisions. When it came time to consider psychiatric medication, I had a massive head start on most parents. I’d supported other families through these difficult decisions, and I’d stuck around to see how things turned out. When I was desperate to do everything possible to help James, I could put both my hopes and my fears in context. 

I still know more about diagnosing autism than about handling it, but I’m proud to admit that now. Psychology rarely helped James directly. It helped me, the parent, tremendously. I put my career on hold in order to devote my full attention to the important and difficult work of motherhood. But I couldn’t have done it without my inner psychologist.

Required Reading

Amid the information overload of recent weeks, two articles have captured my fickle attention. Here they are, and here’s why.

What Happened to American Childhood?

“How do you inoculate a child against future anguish? What do you do if your child already seems overwhelmed in the here and now?”

The Atlantic, Kate Julian

How to Stop Thinking Your Teen is ‘Pushing Your Buttons’

“Do clothes on the floor make you crazy? Experts say that the tension is often about the way the parent responds.”

NY Times, Cheryl Maguire

The Atlantic article is a long one, but my favorite takeaway is this: “The more fearful parents become, the more they continue to do the things that are inadvertently contributing to these problems.” It’s not our fault. But our own parental anxiety prevents us from addressing our children’s anxiety.

The NY Times article provides a practical application. Parents know by now that their kids need to learn life skills, like picking up clothes off the floor. And they know what doesn’t get results:

  • nagging
  • doing it for their child
  • ignoring it and hoping the child will eventually fall in line, because everyone likes a clean room, right?

So what should parents do? Maguire suggests:

  • describe the problem differently
  • respond differently
  • act like a coach, rather than a boss
  • trouble-shoot with your child

How will I do that in my own home?

  • Communicate expectations clearly, like with a list or a chart
  • Tailor expectations to each child’s developmental level
  • Alter the environment, if it’ll help them comply
  • See how they respond, and adjust accordingly

Why is that so hard?

  • My children are oppositional, just like their father. He prefers to call them anti-authoritarian. Whatever.
  • One of my children functions at a much lower developmental level than would be expected, given that he’s 13. And what does that say about him? About me? About the future?
  • I have to change my house to accommodate my children? When can I change my house to accommodate me? Who’s in charge here?
  • Wait. If I start a new plan and immediately change it, doesn’t that undermine my authority?

Two great articles to read right now. But if you don’t have time, maybe I’ll have time to go into further detail about my takeaways from both.

When Your Child’s Head Explodes: Do’s and Don’ts

We’re all under stress right now, kids included. An exploding head may seem like a minor issue compared to the financial and health issues we’re all concerned about. But to a child, it’s an emergency.

On Monday, my daughter’s head exploded (metaphorically, of course).

Pertinent to my last post about executive functions, I had to go into executive secretary mode.

Margot’s online math lesson was about finding the surface area of nets. Remember from middle school? These things:

Triangular prism geometric shape projection of dashed and straight lines in black. Shape with sides in form of regular triangle and rectangle vector

I know it seems hard, but stick with me. You have to turn the shape into a “net,” like this:

You find the surface area of each of the three rectangles and each of the two triangles, add it all together, and voila!

I wrote that last sentence after — not before — spending over an hour watching Margot’s class video with her and then watching her solve five homework problems. At my first glimpse of the shapes, my instinct was to hide. Or call in my husband, the engineer.

Margot didn’t need an engineer, though. She needed her mom.

Here are some common signs that a child’s head is exploding: crying, yelling, throwing pencils, slamming doors, eye rolling, outright refusing offers of help, questioning a parent’s intelligence, questioning their own intelligence, tearing things up….

Let’s go back to the mom who commented on my last post:

“(She) goes back and forth between wanting me to sit next to her and wanting a lot of support and wanting to do it alone. I want her to be independent, but she’s often stubborn and won’t listen to my advice (ex. Why don’t you listen to Mrs. G.’s video again if you don’t understand? Or why don’t you email her and see if you can have a google meet with her so she can explain?).”

So let’s focus on those times when your child won’t listen to your advice. Sometimes this means they’ve got things under control, and you can just back off. Sometimes, this is a sign of an exploding head.

Remember, I’m Margot’s executive secretary. The secretary has many jobs beyond providing needed supplies and snacks. My mentor’s secretary also had to manage his moods. If it was a bad day, she closed his office door, and let fewer people through to him on the phone. She warned annoying graduate students away whenever she could. She saved stressful tasks and interruptions for later.

She didn’t try to do his job for him, or tell him how to do his job. And she certainly didn’t discipline him for his appalling behavior.

