On the Spectrum: Stoic Strategies for Parenting and Mental Health

By David Press

David Press taught composition, comics, creative writing, and film at Paul Smith’s College in New York’s Adirondack Park. North Country Living Magazine, The Alembic, Crazyhorse, and the Santa Fe Literary Review have featured his fiction and nonfiction. He lives with his family in Bloomington, Indiana. He is working on a memoir about how comic books and philosophy helped him through life with undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome, ADD, anxiety, and depression. You can find out more about him at davidpress.net and his weekly newsletter at davidpress.substack.com.

It’s a typical weekday, and I’m trying to get my five-year-old son and two-year-old daughter to keep their masks on before they start licking the floor of the Monroe County YMCA. I’m trying to sign them up for swim lessons. This is the second of two errands I’m running in the hour window we have using our one family car on Christmas Eve. We dropped my wife off at vaccinated-only yoga in Bloomington, Indiana’s Fountain Square. Then we ran to the post office to send Christmas presents to her family members in Michigan that we won’t see this holiday season. And we have no childcare for two weeks as my kids’ pre-school is closed for the holiday season. In the rotunda of the YMCA, my kids were distracted by Winnie the Pooh and Tigger dolls, but now they need a snack. To get them to endure one more errand, I’ve promised them a steamer (steamed milk with vanilla syrup) from the local coffee shop. So when I finish the sign-up, walking to the car, they pour on the shouting and whining: “I want my special treat!” shouts my two-year-old. “I want my steamer!” shouts her older brother. I look at the car’s clock that says it’s 10:32 am—time to pick up mom. “We have to get mom, and then we’ll go get our special treat!” “No!” “I want to get it noowwwww!” “If we don’t get it right now, I won’t be your special pal anymore, Dad!” (My son is training to be a lawyer.) “Shut up!” I shout over the both of them. “Shut up, both of you, or there will be nothing!” That’s when the shame hits me, and I get angry at myself for losing my cool. For two years—since I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, Attention Deficit Disorder, anxiety, and depression at 38-years-old—I’ve known that moments of transition like the above are especially triggering for someone on the spectrum. I learned this from my work with a healthcare not-for-profit that works with people on the spectrum who are developmentally disabled. I’ve treated my condition with medically-prescribed Ritalin, then Strattera, and Cognitive Behavior Therapy. It’s in the latter that I found a connection to Stoicism, which had already piqued my interest long before my diagnosis. It started with Ryan Holiday’s daily emails from Daily Stoic but has deepened with William Irvine, Donald Robertson, and the co-founder of this website Brittany Polat. I focus on Epictetus’s dichotomy of control: There are some things I can control and some things I can’t control, and my kids are definitely something I cannot control. Irvine develops the dichotomy of control into a trichotomy: some things I have no control over, some things I have some control over, and others I have total control over. For Irvine, you should focus on the things you have some and total control over. This translates to a saying often used where I’m from in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear and bad attitudes.” This is a phrase that I use to kick-start my Stoic-self—a kind of Human Torch’s “Flame on!” I use it to practice my morning Premeditatio Malorum where I consider the day’s obstacles and plan for them ahead of time, and I use it when I start to feel myself losing my cool. There are some things I have no control over (bad weather), some control (bad gear), and total control (attitude.) Through my day job as a mental health Skills Clinician, it reminds me that I have no control over being born with a high-functioning form of Autism or ADD, no more than the fact that I have to wear glasses to drive. If not for an accident of birth, I could have been like some of the people I work with. I use some of the Stoic psychological techniques Irvine and Robertson recommend with those clients and myself. One of them is a breathing exercise, where for a couple minutes, I ask a client to focus on their breath and the dichotomy of control. We repeat the phrase, “there are some things I can control, and some things I can’t control.” For many of my clients, there’s anxiety and perseveration about the weather, especially snow. I ask the client about what’s something they can’t control. The client gets loud, pushy, and struggles to settle down without help. Still, after working with this dichotomy of control breathing exercise, the client can now take a walk in the snow-covered path with little anxiety because he realizes that there’s nothing he can do about the snow. Still, he can do something about wearing the right coat and shoes to walk in it. The other thing I do is a mood rating. I ask the client to rate their mood from zero to five. Zero being “I