Sally Clarkson: People don’t want you to have a different child. And so, I felt the hardest thing for me was no one understood, no one answered my questions. I didn’t feel like I had a lot of help because when I would communicate this to friends or people, they thought they’re being nice by saying, “Oh, no, he’s great!”
And I would think, “I know he’s great. But (chuckle) he has these issues and I wish somebody could help me understand.
End of Excerpt
John Fuller: Sally Clarkson joins us today on “Focus on the Family” and your host is Focus president and author, Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, today we’re gonna talk with Sally and her son, Nathan about how to raise a child who may see and process the world a little differently from you and maybe from your other kids. Feeling different and raising kids that never fit the mold is something our culture, especially our Christian culture, doesn’t talk much about and it’s important for us to do that.
It’s isolating when you feel that the formulas that are working for everyone else aren’t working for you and your child and I’ve had that feeling, ‘cause sometimes, you know, one of my boys sometimes doesn’t always fit the mold. So, today we want to give you hope, give all of us hope, regardless of how accepted you are by others, that the Lord will accept you if you’re not in His family yet, and for those of us who are, there’s His grace to get through this life day by day. And that’s what we’re gonna concentrate on.
John: And you can find out more about God’s acceptance for you and your kids when you stop by www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or give us a call. Our number is 800-A-FAMILY.
And Sally is an author and speaker. And her son, Nathan is a writer, actor and artist. He lives in Los Angeles and New York City and together, they’ve written a book about their story called Different.
Jim: Sally and Nathan, welcome to “Focus.”
Mr. Nathan Clarkson: Hey, thanks, man.
Sally: Thanks so much. Great to be here.
Jim: Okay, so let’s start with the basic question. This is the basic, basic question. When a little kid of yours is in the grocery checkout aisle, whining for that candy bar and you’re so embarrassed, that’s usually when the parent first realizes, uh-oh, this is not a good day, right? When your kid is just losing it. Most children have that, but some kids struggle in that area a lot longer and a lot more severely. Is that fair, Sally?
Sally: Yeah, I had already had two children and was pretty convinced I was a great parent. (Laughing) And then I had Nathan. And from the moment he came home, he was different than the other two. He didn’t comfort. He had a hard time settling down, and I remember, even when he was 18-months old, he would just go ballistic when I would tie the cute little red tennis shoes onto his feet and I couldn’t figure it out. What was wrong with the tennis shoes?
Jim: Something was wrong, huh?
Sally: Yeah. (Laughing)
Jim: You know, Nathan’s right next to you right now.
Sally: Yeah (Laughter), I know right. (Laughter)
Jim: Just wanted to remind you. (Laughter)
Sally: Well …
Jim: No, but I love it. We’re gonna get your part of the story.
Jim: But yeah, that’s an observant parent and I can relate to that, some of the behavior I’ve seen in one of my sons and it just caught my attention. He hated to be—
Jim: –shampooed, his hair. (Laughter) Anything gel or shampoo kind of substance—
Jim: –it would just set him off. And it took me about three years to figure that out–
Sally: Oh, you—
Jim: –because I didn’t know.
Sally: –were smart. It took me about 15. (Laughter)
Jim: Well, it doesn’t cure it, but … (Laughter)
Sally: And I noticed in retrospect. I learned a lot when I look back and think, “Oh, that’s what that meant.”
Jim: Well, and that was some of what’s happening. And really, it’s a good tip for the observant parent. You can begin to notice some things that aren’t – I hate to use that word even “normal,” but they’re just not typical.
Jim: Let’s use that word.
Jim: Nathan, you were the kid. So, I mean, I’m sure those early memories, you don’t have from about 3 and earlier. But once you were hitting memory time, 3-, 4-, 5-years-old, you remember having those fits and thinking, why am I doing this? Or did it not strike you as odd?
Nathan: It felt like very normal behavior in my mind, but I can remember looking back and seeing myself in the context of other kids in classes and Sunday school and I would constantly feel like, why am I getting in trouble? Why do I feel the need? I always have a need to talk back, to talk, to ask questions, to move, to wiggle, to play with my friends. And they didn’t feel like bad things, but I found myself consistently getting in trouble. And so, I began to notice a stark difference between me the so-called “good” kids.”
