In one way or another, this might sound familiar:
A 10-year-old girl has been told by her mother that it’s time to turn off the iPad, so she can get the table ready for dinner. The girl refuses, perhaps telling her mother with initially mild defiance, “I don’t want to, and you can’t make me.” The mother gets louder and firmer, telling her daughter that she WILL do it, or suffer the consequences. The girl again refuses, now screaming, “No! I hate you!” and runs up her room, iPad in hand. Her mother follows, shouting for the girl to “get back downstairs right now!” When the mother barges into her daughter’s room, she’s met by stuffed animals and pillows being hurled from the bed. Maybe the iPad is in danger of being damaged—or thrown. Tempers are short. The mother boils over with anger, feeling disrespected and hurt. She yells at her daughter to stop, but her daughter simply laughs hysterically, rolling on the ground, rocking back and forth. Her mother shouts, “That’s it! You’re grounded for the rest of the night! Don’t even think about coming back downstairs!”
From a relatively modest spark… Anger. Hurt. Separation. Isolation.
It’s a scenario that plays out in many of the families I work with, to one degree or another, and it serves as an understandable “stuck point” for parents when we’re working to shift perspectives to a brain-based, neurobehavioral parenting approach.
Often, the parent has expressed expectations to their child and the child has responded with defiance or foul, hurtful language. Sometimes with aggression, or by retreating and isolating. Perhaps all of these at once. The parent feels disrespected, hurt and angered, often responding by asserting more control: additional lecturing, louder voices, harsher consequences.
Instead of “leaning into” our children from a place of relationship in these difficult moments, we banish them to their room to “calm down” on their own. But instead of calming down, they are consumed by their own anger, perhaps even destroying their room instead. What was a tense moment has escalated to a point where there is disconnection, severing of relationship, immense sadness, and a general sense of hopelessness that things might ever shift or improve.
And yet, even when we have some recognition of how brain function is at play, it can be difficult to see an alternative way to approach these situations.
What do we do when tension is high, the behavior of our child is unacceptable, and we simply need them to stop?
As parents, we want our children to learn respect. We want them to learn to express frustrations and differences of opinions with calm dialogue, instead of yelling while spitting in our face or throwing things across the room. We want to help them learn to tolerate frustration and delayed gratification. So how can we support and teach our children in these difficult moments, while also guiding and calming them toward a more regulated place?
As parents, we can accomplish both.
We cannot, however, accomplish both in the same moment, and this is why: When children whose brains work differently are in an escalated state, they have even less cognitive flexibility and “brain fuel” to successfully manage brain tasks. Their nervous system is more taxed, they are more emotionally and physically exhausted, and they are overwhelmed by everything going on in their mind. On a good day, it can be incredibly challenging for our children to manage multiple brain tasks simultaneously. When they are activated, in a heightened emotional state, it is nearly impossible for them to do this successfully.
Listen to me.
Look me in the eyes when I am talking to you.
Stop doing that, right now!
Seemingly simple demands we make of our children in the moment, but ones that can often set them up for failure. They simply cannot comply in these emotionally-charged moments. It’s not that they don’t wish to— they can’t. And we ask them to do these things while also telling them why their actions were not acceptable, what will happen if they continue to act that way, and asking why they thought it was ever okay to behave that way in the first place.
What were you thinking?!
The truth is they aren’t thinking. They simply can’t in those moments.
Circling Back is a term I use with parents to describe the process of coming back to a child when that child (and the parent!) is in a calm and regulated place, to talk about a conflict that may have happened. It’s about finding the proper time to help a child grow, mature, and learn through a defined process as you validate feelings, empathize, teach about cause and effect, the impact of actions on others, and how to put oneself in another’s shoes.
It is not an opportunity to lecture, it is an opportunity for facilitation and reconciliation.
The process of circling back requires a certain level of vigilance on the parents’ part because they need to be looking for this opportunity in those moments when the child is able to actually tolerate the conversation. It requires considerable self-restraint on the parents’ part because it means they have to delay the sometimes-insatiable need to have authority recognized and resolution reached at the moment the conflict occurs. They might wait hours, sometimes days, to circle back.