Here’s a handy guide for when your child’s head is exploding:


  • Drop whatever you’re doing
  • Keep your voice calm, use fewer words
  • Get close to your child if possible
  • Sit with your child
  • Touch your child
  • Listen to your child
  • Offer food


  • Suggest possible solutions
  • Do her work for her
  • Talk about your own skill in the subject area, and her good fortune at having you as a parent
  • Badmouth the teacher, and come up with a better way of teaching the material
  • Punish your child, but do place limits on how close you’ll be if she’s really out of control.
  • Expect your child to return to work until she’s calm. This might take longer than you think.

We’re all under stress right now, kids included. An exploding head may seem like a minor issue compared to the financial and health issues we’re all concerned about. But to a child, it’s an emergency. Just support them. Tomorrow will be a new day, I promise.

On Tuesday, math was still about those blasted shapes. But Margot FaceTimed a friend, and they got it done together.

Be the Executive Secretary, not the Teacher

There’s an important part of learning that’s essentially secretarial, known as executive functioning.

Another comment!! And another great one: “This type of homeschooling is definitely hard for (us). (My child) goes back and forth between wanting me to sit next to her and wanting a lot of support and wanting to do it alone. I want her to be independent, but she’s often stubborn and won’t listen to my advice.”

This mom has already done half the work of supporting a home schooler. She’s tuned in to what her child seems to want, in terms of support. The next step is to provide the support she needs, and cut off any well-intentioned support she doesn’t.

Parents should see themselves as executive secretaries at this time, not teachers. Our kids are lucky to still have their teachers, even if it’s just online.

There’s an important part of learning that’s essentially secretarial, known as executive functioning. Executive functioning develops gradually over the middle and high school years, even into young adulthood. Adults end up with varying skills in this area. Think of your most organized friend versus your flightiest one.

When I typed “executive secretary” into the title of this piece I cringed, because when I was in grad school I was often confused for my mentor’s secretary. It infuriated me, because I was a psychologist, dammit, not a secretary! I was focused on status, not usefulness. I didn’t realize at the time what a wreck my mentor would have been without his secretary.

My next post will explore the delicate balance between supporting your child and getting in their way. It might end up taking all week!

At times like these, the rule benders come out.

This is the problem with guidelines. They can’t account for individual circumstances. That’s the parent’s job now.

Third comment, from Cate:

“During the school closings, should you encourage your child to interact socially via FaceTime, etc. when he or she is uncertain or uninterested in that activity?”

The short answer to Cate’s question is “no” for my son, and “yes” for my daughter. And we’re all stuck in the same house, so it’s hard to hide the discrepancy.

Quoting the Middle School Continuity Plan emailed to us on March 16th: “Remove your child’s cell phone and any other smart devices from the room while your child is engaged in school work.”

Margot takes after her father, in that she can bend rules almost without thinking. James and I are rule-followers.

So imagine my discomfort when I entered the home office on the first day of online school to find Margot simultaneously on her school-issued Chromebook and chatting with a buddy. Remember this photo?

Okay, so the Chromebook is closed. But it was open when I walked in.

Now I have a lot of experience with rule benders. I remind myself it’s what makes them so much fun. So, I let Margot keep her phone. But then Cate asked her question, and I emailed Perrin Jones, Director of Middle School at Margot’s school, for clarification.

Did I throw Margot under the bus? Maybe. Sometimes you have to sacrifice the privacy of one for the benefit of many. Perrin wrote:

“Many middle schoolers don’t have the intellectual and emotional maturity to use a phone responsibly, which is why I recommended parents take them up during school work.  But they have to learn, so not allowing any phone use may not be the right way to go either.  It depends on your child.”

This is the problem with guidelines. They can’t account for individual circumstances. That’s the parent’s job now.

So here’s my thinking. Margot is allowed to use her phone during online school because I’m usually within earshot, she knows I’ll take it away if she misuses it, and she benefits from the social interaction that comes during school time. Thrives on it, actually. And this online school has stolen that bright spot from her days.

James isn’t allowed to use his phone, mainly because it’s one of a zillion distractions that assault his brain all day and prevent him from using it to his full capacity. And if I did allow him to use his phone with certain criteria in place, the distraction of rule-breaking would be too much for him to bear. He gets plenty of other opportunities to test the limits with his phone use outside of school time, trust me.

Soft skills: Just as important as academics

You can trust teachers to provide the right amount of academic work for the average child.

Second comment!

“I am particularly thankful for the sentence, ‘schoolwork takes a lot less time than you think it should.’ As this has been a major source of disagreement in our house. My son agrees with you! ?”

Thanks, Judith! For me, this was the biggest surprise that came with home schooling.

It’s particularly noticeable, I think, in middle school. The average middle schooler is working on a lot of non-academic or “soft” skills during middle school, and needs the chance to do this at a time they’re most interested, most ready, and most supervised. So skills like social interaction, back-and-forth chat, conflict, young love, ups and downs of friendships, staying organized, trying new things, coping with disappointment…. As you can see, I could go on and on.