feel angry,” one is frustrated or stressed out, two is annoyed, three is okay, four is good, and five is excellent. This, as Donald Robertson writes in How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, is the start of cognitive distancing. He then paraphrases Epictetus again where it’s not about events themselves that upset us, but our judgments about them. I ask my client if the weather event was upsetting is their opinion, behavior, or an action. Then I ask them the dichotomy question again: is the action their opinion, their behavior, or an action? Sometimes they say no, and they’re able to put the weather out of their mind as being out of their total control. When I use cognitive distancing, I do this by writing what I’m feeling, which provides distance from it. This comes in the form of a small pocket notebook I take everywhere. During the work week, I’ll time block out my workday where I assign a job every hour of the day. This helps me with ADD. What I have is inattentive ADD, not the hyperactivity aspect. So to stay on a task, it helps me to give every hour a job, and typically when I feel the urge or pull of a bad habit or bad attitude, I’ll write down what I was doing, the thoughts that were generated at the moment, and then rate my mood. Usually, it’s enough for me to snap out of it and get back to what I was doing with a clear mindset. Unfortunately, in parenting situations out in public, I don’t have the luxury of stopping an angry outburst by disconnecting from it to grade my mood. So what I try to do is think to myself, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear and bad attitudes.” Sometimes this works. When I snapped at my kids, I let the feeling carry me through, and when we picked up my wife, I wrote it down, instantly, a workaround came up: I apologized and said I was sorry for yelling and would not do it again. The final stage is in my Bedtime Reflection, which Irvine and Robertson get from Seneca. It usually happens when I’m done for the day with work tasks, the kids are in bed, the dishes are done, and various other household chores, and I’m getting ready for bed. I sit down with my journal, and reflect on three things: what I did poorly, what I could do better, and what I did well. The last phrase is critical because if I leave that part out my depression and anxiety will likely manifest at some unseemly hour and wreck my sleep. I’ve found a direct correlation between my ability to use my reasoning ability with how many hours of sleep I get. The same is true for my clients. I’ve worked with them on this reflection exercise with mixed results. It helps to start with the day they are presently in. Asking them to reflect on the weekend doesn’t always work because they focus on what they did well, like going for a walk or grocery shopping with their home staff. Clients are more likely to remember events from that day only. They are pure presence in the current moment, something I wish I was all the time. When I ask them in the present moment, they usually have something to say about their social interactions, which allows us to build social skills, and then develop empathy for others since most of my clients are on the Autistic spectrum. This allows us to work on our Stoic game as it moves into the other cardinal virtues of justice, courage, and wisdom. Discipline and self-control initially attracted me to the philosophy and are still the primary reason I practice the philosophy. But I think what continues to serve me as a person with neurodiversity who practices Stoicism is a strong sense of what I’ve learned due to my work as a teacher and a writer before I came to work in the mental health field. It’s helped me understand that feeling of a cosmos where I’m far from alone—in fact, I work with people like me daily. This helps develop my character, my sense of what’s fair because of my formal education in journalism and fiction writing, and my experiential education in the neurodiverse. Working with people who have a much harder life than me helps me remember that when I get really frustrated or annoyed at my kids, they will never experience that joy and delight in being a parent, or the pure presence required to run errands with your kids. So when I shout at my kids, I know that I’m not alone. There are a billion parents like me in the middle of this pandemic who are struggling to keep their loved ones healthy in mind and body. Parents who are frustrated that things aren’t getting better, that feel like they have to go around wearing a sticker on their chest saying, “Baby on board!” for when they walk into a gas station wearing a mask and they refuse to serve you for wearing that mask. But what does help is if you internalize behavior, actions, and thoughts to appreciate what is in your control—your ability to be a great parent. While it’s tragic that millions of people have died—there is a substantial mental health fallout and an opportunity for Stoic caregivers to help not just ourselves and our families but our communities as well. In fact, I think Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, among many modern Stoics, would say we have to do so. I hope this helped.