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How to Help Your Concrete-thinking Child Navigate an Abstract World



What does it mean be able to think abstractly?


It means, in part, understanding that the world isn’t always black and white, and learning to see the gray.


It means understanding essential childhood concepts like “stranger danger” (who is safe, who isn’t, when someone isn’t a stranger anymore, when they are).


Grasping concepts like regret. Or trust. Or time.


Realizing that others have ideas and feelings and thoughts that are there, even if you can’t see or hear them.


Being able to recognize when someone is giving literal instructions and when they are not (that “go pick everything up off your floor” does not mean to literally pick up every object and piece of furniture and pile it on the bed).


Recognizing when someone is using sarcasm in a conversation with you.


Understanding the concept of “ownership.” For example, when a wallet is sitting on a table without anyone around, comprehending that it still belongs to someone who is not present at that moment (and therefore is not available for you to take).


These all point to our ability to think abstractly.


I had no idea how much more complicated and difficult my daughter’s day-to-day life might be because she is lagging significantly behind in this skill.

I, for one, never gave any thought to my ability to think abstractly before parenting a child who, because of her brain-differences, has significant difficulty with this brain task. I didn’t even know it was actually a “brain task,” something my brain did for me automatically, every day, without me thinking about it. I certainly had no idea how much more complicated and difficult my daughter’s day-to-day life might be because she is lagging significantly behind in this skill.


I just didn’t know.


We live in a world filled with abstraction, required to understand concepts that are real, but not tied to concrete physical objects or experiences. We need to be able to visualize them independently, in our own head, to make sense of them. Abstract concepts are things like freedom or vulnerability, love, morality and democracy. Ideas like time and duration and distance. Abstract thinking also includes the ability to absorb information from our senses and then make connections to the wider world based on that information. This allows us to make connections between larger ideas and issues we’re facing or hearing about. It allows us to leap to accurate conclusions without having to have all the information right there, concretely in front of us.


If our brains work in a neurotypical way, we can take information and generalize it to other situations. It’s a complicated brain task, and most of us have the luxury of using this particular cognitive skill multiple times a day without even thinking about what we’re actually doing.


This is not true for many individuals with brain-based differences. They see the concrete (often binary: black/white) in the world, but miss the abstract (the nuance, the gray) and are frequently misunderstood because of that.


Before we talk about how to support our children in this lagging skill, let me provide you with some examples of concrete vs abstract cognitive skills.


When someone is a concrete thinker, these are some of the behaviors you may see:

  • They are unable to “brainstorm” ideas or solutions, even to simple problems.

  • They require tangible information that they can see and/or touch to make comparisons, experiment, and categorize.

  • They will take comments and conversation literally, exactly as it was stated.

  • They have a difficult time taking a learned skill or rule and applying it to different settings.

  • They may ignore important and relevant information because it is not obvious, meaning it cannot be seen or held.

  • They have difficulty thinking beyond what is right in front of them (and experienced by the senses), and are only able to be in the “here and now.”

  • They take information as it is said (very literally) without questioning it.

The ability to think abstractly looks like:

  • The ability to learn the meaning behind things, to explain the why and the how.

  • Being able to understand metaphors, humor, or sarcasm.

  • The ability to interpret, analyze, generalize and discuss ideas that may have no concrete grounding.

  • The ability to break knowledge into separate parts and show the relationship through comparison, experimenting, and categorizing.

  • Understanding “the gist” of a given situation or request.

  • The ability to understand what is implied, but not explicitly stated.

  • Seeing the big picture in a situation (independently gathering context).

  • Understanding that others have their own thoughts, feelings, and perceptions that need to be considered in a relationship.

Once we understand how this specific lagging skill impacts our child’s ability to navigate their world each day, we can develop and initiate accommodations to help them be more successful. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Acceptance. Stop fighting against your child’s ability to “get it,” and accept that this is a lagging skill (not lack of will) and the need to re-teach and point out the obvious is a necessary accommodation.

  • Take a Step Back. When your child isn’t complying or following directions, think brain and check to be sure you’ve been concrete enough for them to understand what’s being asked of them. Have you been specific enough? Have you provided visuals to help make what you’re asking more concrete? Do they have all the obvious-to-you contextual information they need?

  • Be Specific. Be cognizant of your use of ambiguous terms, particularly around time or duration, that may be difficult for your child to grasp (leaving them frustrated) such as “mostly”, “sometimes”, “maybe”, "in a little bit", or “soon.” Try to be as specific as possible.

  • Understand “Being Empathetic” From This Lens. When working with your child on skills for “being a good friend” — things like being thoughtful, respectful, and empathetic — be mindful of the abstract thinking skills involved in maintaining good relationships. I wrote an entire blog post on this topic that you can find here.

If you are interested in learning more about the different cognitive skills that may be interfering with your child’s ability to experience success, the connection between brain function and challenging behaviors, and how to parent your child differently, I encourage you to check out my membership community, The Resilience Room, where each month you learn about a new aspect of the neurobehavioral parenting model and how to apply it to your day-to-day life with your child.

Interested in learning more about the work Eileen does with parents and parenting with a neurobehavioral approach? Visit eileendevine.com and reach out to her directly. She’d love to hear from you

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.

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Neurobehavioral Support Coach for Parents