trying to link anxiety and aggression

I had both kids DNA tests done, mostly for curiosity’s sake. But also because I’ve read that kids with FASDs are prone to genetic mutations. One of M’s most interesting mutations, is that he is MAO-A R297R  +/+ and that basically means his body (probably) does not break down catecholamines properly.  Dopamine, adrenaline, and norepinephrine are some catecholamines. We have further evidence that this genetic trait is being expressed because about a year and a half ago, we had his neurotransmitters tested via a urine sample by a naturopath and the levels of catecholamines in his urine were off the charts.

Here’s the thing.  Catecholamines cause the “fight or flight” response.  They activate the amygdala which triggers an emotional response to stress. It is common for kids with FASDs to be nearly always in the “fight or flight” mode.   One of my favorite FASD experts, Ira Chasnoff, describes it this way:

A child exposed to drugs or alcohol prenatally is like a pot of water on a stove at a simmer. The least stimulus will turn the flame under the pot to full heat and the water will boil over. One of the most important things we can do to help manage our children’s behaviours is to find out what causes the flame to erupt and then work to remove or correct that stimulus form the child’s environment.

It could be true that added physical damage caused by prenatal alcohol exposure to the amygdala also contributes to the behaviors we see. This combined with the genetic predisposition of not being able to process catecholamines results in ANXIETY for M. When that anxiety ramps up with a stressful situation or an adverse emotional state, we see aggression (he is almost always in fight mode).

Here’s the problem. I was an anxious kid.  I know some other anxious kids.  Anxiety is within my realm of understanding as a normal childhood behavior.  So before I knew better, what did I react to? Not the anxiety, because it was normal to me, I only reacted to the aggression, and not well. I got angry, yelled and took away privileges.  I wasn’t helping my kiddo deal with his anxiety.  I know now that my tendency to be triggered by his aggression was causing more anxiety and thus worsening the problem.  Like Dr. Chasnoff says, we can’t really control that our kids are erupting.   We can only control the stimulus.  My kiddo may be extra susceptible to these explosions because of the combo of his genes and alcohol exposure and I certainly can’t force him to be less anxious or to be less aggressive. As M’s parent, I can only try and control the environment to reduce his anxiety.  This is not always possible and we’ve had a summer of tremendous amounts of aggression due to situations beyond my control.  I just need to keep reminding myself, this is not an aggressive child.  M is an anxious child, a scared child, a child who needs his mama to support him in his struggle.

Friends and family, who perhaps mean well, have tried to tell us that what he needs is some stricter discipline.  If someone can explain to me how spanking fixes brain damage and alters genetic code, I’d be interested to hear about that.

More info from one of my favorite dads/blogs:



trying to understand perseveration

Last night, I was laying in bed with M2 reading her a story. M stomps up the stairs to her top bunk and angrily crawls over our bodies. I stop reading and ask him, “M, I see that you are angry.  What’s making you angry?  I would like to help.”  He replies, “I am just angry because my orange robot isn’t here yet.”  Ugh, the orange robot.  It is an imagined amazing toy that doesn’t exist anywhere but in the creativity and love for robots in M’s mind. This morning when M woke up, I was in the kitchen making lunches and he plopped himself down on the rug in the hallway watching me through the doorway.  First thing out of his mouth, “Is my orange robot here yet?”

Perseveration is one of the things we struggle with most often at our house these days.

“Perseveration refers to difficulties making transitions, shifting topics or thoughts, or moving on from one emotional state to another. Some people describe it as a tendency to “over-focus” on a subject. Neurologically related to brain damage in the frontal lobes, perseveration is a common characteristic of persons with FASD. Many FASD-affected individuals may “get stuck” (perseverate) so severely that it interferes with learning and staying on-task, or their ability to shift calmly and without prompting among topics and activities. Perseveration makes it difficult for persons with FASD to function appropriately at school, at home, or in the community.”  – FASD Network of Southern California

M perseverates most often on toys (and video games.) And when I say perseverate, I me he gets totally stuck on wanting and getting that toy.  I know that wanting and begging for toys is normal preschool behavior but this is beyond that. This definitely is related to anxiety and it is definitely not in the least about the toy.  He usually doesn’t even want the toy when he gets it, he will move right on to something else to perseverate about.  Right now its an orange robot. I have no idea where the idea of this robot originated. For about two weeks now, it’s his first waking thought.  He will ask about the orange robot over and over again.  “When is the delivery man going to bring my orange robot?” “I wish I had my orange robot right now.” “It’s taking too long for my orange robot to come.”  Mind you, I’ve told him that the orange robot is not coming. If I had said, “maybe” or “we will see,” that makes the persistence that much worse.   He needs very clear guidelines.  Also, at our house the “delivery man” is kind of like Santa Claus, sometimes cool stuff just arrives like magic.  He has no idea that I am doing all of this online shopping behind the scenes. We have been working on curbing perseveration and one of the ways is by consistently responding to his requests in the same way.  Now, if he is perseverating on something that might actually happen, i.e. a trip to the zoo, we try and be specific on the details so that he can relax a little bit.

M is chronically inflexible. He is not easy to distract or derail. In fact this is one of his good qualities as well, he tends to be very steadfast in all things. For now, I cannot expect him to stop talking about the orange robot.  In time it will probably be replaced by some other thought or desire. I try not to give in, but sometimes all I can do to get him to get unstuck is to give in. It’s a delicate balance.