Jim: What did that do for your self-esteem and self-worth? Did you feel less than them? Or did you … were you just puzzled? I would think it would begin to wear on you that I’m not like them.
Nathan: Yeah, it creates a … it starts to create a kind of division between, there’s you and then there’s the rest of the “normal” world. And you know, it’s quote unquote, but yeah, from a very early age, when you start recognizing these things, it can make you feel very alone. Being different can make you feel ostracized and very isolated.
Jim: But take us back. There was a specific story at 3, too. Was that—
Sally: Well, I remember.
Jim: –with Nathan that …
Sally: There was a time, you know, I really, I’m a very involved parent. I love my kids. I affirm them and we had been on a plane trip, if this is what you’re talking about. (Chuckle) And we were moving. We moved a lot for different ministry options and we had gone from California, stopped in Albuquerque to see my parents for about three or four hours. Went all the way to Dallas. At this point, it’d been a 17-hour trip.
Jim: And how many kids do you have and what number is Nathan?
Sally: Nathan is 3. I have four now. I mean I eventually had another one that Nathan prayed for. But I had three children and so, it was a constant me taking the Nathan time, jiggling him and Clay taking him. And then trying to feed him, trying to give him toys, trying to … and by the time 17 hours had passed and Clay had said—Clay, my husband—said, “Let’s go to this restaurant.
I thought surely food will help, but we got into the restaurant and Nathan, the way that he expressed himself by saying, “This is too much,” you know, was to lay on the floor and kick and scream and throw a chicken bone at me.
Nathan: I have a good arm, too.
Jim: Yeah, okay, go ahead. I have a couple of questions about this, but go ahead.
Sally: So, I had hit my limit. I remember there … I just thought if I just keep walking with the Lord, if I just keep trying hard I will reach his heart. But at this point, I remember thinking, “I don’t know if I’m gonna make it and I don’t know what to do, but I do need a break.” And so, I left him. The other two kids are sitting up straight, trying to be really good.
Sally: And Clay had …
John: And you left him on the floor?
Sally: I did. (Laughing) And I walked over to this little counter that had all these cakes and I pretended that I didn’t know him. I was just trying to get my breath and this man said to me, “That boy needs a strong hand.” And I said, “He certainly does, you know.” (Laughter) I was just at that point.
Jim: Clay wasn’t there, your husband.
Sally: He was over in the corner trying to pick Nathan up off the floor.
Jim: Okay, so you left Clay out there by himself. (Laughter)
Sally: I did. I’d never done that before, but I thought, I think I might burst a gasket.
Jim: No, that’s true. In that … that’s important. There is so much to unpack in that moment that relates to every one of us.
Jim: I’m sure every listener who has a child, who has raised a child, has gone through something similar. And just that, in and of itself, is not outside of the bounds of normal. Every kid is gonna have a crash. But what you said is really interesting. I want to get back to it, that he, Nathan, was trying to communicate something to you.
Jim: When he was feeling overwhelmed, he would throw a fit.
Jim: So, he’s tryin’ to say somethin’ to you, which is “Get me out of here.” Speak to the people who are saying, “No, what that kids needs is that strong hand, that discipline. He needs a whoopin’. He needs …”
Jim: I mean, maybe sometimes, maybe, but it’s gonna be rare–
Jim: –when he’s defiant, but in that case, he’s tryin’ to say to you, “Help me.”
Sally: Yeah and I learned that over a period of time. As I was writing the book with Nathan, I realized that I was him when I was a little girl and I had been taught to suppress and I had been taught to be good and I always felt a little bit guilty that I was too much for people.
So, when I had these issues with Nathan, I began to pray, “God, help me to see what’s inside his heart. What’s going on?” And it was a very long process of learning, but I realized that there was not gonna be a magic bullet, no magic formula that was going to help him. I even was praying about it one day and I feel like the Lord said, “This is gonna be a long-distance run. Let Me carry him and you just live by faith and do what you can, but you need to love him for who he is, not for what he’s not.”
