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8 Necessary Mind Shifts for Parents of Kids with Neurobehavioral Challenges

After nearly a decade of supporting parents who have kids with intense needs and relentless behaviors, I have come to believe that there are several essential mind shifts that are necessary in order to fully embrace and adopt a Brain First parenting approach. Whether you're new to this approach or you've been implementing it for some time, returning frequently to these mind shift truths helps us stay on the path of seeing our children and teens through a Brain First lens. I want to encourage you to come back to them as much as you need to, so you can be reminded of who your child is, what they need from you, and that you are doing an amazing job supporting them.

1) My child would do better if they could.

The foundational understanding of the Brain First Parenting model is the truth that your child would do better if they could. Dr. Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child, and numerous other books, tells us, “There is zero research telling us that kids respond poorly to problems and frustrations because they’re poorly motivated. That study doesn’t exist. There’s a mountain of research telling us that they’re lacking skills. What skills? Here are the umbrella skills: flexibility, adaptability, frustration tolerance, problem-solving, emotion regulation.”

Kids who are struggling behaviorally are struggling to be understood in a way that supports their neurodiversity. They would do better if they could. If they aren’t doing well behaviorally, then there’s something to be curious about. Not reactive— curious. This curiosity opens up more ways to connect with them and help them “settle.”

2) I need to meet my child’s cognitive rigidity with my own ability to be empathetic and flexible.

If you have a child who lives with a brain-based difference, there is a good chance they will struggle with being flexible, compromising, and adaptable to the frustration that may result from things not going as expected. The symptoms that result from these particular lagging cognitive skills are behaviors we might describe, through a behavioral lens, with the following words: selfish and self-centered, unwilling, stubborn, uncaring, aggressive, and immature. The key to helping our child be more flexible begins with remembering that this is about skill, not will, and that if our children could be more flexible and compromising in these moments, they would.

Rigid, inflexible behavior can understandably cause a visceral, knee-jerk reaction within us as parents, causing us to fall back on a behavioral lens when we crash up against that rigidity. That’s because we’re human, and we’re prone to human reactions when met with a challenging behavior. We’re wired to meet their rigidity with our own, even greater rigidity. But we can also gradually, over time, learn to slow down our reactions and respond differently. We can practice taking a step back before responding, think “brain first,” and asking “what if?” — What if this has to do with their lagging skills, and not intentional willfulness? Almost always, this helps us shift to a space of empathy and curiosity, and toward more meaningful and transformative accommodations.

3) My child is capable of learning and growing and maturing; their timeline just looks different than I expected.

I’ve had more than one parent over the years who has voiced frustration and hopelessness related to the slow progress (seen as a lack of progress, at times) that their child is making in maturing, building their cognitive skills, and reducing their challenging behaviors. I completely get where these parents are coming from. The kind of progress we’re focused on when parenting a child who struggles so intensely, it happens slowly and over an extended period. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Taking the long-view is key to staying regulated, remaining hopeful, and keeping perspective. It requires a different measuring stick, one that recognizes your child’s differences, and celebrates the seemingly small victories.

4) These incredibly challenging and relentless behaviors are a reflection of my child’s distress, and show a need for additional accommodations.

The entire foundation of parenting from a Brain First lens rests on the fact that kids with brain-based differences are navigating a world that does not understand how their brain works differently. The world expects them to have (seemingly simple) cognitive skills in place, that they simply do not have (yet). This results in your child being unable to meet expectations and complete tasks asked of them throughout their day. Which then results in challenging behavioral symptoms that reflect the distress your child is experiencing, due to lack of understanding and accommodations. Accommodations are the path towards fewer challenging behavioral symptoms.

5) I don’t need anyone’s permission to parent my child from a Brain First lens. I know what my child needs to thrive.

Moving away from deeply-ingrained societal beliefs about behavior — that it is willful, being done on purpose — to one that is aligned with the way in which your child’s brain works, and their needed accommodations, can be a difficult shift for many parents. It can feel lonely to be in this space that is so greatly misunderstood, and the advocacy required can feel endless and exhausting. Once you can confidently assert that you know what your child needs to thrive, it will only get easier to stand in your truth and parent your child from this lens. You don’t need anyone’s permission to provide your child with the empathy, support, and understanding they require.

6) What I’m doing is as hard as I think it is, and I am actually doing incredibly well, despite exceptionally challenging circumstances.

It's understandable if parenthood, as you experience it now, is difficult in a way that at one time would have been unimaginable. Of course, this realization then stirs up emotions that are difficult to acknowledge and work through, emotions that your previous self might’ve never imagined would be associated with parenting your precious child. The truth is that no one can imagine that until they’re actually in it themselves. It is as hard as you think it is. And despite this, I want you to know I see your relentless determination to have a relationship with your child. All of this makes you human. Everything you have been through reflects your resilience. You are doing amazingly well, despite really challenging circumstances. Both can be true at the same time. And there is hope for you that things can get better.

7) My goal as a parent is not to enforce behavioral compliance. It is to grow my child’s cognitive skills, strengthen our relationship, and instill my values.

When you begin to see and believe and live out what neuroscience has proven to us — that behavior belongs in the brain, and the two cannot be separated, and that challenging behaviors are symptoms of a brain that experiences the world differently — then you shift from seeing behavior as something to be controlled to seeing your child as needing empathy, connection, and increased accommodations. Your goal then changes completely, from trying to gain compliance at all costs, to wanting to alleviate your child’s pain and distress so that they can settle in their environment and build the very skills they’re lagging behind in.

8) When I care for myself, it benefits my child and their well-being in important ways.

There are always “two sides of the coin” when it comes to our unique parenting experience. There’s one side of this coin that is all about our children, and parenting them through a Brain First lens. The other side of this coin is all about us, the parents. It’s about the how and why behind our own nervous system health. It’s about paying attention, in very intentional ways, to how we’re doing at the deepest levels of our spiritual, physical and emotional health. It’s about understanding why we require resilience for this parenting journey, and how we go about building that resilience each day. And most importantly, it’s about how we raise our awareness, so we can always be moving toward greater resiliency and wellness, day-by-day. This in turn allows us to show up in the way our child desperately needs, one which requires us to be grounded and regulated and able to have the endurance the intensity of their needs requires. Caring for yourself does not just benefit you. It will also help your child settle in all the ways you hope for.


Eileen Devine 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


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