Ahhh… the Holidays
I’m really enjoying the time off from work and school.
Even with the stress of the holidays, it’s been nice to relax and read and write and just fix leftovers and let the kid sleep late. We don’t have to get to school on time—much less make sure homework is done, drive to activities, or have feelings about school, homework, or social pressures.
So I’m kind of ignoring that school starts back soon, and yet I have been emotionally preparing for it. I thought I’d share what I’ve been doing with my kid to get us ready for school again, because it seems to be helping:
I’ve been making a lot of FASD Sandwiches
Not actual sandwiches, of course—but conversational sandwiches. Let me explain…
During this school break, I’ve been making a point with my kid to start most interactions with positive comments—even when I want to fuss or remind or complain or threaten. Positive comments usually lead to positive connections, and positive connections lead to strong relationships.
Strong relationships are important for three key reasons:
(1) They promote a sense of safety,
(2) Create trust, and
(3) Build internal capacity to better handle the “normal” demands of a day.
Kids with FASD (or past trauma) need these over and over and over, and all kids (including teens) grow from positive connections.
After many tries (fails and successes), I’ve found what mostly works best is the Sandwich Pattern—or call it the “FASD Sandwich” to remember it better. I use it for praise, correction, or even as a conversation starter. For us, conversation has been a great, subtle way to start and deepen our connection with safety, trust, and capacity.
Here’s the basic FASD Sandwich pattern:
(1) Bread: Say something positive or validating in one or two sentences,
(2) Meat (or filling): Give the praise or correction (also called feedback) in as few sentences as possible OR just ask a question to start conversation,
(3) Bread: Say another positive comment using one or two sentences.
Now, here are three tips using the FASD Sandwich to get ready for school before a holiday break ends. These are real-life examples that have worked for me this past week. They might not work perfectly every time, but if you try them out, I’d appreciate your feedback to make them better.
Deepen Your Connection with an FASD Sandwich
This might sound too simple, right? Just follow a quick template to improve your relationship with your kid…? Well, it is simple, but it isn’t easy, and it’s critically important.
Strong relationships take time, even if the patterns and skills are simple. It’s like working out at a gym—it’s simple to step onto a treadmill, but you won’t necessarily get your result right away. The FASD Sandwich is simple, too, but don’t let that fool you into setting up unrealistic expectations without much practice. The pay-off is a stronger relationship, though, which builds capacity for your kid with FASD to handle more of the daily stressors at school.
Here’s a concrete example from a couple days ago, in which I woke up about 6:00am and saw that the garbage bag I’d set by the door had been taken out to the bin in the alley before I woke up:
Me: Hey, I was just thinking… I really like how you took out the garbage last night without me even asking. [This is the ‘bread,’ which is ALWAYS positive.]
Me: You must have taken it out early…? [I want the facts so I can give proper feedback.]
Kid: Yeah. I woke up at 3am to get some water and saw it. So I took it out for you. [If I had used an accusing tone, he would have started defending himself instead of answering my question. Plus, I discovered he had a positive intention, which I want to support.]
Me: Oh, well thanks… that made sense. [More bread for the positive intention.] I just worry if you go outside so early in the morning that the door might lock behind you. You’d freeze to death before I wake up to let you in! [Explanation helps for traumatized kids, but sometimes FASD gets in the way. Use your judgment here, but in this case the idea of showing concern probably trumps too many words.]
Kid: That’d never happen! [Okay, I want to check myself here and not directly argue back, because then we’ll be sidetracked. He’s a little activated, but that’s okay because I’m not mad and it will increase his capacity to tolerate my concern as well.]
Me: Right, but I worry—it’s my job. [I’m validating both our points of view.] How about waiting till it’s light out next time? [Here’s the ‘meat’—the feedback or specific action I’m asking for.]
Kid: Okay, whatever… [Maintaining a teenage stance. I let him, because my goal isn’t to dominate or feel totally respected at this moment. My goal is to simultaneously strengthen our connection and set a safety limit.]
Me: Thanks. I appreciate it. It really helps when you take the garbage out for me. [The final slice of ‘bread’ to encourage a positive ending (even if it doesn’t always end 100% positive).]
I deliberately saved this conversation for later in the day so it wouldn’t interfere with our task of visiting family. Plus, this is a teen with relatively few safety issues anymore. Use your own sound judgment, because every situation and kid with FASD is different. But the main point here is that we worked through that conversation in a positive way, which strengthens our relationship, which gives us both more capacity to handle the tension that will inevitably arise when school resumes. We’ve had several conversations like this every day of break.