Jim: Yeah and that’s really important for parents to hear, because I think all that self-incrimination begins.
Sally: Yes, yeah.
Jim: What have I done wrong? Did I drop him or her—
Jim: –when he was really small? Did I not (Laughter) change?
Sally: I’m sorry, Nathan.
Jim: This is actually an intervention for your mom. (Laughter)
John: The big reveal just happened. (Laughter)
Jim: You shouldn’t have dropped him on his head. Man! No, but you know, that’s where we go. It’s probably a good place to start, but we don’t want parents to linger there long, because there’s so much at risk and at work that the Lord is doing things. Nathan, again, I’m coming back to you.
Jim: Because this is how you are wired, so I’d like you to describe what that diagnosis was and what it felt like as you began to articulate and understand a little bit more about your defiance, your tactile issues—
Nathan: Yeah, absolutely.
Jim: –all those things. Just describe it for us.
Nathan: Yeah, absolutely. From the time I was very little, I can look back like I said and realize, oh, I do things differently than other people. Some of them were behavioral. I’d get in trouble. Some of them were the inability to test well. I could not focus on things. I could not read for longer than 15 minutes. Other times, there’s times in high school when I would take maybe 10 to 15 showers a day and wash my hands until they bled.
So, it became very apparent that this is not typical behavior. This is not what everyone else does. And again, that can make you feel very alone. So, it was at that point, probably early high school, I think, 14- or 15-years-old, we decided to go and we’ll see what this is.
And luckily I’d been loved and supported through my life up until then. I was not disciplined for being different. And as mom said, these weren’t coming from an antagonistic point of view. I wasn’t trying to be bad, but these are just parts of who I was and how I thought and how my mind is wired.
But when we finally did get diagnosed, all these different things, it was OCD, ADHD, ADD, ODD…
Jim: But well, now ODD, most people won’t know ODD. Describe that.
Nathan: Yeah, it’s (Laughing). It’s called—
Jim: Most teenagers, I think are (Laughing) …
Sally: I do, too.
Nathan: Yeah, because I think–
Sally: I think it’s true, so …
Nathan: –every teenager has ODD.
Sally: You know, I have a local boy or something.
Jim: Yeah, what is ODD?
Nathan: It stands for Oppositional Defiance Disorder and I think … I don’t know if that’s a disorder. I think it’s a strength to be trained and luckily, I think people want to call it “disorder,” ‘cause they want kids to shut up and not bother them, talk back.
Jim: Boy, that is a great point.
Nathan: But I think I was diagnosed, ‘cause I always want to talk back. I always want to give my opinion. That’s part of who I am. It’s not necessarily something to squelch or get rid of, but it’s something to train and be used for good. But yeah, so I had all this list of [disorders].
John: So, go back to the beginning of them.
John: You went fast, so OCD is …
Nathan: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. And it has such a stigma in TV shows and movies. It’s really hard to describe, but essentially, it’s just the inability to control your thoughts. Your thoughts run your mind as opposed to vice versa.
Sally: Repetitive thoughts.
Nathan: Yeah, repetitive thoughts, unwanted thoughts. So, it can be very distressing, especially for a young kid to a teenager. And even now it’s something I deal with. But, and then ODD is Oppositional Defiance Disorder. ADHD I think we’re pretty familiar with this one, is even to this day, I make myself … I have a hard time reading more than 15 minutes at a time. My counselor said it’s like a channel changing constantly in your head. So, it’s just less control of your mind again. And then I have dyslexia and then a host of learning disabilities. Just basic things I can’t grasp. But through these, it’s interesting. They always [put] a “disorder” on the end of them.
Nathan: And I’m really lucky to have grown up in a house that didn’t look at me as a person who’s inherently disordered. They looked at me as a person who’s inherently designed and maybe these things that can cause trouble and that are hard actually can be used for good if they’re—
Nathan: –they’re trained and dealt with and not seen as just bad.
Jim: Right. And it’s important for us to understand how we can get that parental perspective to say, okay, this … this child is unique.
Jim: They think differently. They have different challenges. How did you do that as a parent, once you received the diagnosis with Nathan?
