Decisions decisions…

In spite of your best efforts, you’ll have to deal with other people who may be shortsighted, irrational or acting in their own self interest. So how do you deal with this? This is something I have to deal with on a daily basis. For example, yesterday my son ran away from home. I realize this is something every parent has to deal with but as ever, conditions vary. In my son’s case, conditions could have made the situation quite critical. My son has autism. He is largely incapable of discerning a threat to his safety; he’s a sitting duck for predation. Worse, he is schizophrenic; the half life of his twice daily medication renders him susceptible to following the dictates of his inner demons who are decidedly irrational. Still worse, due to a medical condition in early childhood that was ignored by physicians until it became critical (we didn’t have health insurance), his IQ and reasoning abilities are permanently impaired. In short, I’m dealing with someone who’s cognitive processing is often irrational, impaired and limited. Although I can’t have the confidence he’ll act in his own best interest, I have to fight my mothering instinct to protect him, to allow him to stretch to his greatest potentiality of independence.

So, I let him run away from home. Part of me said why not? He’s 18, legally an adult. Rather than forcing a confrontation, methodically and dispassionately, I lent him my suitcase. Got his extra pants out of the dryer. Packed his toothbrush and gave him two extra pairs of socks. Made certain he didn’t pack his sony playstation. He wouldn’t take his wallet but got him to take his ID. He wasn’t carrying my phone number which he can never remember but he did have 4 quarters for bus fare and the telephone. I could only hope for the best, we’d been practicing the spelling of my name and the memorization of his social security number. Then I drove him down to the Gospel Mission homeless center, the first leg of his journey to Las Vegas -the latter being the source of his most recent perseveration. I could only hope for the best. All this inspired by his desire to cease taking his medication.

Preparation for his departure necessarily included calls to our health insurance provider. What would be the protocol for when he’d be picked up, presumably irrational, frightened and out of control? We called the hospital in anticipation for his assumed admission, two or three days hence and gave them the heads up. We were given a referral to make an appointment with a local psychiatrist (we’ve only recently moved here). I made mental plans for a reduced workload this week in order to manage the outcome of the impending crisis. My husband and I could only hope the police who’d be called to collect him would be compassionate and aware enough not to place him in a holding cell with predators; my son looks perfectly normal. Being highly verbal, his deficits aren’t evident at first glance. He’s old enough to get into trouble but not mature enough to understand what’s happening to him. My greatest fear was predation. It is well known that autistic people have been beaten to death without having lifted a hand in their own defense.

Back to making decisions when you’re dependent on the actions and behaviors of other people who can be -in a manner of speaking- holding you hostage. How can you negotiate for a win-win situation for everyone? I started re-reading a book that provides useful tools. It’s called Decision Traps: The ten barriers to brilliant decision making and how to overcome them. The authors Russo and Shoemaker, stress the first step is framing. You have to analyze the frame of how you perceive the problem and then, re-frame it in terms of the opposing party. Here are some of the questions you must ask yourself:

* The issue or issues the frame addresses:
* What boundaries do I (we, they) put to the question? In other words, what aspects of the situation do I (we, they) leave out of consideration?
* What yardsticks do I (we, they) use to measure success?
* What reference points do I (we, they) use to measure success?
* Why do I (we, they) think about this question the way I (we, they) do?

In this case, I could sum up the conflict as my son’s desire for independence and self-reliance. How could I resolve this conflict in such a way as to ensure my son’s safety yet encourage his need to be independent? Ultimately, the crisis resolved itself and I can only hope that the way my husband and I managed the conflict contributed. We didn’t fight him, we helped him with the mechanics of the process. We dispassionately discussed the consequences of his cessation of medication and planned for it in advance. Because we didn’t force a heated confrontation, he returned home three hours later. Still, because I’d gone through the frame analysis process, I knew I had to provide a mechanism whereby my son could “save face”. I stressed that this wasn’t something he had to do or decide right now. Perhaps sometime this summer. At the same time, I admitted that I need to find ways I can let go and let him make decisions and mistakes to encourage his burgeoning need for independence. Thus peaceably resolved, he did the dishes and asked for a ride to go visit some friends for a couple of days.