It also requires a massive amount of parental empathy to recognize that if their child could do better in those moments, they would, and that the circling back is about helping their child to process what happened without shame and blame, but rather with love and compassion. It requires the parent to be attuned with how best to utilize these circling back moments, how best to connect with their child.
Is it conversing side-by-side on a walk (movement first, words second)? Is it by sending a text message with a brief, loving and compassionate message, accompanied by a gentle invitation to talk when ready? Is it right before bedtime, when the child is tucked into the covers, lights are off and voices are quiet? Is it in the car, when it’s just the two of you on a quiet drive?
Or does the circling back process take place over the course of several interactions over several days, a sentence or two at a time (less words) that the child can sit with and process in their own time?
Through my own parenting experience, and after working with other parents as they walk their own journey, I know the intensity these situations provoke and the challenge of implementing a delayed, circling back approach. The skill of deferring the need for compliance and instant authority recognition (accomplished by the child “just stopping” their unacceptable behavior when we demand it) takes practice and dedication. I fully recognize the concern that if we step away from behavior in these moments to consider brain function, instead taking a calm and compassionate approach to help our child regulate, we will in some way be sending a message that we have excused the behavior. There is a deep-seated value in many of us that if we do not address the behavior in the moment, the opportunity to learn important life lessons will have passed, causing parental authority to gradually (or rapidly) erode.
I also understand (intimately) the sheer relief that comes when the storm seems to have passed, for good or bad— feeling emotionally depleted in the aftermath, and wanting to simply move on rather than move into the circling back mindset, which certainly requires more intentionality and time.
And yet, when I ask parents, What is it you really want to accomplish in these moments, when you're asking your child to stop their unacceptable behavior? The answers are always the same:
I want her and those around her to feel safe.
I want him to realize the impact of his actions.
I want her to experience authentic remorse and say she’s sorry.
I want them to respect me as their parent.
I want to feel connection with her.
I want to teach him how to better handle his big emotions.
Inevitably, then, we talk about what it takes to accomplish these things when you have a child whose brain works differently.
It requires providing them with far more context than a typical child would require, never assuming they can jump to logical conclusions on their own about what happened. It requires the parent to be calm and emotionally regulated. It requires identifying those repeated opportunities to circle back and re-teach our children these concepts, so that they can eventually integrate it into their actions. It requires pacing the conversation at a rate matching the child’s ability to process. It requires consistently working the circling back process, so that parents continue to build connection with their children, despite the difficult times they encounter.
Circling back isn’t just a tool to be used when things go wrong and need resolution.
Even when we understand what it means to have a brain that functions differently, we can forget just how diligently our children are working each day to keep afloat. We can miss the things they do well, because those accomplishments might be expected, even common, successes for a neurotypical child. Beyond that, the simple chaos that difficult behaviors bring has a way of overshadowing days that go well. If we forget, in the moment, to recognize what our children have done well, there are always opportunities to circle back and let them know we see their determination, and the pride we take in that.
It’s another opportunity for connection that we don’t want to let pass.
I really appreciated how you asked for that, rather than just grabbing it out of my hands. I’ve noticed how hard you’re working on that.
I know you had a really rough day yesterday at school, and that we talked about it last night, but I don’t think I told you how proud I am that you get up and go each day, even when it’s hard and doesn’t go as well as you’d like.
You know last night when you were sitting in the kitchen while I made dinner? I was just thinking how nice that was, and how much I really love your company.
Parents will frequently tell me that while a given week was hugely challenging, there were some small victories. I always ask if they shared their recognition of those victories with their child. Many times, for a variety of reasons, the answer is no. The good news is that circling back doesn’t run on a timeline, where at some point it becomes too late. It’s never too late to let a child know you notice the positives, no matter how seemingly small, because we know the successes our children experience are never insignificant.
Eileen Devine, LCSW works as a coach and consultant with families all over the world impacted by neurobehavioral conditions. She is the founder and creator of The Resilience Room, a close-knit membership community for parents of kids with neurobehavioral challenges. She lives in Portland, OR with her husband and two amazing kids, one who happens to live with FAS. For more information on Eileen or The Resilience Room, visit eileendevine.com.