Sally: Well …
Jim: Did you change some things?
Sally: No, I … you know, the thing is, we had four children at home and we needed him to learn how to gently, little by little begin to submit to the family culture. But my husband and I many years ago, he wrote a book called Heartfelt Discipline, which is basically about really studying children’s hearts and cultivating them according to their passions and what they are and what they do.
And so, we had a real verbal environment. So, Nathan loves to talk, so we would ask questions at the dinner table and give him things to think about. He loved stories. I would try to find one or two things that he was good at. And he fell in love with Superman at 7-years-old. And so, I would just sit him next to me and read hero tales and say, “You’re gonna be a hero someday. And you have a story in God’s kingdom to tell and I wonder what you’re gonna do. You’re gonna accomplish something great because you’re Nathan.”
You should show them the wonderful picture … somebody sent him a Superman, yesterday it said, “Nathanman.”
Nathan: Jonathan’s mom sent I think a 12-year-old, creative kid wrote this entire letter after reading the book. He deals with some of these issues, too and drew this entire picture. You know, Superman was my favorite super hero, of me as Superman. It has a big “N” on the chest. It was great.
Sally: But I feel like our whole parenting philosophy, people criticized us all the time, said our children were gonna go to jail because we were, you know, so nurturing (Laughing). I was kinda raised—
Nathan: It’s still early.
Sally: Still raising my children during the years when we were highly criticized for discipling them according to their heart, means training little by little and really, all of our kids are so different and yet, we would really appeal to them according to the things that they individually loved. [We] would give them steps forward and I never expected Nathan to do exactly what the other kids did, but I did expect him to move forward little by little in area of character and in honoring us. And that was a real pathway, a long pathway.
Jim: Oh, without a doubt. I want to come back to that, because that is a critical point. I want to let people know who they’re listening to. This is “Focus on the Family” and today our guests are Sally Clarkson and Sally’s son, Nathan Clarkson. And they’ve written a book together called Different: The Story of an Outside-the-Box Kid and the Mom Who Loved Him. I think that subtitle says it all.
Nathan: (Softly) That’s true.
Jim: But let me come back to that, because family and extended family and friends and I would say, you know, our church friends can be very brutal in that kind of moment and give us advice that is coming I think somewhat out of their own frustration.
Jim: You know, if I was parenting that kid, I would do a much better job and all you need to know, Sally, is you do this, this and this…
Jim: –and Nathan would be whipped into shape. You must be a pathetic mom.
Jim: I mean, that’s what they say without saying it.
Sally: Well, and if you only did this more or this more.
Sally: And my heart goes out to people who are listening to this story today, because I think that what happens is, when you live in your own home with the differences and you know they’re different—
Sally: –at least most of the time. Sometimes people haven’t attended to their children enough and they’re acting out because they just need more love. But you know they’re different and yet, people don’t want you to have a different child.
And so, I felt the hardest thing for me was no one understood. No one answered my questions. I didn’t feel like I had a lot of help, because when I would communicate this to friends or people, they thought they were being nice by saying, “Oh, no, he’s great.” And I would think, “I know, I know he’s great, but (Chuckling) he has these issues and I wish somebody could help me understand.”
Jim: Nathan, let me ask you this. When were you cognizant again of that difference and how did that play into your emotional well-being and your spiritual well-being? You know, that you were different. You had these labels at least running through your mind–
Jim: –of ODD and ADHD and now I know where I’m deficient.
Nathan: Uh-hm, Sure.
Jim: But how did that make you feel as a 15-, 16-, 17-year-old? And how did you cope with that? What did you do to … did you want to help your mom and dad? Or did you want to frustrate them? Or the answer’s yes to both questions?
Nathan: Sure, absolutely.
Jim: But what was that like being that young man and how did you begin … I mean, you are an articulate guy. How old are you now?
Nathan: I’m 28.
Jim: So, you have had some years, adult years of managing this and better understanding it, but you seem to be in a great place–
Jim: –today. So, take us over the last 10 years or so. How did it go?