These “soft” skills are just as important as academic skills.

Notice I referred above to “the average middle schooler.” By definition, there will be people past all this, and people not yet ready for it. In my professional and personal experience, people with Autism Spectrum Disorders are rarely ready for these non-academic skills at the same time as most of their peers.

A digression: I’m also one of those people who wasn’t ready for “soft” skills when most kids were. I was acing all my classes, but I struggled with managing anxiety, making idle chit chat, coping with crushes, and dealing with mean kids. I ended up working on these skills later in life, when I was ready and motivated to do so.

So, the takeaway:

You can trust teachers to provide the right amount of academic work for the average child. That’s what schools are meant to do. Some schools supplement on either end of average, with enrichment activities on one end and academic support on the other. That’s too much to expect of teachers right now.

What can you do? You can supplement. But that doesn’t look like you spending a lot of your own time expanding your child’s universe. It looks like, in my case, giving one of my children time to yammer with her friends on FaceTime and veg out on Tik Tok videos. And giving the other child time to decompress by shooting baskets ad nauseam and playing on his x-box way too much. But, bonus, he’s talking to his friends on the microphone and on FaceTime at the same time.

Imposing a Routine Against Their Will

The central paradox of my family life: That which they need the most, they fight the most.

First comment! Juli writes: “Should they still maintain their morning school routine while in this transition phase? Get dressed, brush teeth, eat breakfast, etc.? Mine doesn’t understand why it’s necessary so he’s fighting it.”

The central paradox of my family life: That which they need the most, they fight the most.

The short answer to Juli’s question is yes. It’s crucial to keep a morning routine, but you can modify it.

We delayed James’s school start time an hour, because that fit much better with his natural sleep pattern. It also created a tremendous amount of good will. In Margot’s case, 8:00am still works. But given her school’s online schedule, she could probably start at 9:00 and delay her first class a little bit.

Keep the necessary parts of the routine: brushing teeth, eating breakfast, getting dressed. Add in some fun twists: choosing own outfit, special morning snack, no shoes.

Any time I make concrete suggestions, I have to keep in mind that parents know their kids best. When I was a psychologist, I usually ended up troubleshooting concrete suggestions, because it’s hard to predict how a child will respond when you don’t live with them.

If I were asking myself Juli’s question, I’d follow up with, “What do you do if your child physically resists? Like hiding under the bed?” When things were at their worst last year, I had to “walk” James through his morning routine. I was his shadow the whole morning, gently reminding him of his routine, handing him needed items, and even holding clothes out for him to step into. Sounds like a nightmare, but it was temporary.

I’ve noticed something about my own psychologist advice when I put it into practice as a parent: Everything takes much longer than I thought it would. So acting as James’s morning shadow took weeks, not days. And there was a lot more yelling than I’m comfortable with. But look at him now!

Which brings me to the other paradox: As a psychologist, the best thing I could do for my child was to quit being a psychologist. Some kids need more mothering than others. Friends talk about how independent their kids are and you think, “What’s wrong with us?” First of all, sometimes your friends are lying. But also, the very milestones your child’s peers are enjoying at any given time might be your child’s major sticking point right now.


Now is your chance to start from the beginning, or the bottom, or whatever you want to call it. When I decided to home school my son last year, it was crisis time. So, being the psychologist that I am, I removed every bit of removable stress or stimulation from his life. Picture moving from an apartment in Manhattan to a cabin in the Vermont woods.

Kids are schooling at home now. You might notice that they have some extra free time on their hands. That their schoolwork takes a lot less time than you think it should.

That’s fine.

Home schooling removes all the “noise” of the regular school day. I’m talking about stress and stimulation. For kids who need less stress, it’s a great thing.

Don’t look for “extra” or “more,” and don’t limit things like screen time that help your child decompress, until they show signs of having a low level of stress / stimulation level.

Here are some of those signs:

  1. Getting out of bed independently.
  2. Doing boring morning activities easily (tooth brushing, dressing).
  3. Happy mood, high energy level.
  4. Helping out voluntarily, in any way.
  5. Remembering to do chores usually forgotten.
  6. Creativity: drawing, singing, telling stories.

Give your child a chance to show you these signs! See if you can hang back where you’d normally jump in. For instance, give them some time to get out of bed before you go and check on them. Or shout from another room rather than going in and shaking them.

Home schooling changed James dramatically.

Before: fearing and dreading school, refusing every step of his morning routine, needing my maximum help getting ready, and needing to be walked to his locker every day.

After: even if I’m not home, he can wake up with an alarm, eat breakfast, take medicine, get himself totally ready, and be waiting on the front porch for his teacher.

Once I figure out how to add a comment section, I’d love to hear further signs of your child’s stress level lowering.