Returning to the frame analysis above, just as important to the process are the limitations of your own thinking. Here are some factors you cannot ignore:

* The power of frames in decision making
* Knowing what you don’t know -how can you know what you don’t know?
* How to systematically gather intelligence
* Why people -including you- fail to learn and what to do about it.
* How to improve feedback
* How to change how you make decisions.

The book is a gem. Here’s to my hope we can all grow through analytical decision making in the new year.

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  1. Camille says:


    that must have been awful. I think you handled it the best way. I can’t imagine what I would have done. I wish I could help you help him.


  2. Diane says:

    Ah, the challenges of parenting. This brought up memories of my daughter running away to South Carolina with several of her friends at the tender age of 15. We laugh about it now but it certainly wasn’t funny on the plane ride home. Lately, she dreams of going to “gatherings” sponsored by her favorite rock group. These events are over a thousand miles away and rather than tell her flatly that she can’t go, (she’s 17) I ask her to do the math. How will she get there? At what cost? If she is depending on her boyfriend for transportation will he bail on her after she’s already bought her ticket? She came to the same conclusion as I, that it wasn’t worth the trip. Now we’re doing the same process with a car purchase. She has her heart set on a used Jeep Cherokee that is no longer manufactured and believes it will be reliable unlike the ’96 Grand Cherokee I have that is on it’s 2nd transmission with 90k on the speedo. She must do her own research!

    I’m not sure how I made the switch from “no, you can’t do that” to “figure it out for yourself”. Maybe my older daughter helped me realize that the younger one will soon be on her own and the control freak in me needed a different approach.

  3. Melissa Brown says:

    Dear Kathleen,
    You have my sympathy. That must have been the most agonizing three hours of your life. I’m so glad that the situation worked out well in the end.

  4. Susan McElroy says:

    Oh, Kathleen, I so feel for you and hope for the best. I have a son who’s now 20 who I had to raise alone. He developed a taste for alcohol and it’s been such an incredible struggle. Finally he’s realizing on his own that showing up for work (which he loves) with a hangover isn’t getting him anywhere, and that his wild friends he used to “hang” with get less cool every day. But the sleepless nights, the fear (even now) when I know he wants to go to Spain to study and I hear about out-of-control drug use in clubs in the big cities…

    Your reaction to his running away was not unlike the way I dealt with my own son, and so far it seems like it was really the only way I could have dealt with such a headstrong, independent minded person. I wish you and your husband all the luck in the world, and you’re in my prayers.

  5. Carol Kimball says:

    One of our nieces, fleeing from an abusive home situation, fetched up with her grandparents and spent much of her waking non-school time with us. She had episodes of acting out, with developmental difficulties that were a pale patch on what’s been posted here.

    We also fought the family hysteria for her right to do what she needed to do, including running away, though she was four years younger, another kind of vulnerability. Once the kids figure out how to manage a bus ticket to Omaha…

    She got through it, is happily married, and her child is named after my husband and his father.

    Whatever happens, Kathleen, you’re doing it right.

  6. Tracy Christian says:

    I’m reading your post while sitting in my office and trying not to cry. Recently my mother moved in with me and she battles major depression and a host of physical ailments. Actually I feel like I battle major depression. I sympathize with finding a way to protect a loved one while allowing them to save face. I pray alot. I cry even more. But mostly I try to find some relief in the fact that I’m here and able bodied. That without me my mother would be on the streets.

    I believe in Jesus Christ. Know that I’ll be praying for you and your son.

  7. LizPf says:

    Wow! this is one of the best “good parent” stories I have ever heard. And I’ve heard quite a few.

    I spend a lot of time on gifted education e-lists,mostly acting as a peer counselor to folks who have no clue what rearing children is all about, much less smart kids. They are reluctant to give their children *any* freedom, so much that parents ask the best way to convince their kid’s university to raise grades. Yup, university. For NT kids.

    I also know about kids with learning disabilities. My 13 year old has PDD-NOS … a mild case, but enough that elementary school was a nightmare. [We moved to a district with incredibly good special education.] Just this summer, I began letting her take the bus/subway in to the big city — alone, even though she doesn’t have the navigational ability of a flea. I was one worried mommy at first! But she studied the routes, borrowed my cell phone, and was fine.

    We have to give our kids the maximum freedom they can handle. At any age, with any set of disabilities. I think you did exactly what was needed for The Boy to both feel freedom and trust in his mom. Which was why he came back in 3 hours.

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