Choosing the Second Path: How the Brain First Approach Helps with Challenging Behaviors
In a recent edition of the newsletter I send out most Mondays, I shared an interaction with my daughter (who is 13 and lives with a serious neurobehavioral condition) in which I described reaching for my parental power and control with the singular goal of achieving compliance. [If you want to read all the details of what happened, you can read my letter here. And if you want to stay in touch and start receiving emails from me each week, you can do that here.]
Judging from the responses I received from parents, and in talking with parents just like you on a daily basis, I’ve realized I’m not alone in occasionally falling into a cycle of reacting with parental authority instead of taking a step back and considering the reason behind the supposed “non-compliance.” It’s for that reason that I thought I’d take a moment to break this topic down a bit more, so that when we inevitably find ourselves in this type of situation again, we can intentionally shift to a path utilizing a brain-first lens, instead of a behavioral one.
In the Moment: Two Paths to Consider
Many kids struggling with brain-based differences have symptoms that involve getting stuck in an idea or behavior, inflexibility or cognitive rigidity, and an inability to see anyone's perspective beyond their own. Often this rigidity increases as additional demands are placed upon the child. Even "small" demands like, "Put your dishes in the sink before leaving, please…" or “It’s time to get out of bed and get dressed for school…” can zap their cognitive brain fuel, leaving them overwhelmed and anxious, acting out aggressively or completely shutting down; all the while, becoming increasingly rigid and unable to “comply.”
In these moments, parents have two divergent paths they can take.
One is what I call the behavior-based path, which considers behavior to be intentional and within the child’s immediate control. On this path, the behavior is something to be extinguished immediately, and we would use our parental power and control to make this happen. It involves the parent becoming more rigid in their approach, typically increasing the demands being placed on their child as the parent intensifies the threats, consequences, and punishments.
As the parent moves down this behavior-lens path, meeting the child’s cognitive rigidity with their own rigidity, the child — who does not have the skills to soften, disengage, or be flexible — gets increasingly locked in, escalating the situation even further. We, as parents, often say in these moments, “You need to be more flexible!”, but continue to reflect rigidity in our own responses, and — you guessed it — our child responds accordingly.
The other path available in those moments is the brain first path, where we see the situation through a brain-first lens. On this path, we work to regulate our own nervous system while also taking a step back to “get curious” about what might be behind our child's challenging behavior. We look for signs of brain fatigue, overwhelm and anxiety that are being displayed through our child needing to control everything (and everyone!) around them. In this moment, because we’ve grounded ourselves and taken a step back to consider alternatives, we look for opportunities to show empathy in our body language, words, and tone of voice. We look for the opening to connect with our child, who we can clearly see is struggling and in distress, instead of moving swiftly on to threats of consequences and other actions that only lead to further disconnection.
On the brain first path, we know that this challenging moment is not the only (or best!) opportunity to address the inappropriate or disrespectful behavior. The dysregulation our child is experiencing means their "thinking brain" will be offline for some time, and an attempted conversation now will only cause additional behavioral symptoms. We allow this fact to soften us, knowing that our energy will be much better spent circling back about what has happened at a later time.
This leads me to my final thought, which really is a plea of sorts to you, the amazing parent of a child who struggles with incredibly challenging behaviors. And that plea is this: Seriously consider yourself and your own well-being in this equation of how to help your child.
I often refer to the “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 neurobehavioral lens. This side of the coin has life-changing information for us as parents, providing us context we didn’t even realize we were missing, and offering ways of seeing our child in a whole new light.
It’s also where — for many parents — the conversation typically starts and stays (or ends). It’s an external focus, entirely on the child. There is rarely a flipping of this coin to see what’s on the other side, and that is where we miss the entire other half of what is needed for us to thrive and have the endurance to parent our child from a brain first lens, in the way I’m suggesting to you here.
The other side of this coin is all about you, the parent. It’s about the how and why behind your own nervous system health. It’s about paying attention, in very intentional ways, to how you’re doing at the deepest levels of your spiritual, physical and emotional health. It’s about understanding that you require resilience for this parenting journey, so you can do what I’ve suggested here -- things like taking a step back, disengaging, and considering the brain in those truly challenging moments.
And most importantly, it’s about how we raise our awareness, so we can always be moving toward greater resiliency and wellness, for the whole family, day-by-day.
If you'd like to learn more, you might be interested in my FREE Brain First Parenting Podcast Mini-series. The podcast consists of six concise-but-packed episodes, providing an overview of the Brain First Parenting model and framework. Listen to it whenever you want, on the platform of your choice!
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 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.