Bring up expectations NOW with an FASD Sandwich
This tip uses the FASD Sandwich in a specific way to prep for school: Talk about school expectations in small doses and keep it simple. These will mostly be reminders, right? But you want to start getting the brain cells re-activated around the expectations without overwhelming the nervous system.
Nobody wants to hear a big list of rules, but we still need to know the rules, especially any new ones. Starting early also gives a few days to work out any tension or resistance that might arise, so it doesn’t all pile up at once on the drive to school.
I’ve started this process with the ‘old’ rule about school night bedtime, and also a new rule to deal with the new iPhone. My new rule links time on task in class with weekend phone privileges. Here’s a summary of how it went:
Me: You’ve really shown some great responsibility, so I think you’re ready for a phone again.
Kid: Yeah, thanks.
Me: More responsibility comes with having this phone though—
Kid: —I know, I know…
Me: Right… you know that, but I just want to say what the new responsibility is, okay? [Btw, I often ask before I give information or instructions, as it helps the kid get ready to hear what I say.
Me: I’ll need you to try all your work at school or ask for help—no skipping class or avoiding work. You can bring me your weekly progress sheet to show me that.
Kid: Oh, great! I’ve been trying at school, but now you’re putting more pressure on me to worry about the phone. Might as well take the phone right now! And I’m not going to do any more work than I was. [I consider the last two sentences to be ‘catastrophizing,’ and in this case I ignored it, because I wanted to stay focused on the single expectation. However, I occasionally find the need to challenge such statements with something simple like, ‘Well, my plan is for you to keep the phone when you try all your work or get help ,’ and then go on with the rest of the conversation. Sometimes, a threat like that is actually a fear, and I want to take fear out of the situation as much as possible.]
Me: I know you’ve been trying. I can see that you’re turning in more work. That’s what I meant when I said you’ve shown me some great responsibility. I want you to hear me say I believe you…
Kid: Okay… but why do I have to do that to have phone privileges?
Me: I want you to get rewarded for improving, and that’s the best way I thought of. If you think of a better way, let me know.
Did you recognize the parts of the FASD Sandwich in there? Introducing a new rule might have gone badly and created a tantrum, but following the FASD Sandwich pattern helped me navigate through the activation triggers that both my foster son and I have. By steering around the triggers, I got to state the new limit and the reward, and he was able to voice several important points from his perspective. (Notice that I didn’t really frame this as a consequence—only as a reward.)
Here are some possible expectations to discuss, but remember to just pick one at a time. It’s hard to make or eat an FASD Sandwich that has too much in it!
- Ask how things were going at school before break
- Mention the school behavior chart (if your kid has one)
- Ask about any anxieties or worries then validate them
- Get a handle back on screen time limits (i.e., phone, games, tv)
- Get a handle back on food & drink before bed
- Begin moving bedtime so that it will match with what is needed for school
Also, allow space to rebound from hearing about these limits (i.e., don’t overwhelm).
Give Yourself an FASD Sandwich So You can Make More
No kidding, just before I began writing this section, I had to give myself an FASD Sandwich, because it works for caregivers, too, and nobody else is here to give me one. My kid and I were both feeling activated from discussing bedtime, and I ended up having to take a quick break for myself. Take a look at my self example:
Bread: I’m trying my best to be a good parent. [Validate my intention.]
Meat: This will work better if I stay calm… What do I need to maintain my equanimity? [Asking myself a question to get curious about what would help me, and avoid falling into a back-and-forth power struggle or argument.] I breathe in and out slowly a few times. [This is one of my “Minimalist Survival Skills” which will be in a later post.]
Bread: Okay, I’m feeling a little better… he’s calm, I’m calm. I think we can make this work. [Acknowledging and honoring that I’m calmer, and gathering myself to continue in a calm way.
This works for me, and once you find the right words for yourself and the right settling technique, it can work for you, too. But I can’t emphasize enough: This requires repetition. I’ve been practicing my own settling techniques for months, plus I knew I’d be writing this article, so I’ve been very aware and tuned in to making this work. Start now, so you can be all that further ahead.
As a final note, this concept can be used any time—not just during a school break.
Remember, the goal of an FASD Sandwich is to have a positive connection. Building positive connections to improve your caregiver-child relationship can happen at any time, so try it out today!