Maybe you’ve been here, in this place, experiencing the sort of exhaustion familiar to so many parents I’ve met in my practice: parenting a child who is relentless in demanding that things go their way.
Every. Single. Time.
Maybe, over the years, you’ve experienced situations where your child will not compromise or show any flexibility in a situation, no matter what you say or do. Maybe you understand what the parents I work with are going through when I tell you they’re left feeling like the only option remaining in these situations is to give into demands. That experience has taught them if they stand firm it only leads to more aggression, more explosiveness, more meltdowns that can endure for hours. When describing these situations to me, parents have sometimes said they can feel as though they're being held hostage by a child who is unwilling to bend, even just a little, over the most mundane things.
If you’ve found yourself in this situation as a parent, you are certainly not alone. It’s important, then, to explore why this is such a common behavior for kids with brain-differences, and what we can do to help our children through it.
When met with challenging and disruptive behavior, I’m always curious about what neuroscience can teach us about this behavior, and what it’s communicating to us. Is this behavior, which often seems so intentional and within our child’s control, really about their unwillingness to compromise or be flexible? Or could it actually be linked to brain function, lagging skills, and the ways in which their brain might work differently?
How do we, as parents, begin to figure this out and then respond accordingly?
When I hear a parent describe this kind of rigidity in their child, I’m immediately curious about other observations related to their child’s executive functioning skills. Most of us are aware that executive functioning is a cognitive skill — something our brain does for us — that allows us to do things like successfully organize and plan our day, set goals, and develop the steps necessary to achieve them. But executive functioning encompasses much more than these higher-level organizational tasks, things that are easily missed and instead seen as intentional, willful (bad) behavior.
Possessing cognitive flexibility is one example.
Beyond assisting with the higher-level organizational skills necessary to navigate the day, executive functioning also allows us to be flexible in our thinking, to transition successfully from one task or thought to another, and to deal adaptively with the unexpected. It provides us with a healthy window for tolerating frustration. Which means that when things don’t go our way we might be disappointed and frustrated, but we recover fairly quickly, as opposed to melting down for hours at a time. This wider window of tolerance for frustration, and the subsequent ability to transition and shift as life demands, keeps us moving forward instead of descending into more rigid thinking and actions, and ultimately becoming “stuck” there.
When a child struggles with a brain-based difference, whether that be ADHD, FASD, PANS, Autism, or any other brain-based diagnosis, they will likely struggle as well with executive functioning skills. That means there is a good chance they will struggle with being flexible, compromising, and adaptable to the upset 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. It’s no wonder they struggle behaviorally in situations requiring these skills that they don’t yet possess.
So, how do we accommodate these differences that we now understand as a “brain-thing,” versus intentional behavior or an ingrained personality trait? Below are just a few ideas that come to mind to get you started, but the options are endless and should, of course, always be based on your child’s uniqueness:
Stop fighting. Children who do not have cognitive flexibility cannot let go in an argument. It is up to the parent or caregiver to disengage, take a step back, help your child regulate, and approach the situation from a brain-based perspective.
Avoid use of the word “No.” “No” can be exceptionally triggering for a child who is rigid in their thinking. This doesn’t mean you have to change your answer to a “Yes,” but it does mean that you should strive to find creative ways to get to the “No” without using the actual word. For example, let’s say your child suddenly decides they want to go to the zoo today, and they begin to fixate on that idea. There are likely to be numerous legitimate reasons why this cannot happen on such short notice. But instead of saying, “No…we’re not going to be able to do that today…,” you could instead say something along the lines of, “Oh geez, what a great idea — I’d love to do that, too! That sounds like so much fun to do at some point, but doing it today is kind of tricky because of x, y, and z…can we look at the calendar together and pick another day where we can go?”
Give plenty of lead time with transitions big AND small. Many times, our kids need to receive essential information repeatedly, over many more days than we initially realize. Especially if the change is abstract, meaning something they’ve not yet experienced or seen, they will likely need additional reassurance and information in order to help it become more concrete in their minds. It is also helpful to remember that because many of our kids also lag behind in abstract thinking skills — including understanding the passage of time — providing verbal descriptions of how many days, hours or minutes they have left may not work. A visual clock, countdown calendar, or something else more concrete may be the missing accommodation they require.
Take the time to help them see another person’s perspective. This may not be able to happen in the heightened moment when your child is upset because their thinking brain is likely “off-line” in that moment, meaning they’ll be incapable of thinking “rationally.” What we need to do is seek out opportunities at a later time, when your child is more settled, to help them put themselves in the other person’s shoes. This kind of projection also requires abstract thinking, a difficult brain task for our kids who are concrete and rigid thinkers, and might not come as naturally or as early as we might expect, according to a certain “pre-defined” age. It likely means letting go of the idea that, They should be able to do this by now…
Rigid, inflexible behavior can understandably cause a visceral, knee-jerk reaction within us as parents, causing us to fall back to a behavioral lens when we crash up against it. That’s because we’re human, and we’re prone to human reactions when met with a challenging behavior. But we can also gradually, over time, learn to slow down our reaction and respond differently. We can practice taking a step back before responding, think “brain first,” and ask “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.
Believe me when I say, from experience, this shift will not only lead to fewer meltdowns and less chaos in your home, it will help support your child in slowly building these essential, lifelong skills..
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.