HELP: My Autistic Teen Keeps Picking Fights with Me
I have a 13-year-old son with autism and have been trying to learn how to work with him, to understand him, and I just don’t get it. When I’m at home, he just wants to pick a fight with me, and then when I walk away from him, he wants to follow me. Please help!—Troy
I am so glad you’re working hard to understand your son and connect with him. Some of what you’re experiencing can be very common when raising a teenager. Teens go through a lot of changes, both physically and emotionally, and sometimes that can create tension in the home. Power struggles, issues with authority, and acting out, can all be part of puberty for teen boys. On top of that, your son has autism and likely struggles to communicate! Tough stuff! Here are some things to consider:
Why is he picking a fight?
Try to notice patterns or trends. Does it seem that when you come home that signals an unpleasant change for him (i.e. no more video games)? When you come home, does it mean he’s so excited to see you and just craves your attention? Is it that demands are placed on him when you get home (i.e. set the table, take a shower, do the dishes)? Something about you being home is triggering behaviors and we want to understand why. Seek to uncover what it is about you coming home that may be creating this strain.
Create new patterns.
Try making new traditions or rituals you can do together to make your time at home more enjoyable. Find common ground to help you bond and connect. For example: every Friday you two can go out for your favorite dinner or dessert. Or maybe every night you can work on a project together, like building a remote control car or completing a giant jigsaw puzzle. Sharing in a preferred activity together will not only help alleviate the tension between you two, but will also help build and strengthen your relationship.
Promote togetherness AND alone time.
Help your son communicate when he wants your attention and when he wants to be alone. There is a healthy balance of both relationship and solitude that each of us requires. It’s possible that the reason he’s picking fights and then following you around is because he wants your attention, but doesn’t know a better way to get it. So you’ll have to teach him that when he wants you to be present and engaged with him, he needs to tell you in a better way. You can prompt him to say things like “Dad, I want to talk,” or “Dad, let’s spend time together.” Let your togetherness be a time where you are fully present and tuned in. Trust me, kids know when you’re physically there but mentally elsewhere! Teach him also that sometimes people like to be alone (including you!) and that he can ask for that, too.
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Model alone time.
It’s important for your son to understand that sometimes people do not want to be followed and they just need some alone time. You can show him how to appropriately get alone time by saying things like, “I just got home from work and am feeling tired. I need some alone time right now. At 5:30 pm I will come hang out with you.” Set specific time boundaries so he knows what to expect. If he cannot read a clock, consider setting a timer. You can say things like “I need alone time. I will set the timer and when it goes off you can come get me.” Prompt him to ask for alone time when you can tell he’s agitated or annoyed with you. You can say, “It looks like you’re frustrated. Do you need to be alone for a minute?”
There are so many great uses for social stories, including how to handle conflict. You can write a story for your son about better ways to express his anger, frustration, etc. than fighting with you. You can write about your perspective when he picks fights with you, how it makes you feel, how it makes him feel, and a better way to communicate his feelings. Below are some examples. Make sure to tailor the story to your son and make it at his level.
I hope these ideas help. Keep up the good work in trying to understand your son and his needs!
Angelina M. works as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, specializing in assessing and treating children and adolescents with autism, down-syndrome, and other developmental delays. She began her career in Applied Behavior Analysis in 2006, following her youngest brother’s autism diagnosis, and has since worked with dozens of children and families. She also writes a blog about her experiences as both a professional and a big sister. Her brother, Dylan, remains her most powerful inspiration for helping others who face similar challenges. Learn more about Angelina and her blog, The Autism Onion, at www.theautismonion.com or www.facebook.com/theautismonion.
This article was featured in Issue 62 – Motherhood: An Enduring Love