Nathan: Yeah, it’s been … Man, 10 years is quite a journey to have a … do we have a few hours? But no, … going back to being 15, 16, dealing with these issues, that’s already a hard time even if you’re not dealing—
Jim: Oh, right.
Nathan: –with all these labels and disorders. So, it created in me a lot of angst and I guess, I love people and connecting with people, so it created a lot of division, too, because I didn’t feel like other people. I didn’t fit in, in the places I really desired to and wanted to.
But I think what I was lucky enough to have was a family and a home system in which I wasn’t forced into a box. ‘Cause I think the world oftentimes, especially at that age in um … the public school system, wants to fit you into a box, if you learn like this, you act like this. And I was lucky that no matter what other system I was trying to fit into, I could always come home and I would find a place in which I wasn’t asked to be anybody but myself.
And like she just talked about, that doesn’t mean I can just do whatever I want. It means that I had a unique puzzle piece that was that was meant to fit within the context of my family, of my church and I had to figure out how this unique puzzle piece fits with everyone else and whatever else was a unique puzzle piece.
And I will say this … we talked a lot about the different kids. I really believe every kid is different in some way or another. My differences are louder and more noticeable and easier to quantify, I think. But I think every kid is different in some ways or another. And I think that’s an okay thing. It can be scary, ‘cause we like, as humans, to quantify and put in boxes and control things. But yeah, I believe that everyone’s different in some way or another.
Jim: Yeah, I’m thinking of that parent listening right now, who has that different child and it is tangible. As the son who was that different child, what advice would you give to that mom or dad who now is beginning to notice my 7-year-old, my 8-year-old is saying things or acting in a way that seems destructive? What would say to mom and dad as that child now grown up, a young man, what would you say to mom and dad?
Nathan: Hm … there’s a lot I would want to say and that’s why I wrote the book with mom. But I would say first, understand that when God creates people, He is not a cookie cutter God. He creates nature and this entire universe in a very unique way. So, don’t expect your child to fit into a box of what culture expects, of what people at school expect, and what church expects, and their friends, their family. That God has made this child uniquely. And He’s given this child to you, to deal with his unique story and that it’s okay if they don’t fit the mold of what [the] entire society says they should.
And these things that are different about them can ultimately be the things that will be great about them, that will enable them to tell a great story with their lives. And so, if you encourage these different things, and train them, and hone them. That can be the very thing that will ultimately let this child who’s having so much trouble live a really successful and healthy life.
Jim: Let me ask both of you what discipline worked for you, Nathan? I mean, with the elements that you had – OCD and ODD and what were the approaches that your mom and dad used that seemed to resonate with you, and what didn’t?
Nathan: Yeah. One, I would say that the very base of it, is that they never saw the cookie cutter thing, that they would always do the same thing. They took every situation as an individual situation and sought God in it and talked to me.
So, it was never just a, “If you do this, it’s always gonna be this.” It’s, “Let’s talk about this entire situation, the context.” And then they always, whenever they did discipline in any way, it was always very clearly understood. It was never in reaction. It wasn’t a smack across the face. It was a, “Let’s talk about this,” ‘cause you to understand what’s going on and why this is not acceptable, why this is acceptable or how to use this better, how we can do this better next time.
Sally: And we used a lot of stories. I told Nathan, he was a wild stallion and I said that the wild stallion didn’t win the race until he learned to accept the reins. And I said, and we’re here to help you learn how to accept the boundaries of our discipline so that you can win the race.
Nathan: I like boundaries as a really good thing that we do.
Sally: We would little by little, set boundaries and we knew that it might take him longer to learn a situation. But poor little him, he would always be taken away from when he did a situation. Let’s talk about this or what was going on? As well as the fact that he needed grace a lot of times.
Jim: Sally, I’m mindful of that parent whose 28 year old has not kind of found their way yet. That’s gonna happen, too—
Jim: –maybe 38.
Jim: [It] could be 48, I don’t know. (Laughter) But it’s – you know – it’s just not happening. What hope do they have and what can they do?
Sally: You know, I think each of us has a different puzzle and we’re just asked to be. I think our spiritual service of worship is really to trust God with your puzzle regardless of what it is.
