5 Misconceptions About Parenting Through a Brain-First Lens
Parenting through a brain-first lens means I am allowing or giving in to behavior that I know is inappropriate, detrimental or intentionally defiant.
“So, if you’re telling me that behaviors are symptoms of his disability, do we just let him behave however he wants? Where are the limits? How will he ever learn it isn’t okay to act this way?”
The traditional approach to parenting tells us that when you see a behavior from your child that is disrespectful or inappropriate, you must address it immediately — in the moment — or else your child will never learn that they cannot behave that way. And worse, your child will begin to believe that they can act this way at any time, without fear of consequences.
Parenting your child through a brain-first lens is never an excuse for inappropriate, disrespectful, or destructive behavior. But it does require us to address the behavior differently. The first part of this process is to consider the reason why our child might be behaving this way, by connecting it to the way in which their brain functions differently, and from there, address the root cause of the challenging behavior before developing accommodations. When we follow this approach, we begin to see challenging behaviors dissipate over time. The second piece of this process is to circle back at a later time, carving out space to talk with our child about the behavior itself, versus leaping into this conversation in the moment. There are reasons, based in neuroscience research, why addressing behaviors in the heat of the moment fails to work for a child with neurobehavioral differences, making circling-back a necessary part of the parenting.
If I do not show my child that I am in charge by addressing the behavior the moment it takes place, I will lose my parental authority and my child will believe they can walk all over me whenever they feel like it.
Traditional parenting models often lead us to believe that we must parent from an authoritarian position, or else chaos will ensue. We are taught that we should do this in a variety of ways: rewards and punishments; consequences; withholding and/or taking away valued items or experiences; raising our voices; lecturing; and even shaming. We are convinced that if we do not lead with our power and control, then our children’s behaviors will get progressively worse, until they believe they can do whatever they want.
The brain-first approach to parenting delves into neuroscience research to shed light on the most effective ways to view issues of behavior management and “compliance.” It recognizes what research has taught us about the importance of connection, relationship and co-regulation. It helps us understand that kids would do better if they could, and so, if they are not doing well (i.e. if they're experiencing challenging behavioral symptoms) then there is more to be curious about in terms of what is behind those challenging behaviors. When a child is settled, feeling understood, surrounded by expectations that are aligned with how their brain works, that child “behaves” well. The symptoms we see as challenging behaviors begin to dissipate over time. Our children know that we (the adults) are in charge, not because of an authoritarian approach, but because they can observe and feel our reliable regulation. They need to feel understood, connected to us, and able to rely on us for co-regulated support when they are having a difficult time.
If I parent my child through a brain-first lens, they will never learn how to live in the “real world.”
Parenting through a brain-first lens means we recognize that our child’s brain has been changed in function and structure for some reason. This change means they have a physical disability with behavioral symptoms. Because they have a physical disability, we need to provide them with accommodations, just as we would for any other individual living with a physical disability. This not only helps reduce their behavioral symptoms, but it is the right, fair and just thing to do.
With this in mind, what does it mean for someone with a physical disability of any kind to live in “the real world”? Do they, at a certain age, “grow out of” their disability? Does it mean that all of the sudden, at a certain age, they no longer require accommodations? Are they seen as lazy or irresponsible simply because the permanent disability they live with still impacts their daily life, requiring on-going accommodations? Of course not. The same logic is applied to individuals with brain-based disabilities—which are often “invisible” disabilities. They live in the “real world” every day, and the “real world” has the responsibility to recognize their permanent disability and accommodate accordingly.
If I decide to parent my child through a brain-first lens, I’m saying that I no longer have expectations for them or their behavior.
When you parent through a brain-first lens, you recognize the ways in which your child’s brain works differently due to their brain difference. Concretely, this means there are cognitive skills they require in order to navigate their day successfully, in which they are almost certainly lagging. In order to align tasks and expectations with the way their brain functions, we must typically adjust some previously-held expectations (ones that are often assumed, based on their chronological age). This usually involves taking a look at our own deeply held beliefs and values, and how these clash with our feelings about our child’s behavior and our beliefs about what they “should” be doing at their current chronological age.
Adjusting expectations does not mean giving in, or deciding that you (as the parent) no longer have expectations for your child. “Giving in” is what we default to in the moment, when we feel worn down by a behavior or do not know what else to do. In contrast to this, adjusting expectations based on your child’s skill set is a thoughtful and planful process, and a necessary accommodation that your child deserves and requires in order to be more settled and successful in their daily life.
Parenting through a brain-first lens sounds like a lot of work, and I’m already exhausted. I simply cannot add another thing to my plate.
As Diane Malbin, creator of the neurobehavioral model of parenting, tells us, When we parent through a brain-first lens, it is about parenting differently, not harder. You are already working hard enough, and of course you are exhausted. It can be devastating, both emotionally and physically, when your child is experiencing challenging behaviors every day, and you’re feeling like nothing is working. It is even more devastating and exhausting when we are told by others that our children will grow out of it, or they simply need more consequences or harsher punishment. Or even worse: that we, as their parent, aren’t working hard enough to get them “under control.” So, parenting through this alternative lens isn’t about working harder than you already are. It’s about taking all of that energy you’re already expending, and shifting the way in which you use it to support your child.
Interested in learning more about how your child’s unique brain works differently and what this means in terms of helping them experience fewer challenging behaviors? You can visit eileendevine.com to learn about the Brain First Parenting program and The Resilience Room membership community.
Eileen Devine, LCSW, works in Portland, OR as a therapist and coach supporting parents of children with special needs. She is also a consultant for families impacted by FASD, PANS/PANDAS and other neurobehavioral conditions through her private practice, working with families nationally and internationally. She lives with her husband and two amazing kids, one of whom happens to live with FASD. For more information, visit eileendevine.com.