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Key Things to Focus on Inside and Outside Challenging Moments with Your Child

In many moments of parenting, there are choices that either set us on a path of more calm and connection with our child or on a path of more resentment, tension, and escalated behavioral symptoms. Knowing how to best use your precious (limited) energy in these moments is key to seeing your child “settle” (meaning, experience fewer challenging behaviors) as quickly and consistently as possible.

I encourage parents to look at these moments, and the choices they have within them, by dividing the interaction into two distinct phases.

One is what to do amid — or inside — a challenging moment with their child. These are the times when their child is struggling, exhibiting frustrating, defiant, or perhaps even aggressive behaviors. The other set of “moments” is when they are outside one of these challenging windows of time with their child. These are moments when they can pause, catch their breath, and reflect on what happened during the challenging episode. Both sets of moments, inside and outside the challenging episode, bring a unique opportunity for growth.

Let’s take a closer look at how to use each of these situations in the most effective way possible.

Inside the Challenging Moment with Your Child

Resist the urge to gain control through exerting your authority and power

Give yourself permission to let go of the natural and human urge we all have to use our power and exert our will to change a child’s challenging behavior. This only leads to the child’s behavior becoming more intense, and the adult becoming more rigid and agitated.

Resist the urge to “teach” or “reason” or “consequence” in the moment

If a child is experiencing challenging behavioral symptoms, you can assume their thinking brain is off-line. Do not waste your precious energy trying to get them to reflect, listen, connect the dots, or “be reasonable” when in the midst of a challenging moment. They do not have the skills to do this, and it will only leave you feeling more hopeless and exasperated.

Resist the urge to try to think of an accommodation to use in this moment

Accommodations are not developed inside of challenging moments. It’s a process that requires thoughtful reflection and time.

Prioritize leading with empathy, connection and co-regulation

Practice making your primary focus and goal leading with empathy in words, body language and action. Focus on connecting with your child in the midst of them having a hard time. Use your greatest parenting tool in these moments, which is your ability to offer co-regulated support.

Practice maintaining a space of non-judgmental curiosity

It takes time and practice to truly understand that a child who is behaving in ways that are unacceptable (and sometimes hurtful and scary) is actually a child who is in pain and distress, needing more support and understanding. It does not happen overnight. Give yourself grace as you practice maintaining this space of non-judgmental curiosity in this challenging moment with your child.

Flood yourself with self-compassion and increase your own person “soothers”

Inside challenging moments, it is easy to lose sight of yourself and your own need for compassion and self-soothing. Provide yourself with as much of this as you can, to help settle your own nervous system and keep your thinking brain on-line.

Use your mantras and other grounding techniques to stay regulated

Ideally, you will have a handful of mantras and other grounding techniques in your back pocket, ready to use when you find yourself in the midst of a challenging situation with your child. Remember that they are there to help support you, and use them frequently.

Outside the More Challenging Moments

Practice circling back on one thing a week

Circling back happens outside of the challenging moment, to help your child connect the dots regarding what happened, to help them see another’s perspective, and to understand how their actions and words impacted others. It also allows them the opportunity (with support) to make amends. As the parent of a child with a brain-based difference (and challenging behavioral symptoms), you will likely find yourself with multiple opportunities each day to circle back. Don’t put this pressure on yourself…it’s likely to cause overwhelm for you and your child. Begin circling back on one thing per week. See how it goes. Increase this as you see your (and your child’s) tolerance for this process expand over time.

Prioritize connection with your child

When a challenging episode or moment has passed, it’s understandable that you want to seek space and distance from your child, finding relief now that there’s a moment of calm. I want to encourage you to take this moment of calm for yourself, and also begin to slowly work to reconnect with your child as you are able. Isolated moments of connection in a day add up, so give yourself permission to start small and build from there.

Spend time reflecting

Your progress, as it relates to parenting your child from a Brain First lens, will feel easier and faster if you spend as little as 10 minutes per day, most days, reflecting on what happened with your child and with you, as you parent from this alternative lens. You will begin to see patterns (in your behavior and theirs) that will inform what you might do differently the next time you find yourself in a challenging moment.

Develop and/or brainstorm accommodations

Accommodations are developed outside of challenging moments. New to this idea? Here’s a bog post to help you get started.

Build your own resiliency, focus on recovery and healing your nervous system

I know many of you only have brief periods during a day where you can realistically focus on your own wellbeing and resilience. But those moments matter. Take them, and know the momentum will build. Not sure what it means to be resilient, or to begin a practice of building your resiliency? This blog post can help get you started.

Develop a plan to use — inside the moment — for staying grounded and regulated

This is a plan you’ve spent thoughtful time developing, perhaps on your own or maybe with input from trusted friends and other support people. It can involve mantras, visualization, breath work and more. Each plan will be unique to each individual. Tending to yourself in this way is often treated as an afterthought (and for good reason, we’re conditioned to put ourselves at the end of our to-do list!), but it is essential to helping your child settle in the ways we all desire and need.


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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