Sally: And I feel like I have four adult kids and it’s just as demanding now (Chuckling) as it was when they were little. And they’re all at different points of maturity. But I do think that I would say, don’t carry guilt, that your children also need to make choices. And they might have difficulties forever. There might be a prodigal. But I think that our kids flourish better if we decide to be happy parents. I know that may seem funny, but I realized that if every time I saw my child I was communicating guilt or commands or expectations, that there wouldn’t be any freedom there.
Jim: Or joy.
Sally: Or joy. And we had to learn, I had to learn, over a period of time to put my children in the file drawer of heaven, close the drawer and say (Laughter), “I don’t know what’s happening, but God is good and I’m gonna love my child and I’m gonna trust God that in His time.” Because I don’t think any parent doesn’t have a lot of disappointments or difficulties.
Sally: And I realized that I needed to be in control of me, not allow my children’s circumstances to determine how I felt.
Jim: That’s exactly the point I was gonna make, that marriage and parenting are very similar.
Jim: The part you can actually achieve is working on yourself–
Jim: –as the spouse or as the parent.
Sally: Living with that burden of guilt.
Jim: And then—
Jim: –bearing the burden of that family member—
Jim: –in such a way that it helps them and I think that is beautiful. Nathan and Sally. Thank you for that transparency. I mean, it’s hard to write a book like this, a beautiful book–
Sally: Well, it’s his idea.
Jim: –[titled] Different and then (Laughter) to talk about it publicly. I mean, those are things can be a little uncomfortable—
Jim: –but I’m so proud of your courage.
Nathan: Well, thank you.
Sally: I’m proud of him.
Jim: People will be helped and you know, Nathan, the truth of it is, a lot of parents are gonna be helped and because of that, a lot of young people will be helped, especially in their relationship with Christ.
Nathan: That’s our hope.
Jim: And that is a beautiful thing to do.
John: And if you’re feeling that, as Sally expressed earlier, you don’t have anybody to talk to, please give us a call here at Focus on the Family. We have caring Christian counselors and they’d be happy to just give you some guidance and get some talking points going for you and your family to think through some of these things.
Our number is 800-A-FAMILY and of course, when you get in touch, ask about the book that Sally and Nathan have written called Different. We’ve got that and a CD or a download of our conversation, as well. You can also find help at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
And when you get in touch, please consider making a generous financial contribution to our work here. Last year alone we helped more than 200,000 parents successfully work through a crisis involving one of their children. And we’re only able to do that because of your partnership.
Today, make that donation of any amount and we’ll send a copy of Different as our way of saying thank you for making that kind of ministry possible.
Jim: Sally and Nathan, the one thing we didn’t get to, but people need to get the book, you used that acronym LAUNCH to remind yourselves how to deal with a parent-child relationship. We’re not gonna have time to cover it, but I love elements of it. Get the book and it’s covered in there, Loving him, is the L of LAUNCH, affirming him daily, him or her, if you have a daughter. Understanding his limitations, never passing guilt on to them. That’s so important. That’s where I struggle. I mean, I can go there so quickly as a parent. “You know the right thing to do.”
Jim: “Why not do it?” Uh … (Laughter) You love that one, don’t you?
Sally: Making assumptions about their motives. (Laughter)
Jim: I heard Nathan chuckle at that one.
John: Yeah, visible reaction to that one, yeah.
Jim: Changing his heart gradually through training character and inner strength, wow, that is good. And then finally the H of LAUNCH, holding expectations loosely and leaving him in the hands of God. Those are wonderful elements and they’re in the book and I’m lookin’ forward to reading this with Jean. Thank you for being with us.
Nathan: Thanks so much.
Sally: Thanks so much. It’s such an honor to be here.
John: And thank you for listening. Once again, the website, www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Well, join us next time…you’ll hear about nine options you can consider if you’ve ever felt like this.
Dr. Daniel Nehrbass: I’ve been trying to make a change in a certain relationship, whether it’s with a coworker or a child or a spouse, and they – what they’ve been trying to do for years hasn’t worked. And now they feel trapped and don’t know what to do.
End of Excerpt