Embracing His Inner Dennis the Menace

Half a year after we shared his FASD diagnosis with T, it has clicked with him.

On a recent morning, T wanted to play with one of our two cats, which is often a hit or miss event.

T stayed gentle and our cat finally went up to T to smell his hand then let T pet him.

T was thrilled. We praised him for being calm and gentle. Then T said, “I’m never calm and gentle, because my mom drank alcohol when I was a baby.”

That comment blew my mind, because it came out of nowhere.

We had told T about his FASD diagnosis last December and this was the first time he has brought it up with me. The hubby later told me T had brought it up with him a few days prior.

I was thrilled by this, because it’s a huge step in helping T piece together why things in his days happen the way that they do.

I reminded T his mother stopped drinking when she learned she was pregnant, because she would not do anything to harm him.

The hubby and I reminded T that while his disability is a reason for why he behaves the way he does, it’s not an excuse he can fall back on and that we have to work together to turn it into a superpower – and reminded him of the many gains he made by the end of Grade 2.

In the last year, T has embodied Dennis the Menace for better or for worse.

Dennis the Menace is a famous cartoon character created in the 1950s by Hank Ketchum, inspired by his son Dennis.

I remember watching this cartoon – see above – and amused by this boy who was mischievous, driving his parents and neighbours crazy, yet a good soul at his core.

So it was a pleasant surprise when I learned at an adoption workshop, prior to when T entered our lives, that Dennis was inspired by a real life boy who had an invisible disability, likely FASD.

I mused about this connection in a March 2020 post and it continues to be one of my most-read posts; it’s the first result when you search for “FASD Dennis the Menace” as I bet other caregivers are as intrigued by this story as I am.

I often use Dennis the Menace to explain to those unfamiliar with raising a child with FASD, because it succinctly paints a picture of a child who is endlessly energetic, inadvertently getting into mischief, and has a gift of driving his parents up the wall but still endears himself into their hearts.

I’ve never watched the 1993 live action film but my goodness does this kid ever remind me of T.

Like Dennis the Menace, there are many moments when T can be so challenging – like having a full blown meltdown at the park yesterday, because I refused to play with him after he kept speaking quite rudely to me.

But like Dennis the Menace, which my mom has referred to him on occasion as over the years, there is something about T that is inherently lovable that you want to root for him, no matter how much he’s pissing you off.

I remind myself it’s a disability – his behaviours are symptoms of a brain injury – and while it’s not an excuse, it’s a reason to try our best to stay patient and that T is good at his core.

Last Friday night, T and I went for a bike ride after dinner. T stopped his bike and hopped off when he came across a beautiful neighbourhood cat.

They were instantly smitten with each other and I let T enjoy this bonding moment with the cat, while three neighbours watched over them.

“I think you’re gonna need to get him another cat,” one of the neighbors said.

“And I think you’re out of your damn mind,” I wanted to say. But I didn’t. I just smiled and enjoyed this calm and gentle moment.

26 thoughts on “Embracing His Inner Dennis the Menace

  1. I was always told that if you find a man that treats animals kindly he will be too. You two have changed T’s life by showing him about nature and animals. Awesome job!

    1. Thanks Diane. T is very hyper and excited around animals and the dynamic is often tense. But when he can be calm around them, it really does bring out his best and who he is at his core.

  2. Kids understand a lot more than we give them credit for. It’s great that you are so open and honest with T about his diagnosis and about how it can help explain certain behaviours and mannerisms, but it shouldn’t be used as an excuse. I used to love the Dennis the Menace movie when I was younger. I had no idea that Dennis was based on a real kid who had an invisible disability. That video of T petting that cat is very adorable.

    1. Thanks Linda and greetings from the bus stop! 😆 you’re keeping me company on my commute to work.

      Yes, “The Menace” came as an inspiration to the cartoonist, supposedly, during a moment when the real Dennis was driving his mother bonkers and she stormed into the husband’s home office screaming that their son was such a menace. 😆

      Self awareness is definitely important and it’s a first step in helping T understand and funnel his disability into a strength.

      Enjoy the rest of your week. Almost Killarney time!

      1. Have a wonderful time in Killarney! Hopefully the weather will be nice and the bugs won’t be too aggressive. And hopefully T doesn’t have any Dennis the Menace moments.

  3. “…there is something about T that is inherently lovable that you want to root for him, no matter how much he’s pissing you off.” And I believe T should also feel this way about himself too, because the world out there can be so tough and people judgmental. I think feeling good about yourself, while correcting your wrongdoings along the way, is important to give a positive impact to people around you. The video of T gently playing with the cat is so adorable!

    1. Thanks Bama. Agree with you about the importance of self esteem, self worth and good internal self talk. I hope we are helping him in that direction too, because as you said, this world can be tough and judgmental indeed, especially as he gets older.

  4. Oh, this is so incredibly beautifully written. I love the way you’ve wrapped it from beginning to end.

    And of course, the story you are helping T to understand, to write, and to live – absolutely beautiful and amazing.

    Something that you said perplexes me though – if his mom didn’t drink during pregnancy, was it her drinking before she got pregnant that contributed to FASD?

    1. Thank you Wynne! According to T’s medical history, his mom drank heavily. But when she learned she was pregnant, she stopped. So yes, it was her drinking before she knew she was pregnant – ie she was drinking when she was pregnant but did not know it – that contributed to FASD. The critical period is during the first trimester.

  5. “And I think you’re out of your damn mind,” I wanted to say. But I didn’t. I just smiled and enjoyed this calm and gentle moment.” Love this line because of the last four words. Calm and gentle and T. I don’t know much about FASD, but that sure does sound like progress to me. Who knows . . . maybe he’s just found his life’s passion, helping animals. Either way, enjoy these moments. Sounds like you are!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂

    1. Thanks Brian! It definitely is progress and you’re right that a future in working with animals may be a possibility. 😊 And I’m glad you are able to learn a little bit about FASD through T’s stories. Every bit of awareness raising counts!

  6. It breaks my heart a bit to hear T views himself as “never calm and gentle” but I hope that’s just his way of processing things at that age… to have the awareness and some idea of the implications, but still be discovering his own power to choose calm and gentle behaviors. Even with all the challenges you face, you and your husband are doing such a great job. 😊

    1. Thanks Erin. It does sound heartbreaking, doesn’t it? I do try to look at it as a good thing, because self awareness is a good start in hopefully trying to build and finetune the skills he needs, including self advocacy, to deal with some of his more challenging qualities. One step at a time!

      1. Yes, I think you’re right! I haven’t been around kids much, but I imagine there’s more black and white thinking and less ability to detect nuance. I love that he was able to show gentleness to neighbor’s cat, even if that’s not always the case at home. 😆 The self-awareness is a great starting point, and an opportunity those moments where you can point out and admire his patient, calm, and gentle behaviors, and help shape his understanding and empower his to rise above any predispositions. One step at a time, indeed!!

    1. Thanks Margie. I agree. It is so interesting and fascinating to watch him process the world around him. 😊 Hope you and the family and new baby are doing well!

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