Applying the ‘Four Agreements’ to Autism Parenting, Part I

Father and Son Sitting on StairsSeveral years ago, I picked up a book that transformed my life. The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz, is one of my favorites, and one that I recommend often to people who seek my services.

When I first read it, in 2001, my son was newly diagnosed with autism. Adjusting to the diagnosis took more tools than I owned. This book was key in helping me make a few shifts in my thinking. I am still living by these agreements and have found that they have become automatic.

The four agreements are as follows:

  1. Be impeccable with your word.
  2. Don’t take anything personally.
  3. Don’t make assumptions.
  4. Always do your best.

Ruiz explains how we make agreements with ourselves based on our experiences in life: “… whenever we hear an opinion and believe it, we make an agreement and it becomes part of our belief system.”

For example, if I’m told as a child that I am not good at math, I may internalize that as truth and carry it with me. Then, when I come across math, my automatic reaction may be to become anxious. Often we carry these agreements unknowingly, and they can have a profound effect (both positive and negative) on how we live our lives. By following these four new agreements, we can banish some of the old ways of thinking that might be holding us back.

As an aside, while Ruiz’s base for these agreements is taken from ancient Toltec wisdom, I have not found it to interfere or contradict any religious belief system or practice. If anything, it has given some practical wisdom to my own walk of faith.

Today, I will cover the first and second agreements.

1. Be Impeccable with Your Word

Being impeccable with your word means more than just telling the truth. It means that when you say you’re going to do something, you do it. Your yes means yes, and your no means no. It means when your child’s teacher asks if you can bring in 35 cupcakes for a class party the next day, you say, “Sorry, I can’t,” and actually mean it. Or, if you can in fact bring them, you say yes and don’t complain about it later—because your word is … impeccable.

It also means there’s no beating around the bush. Instead of saying, “Oh, nothing” when your husband asks, “What’s wrong?” you tell him what’s wrong. What a concept! And what a transformation this has on a marriage. You mean what you say, and you say what you mean.

In the world of autism, it means you are deliberate and intentional with the words you use, especially since most spectrum kids have difficulty understanding and using language. When you live by this first agreement, you use fewer words when making a request and kind words even when they’re undeserved. Best of all, you refrain from long-winded lectures when the child does something wrong.

Being impeccable with your word also means never making an empty threat. For example: telling your 4-year-old, “If you hit your sister again, you’ll be grounded until your senior prom!” It’s not realistic, and not true to your word.

When your child is melting down in the grocery store because he or she can’t take the sensory overload one more minute, being impeccable with your word means telling him or her you’ll be cutting your trip short, going through checkout, and leaving the store. This isn’t done out of anger or as a “punishment” for the child. It’s done from a place of empathy. The consequence? The child learns that he or she can trust what you say is going to happen. The result? He or she feels safe.

When we’re impeccable with our word, our kids learn that we can be trusted. Our partners start to connect with us. Our relationships can be transformed.

2. Don’t Take Anything Personally

You may have heard this one before, especially if you’ve spent any time on a therapist’s couch (or as a mafia hitman): when someone mistreats you, it’s really more about him or her, not you.

Put yourself in the offender’s position for a moment. Think about the last time you yelled at your child for doing something he or she shouldn’t have. Now think about what was going on that day. Chances are there was a great deal of stress. Maybe you were trying to cook dinner after a long day at work and your child came into the kitchen, accidentally spilled a drink, and you overreacted. You didn’t overreact because of your child’s mistake. You overreacted because of your own inability to handle one more thing that day.

How many times have you hesitated to take your child out in public for fear he or she might have a tantrum or make a sound that would make others stop and stare? What we’re really afraid of is being judged for our ability (or inability) to parent. When your child freaks out in the grocery store, it’s not about you.

When others judge your parenting when your child misbehaves, it’s about their need to judge and make themselves feel better or more comfortable.

Regarding the second agreement, Ruiz says: “As you make a habit of not taking anything personally, you won’t need to place your trust in what others do or say. You will only need to trust yourself to make responsible choices.”

Next time, we’ll take a look at the last two agreements.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Janeen Herskovitz, MA, LMHC, therapist in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 8 comments
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  • Harry S

    Harry S

    October 16th, 2014 at 6:20 PM

    When dealing with my autistic students in Sunday School I always try to speak in concrete terms.

    I think this is what you mean by number one in your list. It seems to me many people want to talk around and not directly about a subject.

  • mom

    mom

    October 17th, 2014 at 9:28 AM

    I think these tips are good for parents of any kids.

  • janeen

    janeen

    October 17th, 2014 at 11:51 AM

    Harry S, your students are lucky to have you! Sounds like you “get it”. :)

  • janeen

    janeen

    October 17th, 2014 at 11:51 AM

    “mom”, thanks for the comment. I absolutely agree.

  • Salerino

    Salerino

    October 17th, 2014 at 6:39 PM

    Wow I think I just learned how to better deal with my teenager. I’m going to start using this. Cant hurt right? Love ya Neeno!

  • reed d

    reed d

    October 18th, 2014 at 1:49 PM

    The one that I really need to work on is not taking anything personally. I do this all of the time in so many aspects of my life and I know that this is not something that is healthy but I always feel like things are pointed directly at me and that tends to hurt me a lot.

  • janeen

    janeen

    October 19th, 2014 at 10:36 AM

    Salerino, I’m so glad you found it helpful. Right back atcha! :)

  • janeen

    janeen

    October 19th, 2014 at 10:38 AM

    Reed d, this is a tough one for many people. Sometimes it helps to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Everyone is fighting their own battle that most of us don’t know anything about. Usually when we get our feelings hurt, it’s because we’ve put too much stock in what that person thinks of us.

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