Thinking 'Brain First' At Bedtime...And All Other Times, Too
Every night, my husband and I take turns helping our daughter settle into bed for the evening. She is 14, and doesn't like to be "babied" at bedtime, with us reminding her of what to do at each step — and yet, because of her lagging cognitive skills, she absolutely needs the side-by-side support to get from point A to point B in the process. Showering, hair care, brushing teeth, changing clothes, climbing into bed... prompting the whole way. Visual reminders and schedules, while excellent tools and accommodations for many kids, don’t provide her with the level of support she requires to transition into bed and then sleep smoothly. Her cognitive fuel tank is low after a demanding day of middle school, with very little left to “give,” and so we meet her where she is, with this intensive, one-to-one support.
On the busy days, the ones where I've tackled work and dinner and school activities and all the other "things" life throws our way, I can find myself tired and a little short on patience by the time our daughter’s bedtime rolls around. It can be a mess of physical exhaustion and emotional depletion — a hard combination for anyone. And with all of that, it means that sometimes (more often than I'd like), I find myself acting like a bulldozer, with the singular goal of getting her through this routine as quickly and effortlessly as possible so I can have some quiet, alone time to wind down at the end of a long day. I want compliance, if we're being honest, and I want it to come easily.
When this becomes my singular focus, it inevitably finds me reaching for the power and control I hold as a parent, and wielding that in all sorts of ways (threats of consequences, bribes, taking away things she values — to name a few), which typically results in our daughter's challenging behaviors, like refusal and rigidity and defiance, becoming more (certainly not less) pronounced.
And it's on nights like these, usually when I'm laying in bed ready for sleep myself, that I find myself reflecting and questioning how things might have gone differently if I had looked at the evening routine as a chance to connect and deepen my relationship with my daughter, versus simply seeking compliance. How would she and I be changed if this was the way I approached all my interactions with her? I think — actually, I know — we'd both be transformed for the better.
I know this because of what neuroscience tells us about the way people and their brains are changed when they are truly seen and heard and connected with another.
I shared this bedtime routine experience in one of the weekly newsletters I send out to parents, where I cover all kinds of topics related to this unique parenting experience [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, and in talking with parents just like you on a daily basis, I’ve realized (thankfully!) that 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 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, a certain 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 them. Even "small" demands like, "Put your dishes in the sink before leaving, please…" or “It’s time to wash your face and change into pajamas…” can zap their cognitive brain fuel, leaving them overwhelmed and anxious, acting out aggressively or shutting down; all the while, becoming increasingly rigid and unable to “comply.”
They may also, similar to my daughter at bedtime, become overwhelmed and overstimulated easily, resulting in behavior that can spiral out of control. This can look like excessive silliness or laughter when being asked to do something simple, like brush their teeth. Or it may look like running around, getting into others’ personal spaces, appearing as though their only goal is to irritate and defy those around them.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, of course. The behavioral symptoms that we see exhibited in a child who struggles with a brain-based difference is vast and unique to them.
However, no matter the challenging behavior, in these moments, parents on the receiving end 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 these moments is the brain-first approach and 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 this challenging behavior. We look for signs of brain fatigue, overwhelm and anxiety that are being displayed through the challenging behavior of 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. Instead of growing more rigid, we make a conscious effort to soften. 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, 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 is the acknowledgement of how hard these shifts can be, especially in those most difficult moments, and the plea that you allow yourself grace and self-compassion as you do the difficult, but worthwhile, work of shifting your lens.
You’re never alone in this journey.
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.