Ripped Up Napkins: Winning the Battle of Wills

I watch as he takes napkins from a nearby table, throws them on the floor of the waiting area, and rips them into pieces. 

“Pick them up!” I hiss to him quietly while giving him the look. 

“No!” he yells back, simultaneously ripping up the napkins into smaller pieces.

People walk by and look at him, look at me, look at the mess on the floor, then glance away quickly. A sense of urgency wells up inside of me. Do I look like a bad mom right now? I cannot control what he’s doing. I need to get this situation under control, but winning the battle of wills when you’re talking to someone as stubborn as you doesn’t really work.

“You know you’re going to need to pick those up before we can leave here,” I try again. “Even when the car is ready, we’re not leaving until you clean up after yourself.” 

“No!” he says again, then slings at some magazines, making them topple to the floor. 

Ripped Up Napkins: Winning the Battle of Wills

I take a deep breath. More people walk by. Some of them are the same people, some not, but I can feel the judgment. In the same moment, I remember that it doesn’t really matter what they think. It’s not about winning the battle of wills, really. He has autism and he’s not handling the unexpected hiccup of his tablet breaking very well. When he couldn’t get it to work, I observed tiny cracks in the screen and prayed that my eyes had played tricks on me, but they hadn’t and the screen truly had been rendered useless. He’s angry. He doesn’t get that I cannot just produce another tablet. Or he does get it and he’s angry about that too. I had tried putting cartoons on the television, but he showed no interest after about 10 seconds. 

I look squarely in his face and I tell him again that we cannot leave this place–he cannot leave this place–until the mess gets picked up. I tell him I know he’s frustrated, but he cannot make a mess and not clean it up. I say that I will not let him leave without picking it up, so he can either pick it up or when it comes time for us to leave, he’s not leaving.

He looks back at me, then looks down, and then starts picking up all the tattered pieces of napkin. I know he’ll need help with the trashcan in the room. It’s one of those that you push down on with your foot, but has long lost that function. I open up the trashcan lid, and he puts all the napkins in. 

“There!” he puffs, crossing his arms over his chest, mimicking his little brother’s typical actions after doing something he doesn’t want to do. 

“Great! Good job!” I tell him. “Now, let’s pick up those magazines!” 

“No!” he whines. 

I remind him about needing to pick up before we can leave. 

“I’ll only do it one time,” he whines, copying another classic line from his little brother. 

He picks up one handful of magazines and slings them onto the table. They fly off the other side. 

“Oh no!” I say. “Now you’ve got to pick them up again!” 

Eventually everything gets picked up off of the floor. He comes to me, puts his arms around my neck, and gives me a kiss on the cheek. 

“Let’s turn this around,” he says. He says that line often when he wants to make things better so he can earn his prize at the end of the day. His teacher taught him about “turning it around” and he’s copied that line ever since. I recognize that he wants to do better, and I love that about him. 

The rest of our wait goes much more smoothly. I turn on a better cartoon, and he watches it off and on. When it’s finally time to go, he puts his sandals back on without a fight.

“Oh! There are some magazines over here on the floor. Can you pick those up, please?” I ask him.

“Yes ma’am!” he says dutifully. 

A lady in the waiting room smiles at me. He had been all over the place in that room. His shoes stayed off of his feet because I knew fighting that battle wasn’t worth it. He made noises while waiting television. But, because I could recognize that I needed to keep my tone even and my words few, he had turned it around. It didn’t matter to me that he moved around and made noises as long as he respected the space of others, and he did a great job after our initial encounter. He rewarded me by showing me respect and showing others that he’s truly a good kid.

[ctt title=”The moments I win the battle of wills are not because I fought harder, but because I slowed down and thought harder.” tweet=”I the battle not b/c I fought harder, but b/c I slowed down & thought harder ” coverup=”eg1iQ”]

I try to remember these moments in times of desperation. The moments that I win the battle of wills not because I fought harder, but because I slowed down and thought harder. In the end, it’s worth it to remember he needs me to stay calm and consistent. This lesson applies to any child, but especially for mine, who reacts strongly to negative feedback. I win when I make sure we both win. That’s why I get so many hugs and kisses during the day. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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  1. This is such a great post, and not just for those who have children with Autism, this advices goes out to all parents. I love how he says let’s turn this around, what a smart little boy, just gorgeous! Thanks for linking up with

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience–applicable to any parent, as you said. We’re all fighting the same war with those little people in our lives, just enduring different battles. Funny enough, it calls to mind an episode of Daniel Tiger (I have toddlers in my life, can you tell?!); Daniel gets angry and his mother suggests to him, “When you feel so mad that you wanna roar, take a deep breath–and count to four. One…two…three…four.” Truth: I’ve repeated that little ditty in my head many, many times since I first heard it 🙂

  3. excellent post for anyone with kids, often stopping, slowing down…I sometimes forget myself and so glad my son reminds me.