There’s a very good reason that executive functioning is often referred to as the “air traffic control center” of our brain — these skills are what keep us moving smoothly through the tasks, big and small, required to be well-adjusted adults in this world. Many of us are somewhat familiar with what executive functioning skills consist of, things like organizing our day and setting concrete goals. We understand that poor executive functioning skills, particularly for children, can lead to things like our children having difficulty with transitions or problems inhibiting impulses. But there are other, equally important, aspects of executive function that don’t receive as much attention. This lack of attention can leave us, as parents, confused and frustrated when our child exhibits challenging behaviors as a result of seemingly lagging skills, because we’re missing key information that prevents us from seeing these actions as anything but intentional misbehavior.
In an effort to support you in knowing how to support your child differently when they are exhibiting challenging behaviors, I want to highlight three common ways that executive functioning deficits might present in our children, but are instead frequently seen as defiance and misbehavior. Read on to learn more about these lagging skills, and ways we can support our children differently.
1) Difficulty getting started
Many of us are familiar with the role executive functioning plays in our child’s ability to stay focused on a task and see it to completion, but we can often miss the very important role that the same executive functioning plays in helping children initiate or get started on a task. Have you ever told your child, ‘Go find something to do…’? Maybe even provided them a few choices that you know they typically love? And yet, they continue to “spin” aimlessly around the house with increasingly difficult behavior? This isn’t about their unwillingness to go play, it is about their inability to initiate and get started. Jumping into any task, even when enjoyable (like their favorite game), may not be something they can do independently, and when asked to do this, we see progressively challenging behavior. When a child with executive functioning deficits is bored, it is safe to assume that they literally don’t know how, or what, to do with their body and time.
Children who struggle with executive functioning skills also do not have the cognitive flexibility that other kids their age possess. This means that they are unable to shift mental states quickly, and are often unable to be flexible when they need to be, in order to smoothly navigate their day and the demands of various relationships. One way we see this play out is with a child’s inability to transition from one place or task to another (say, returning from the playground to the classroom, or in and out of the car), but it is much more involved than that. It can mean our child has difficulty letting go in an argument. It may mean an inability to adjust to even minor changes in plans. It may mean they are unable to consider another’s perspective, or to set aside, even temporarily, their own needs, wants, and desires for the greater good or group. From a behavioral (non-brain-based) lens, this looks like a child who is selfish, disrespectful and defiant, when what’s really happening is that the child does not possess the cognitive flexibility to “go with the flow” and “be reasonable,” as other kids their age might be able to do.
3) Getting stuck in loops
If you have a child who struggles with executive functioning, chances are you’ve experienced them getting stuck in behavioral or verbal loops. They might ask the same question repeatedly, despite being given the same answer each time. They might appear to be “acting out,” behaving in a way that is unacceptable, and doing this over and over again despite being given warnings, consequences, or lectures (think: endlessly needling a sibling, or getting into something they’ve been told a million times to stay out of). In these moments, it might seem there is nothing that will convince them to stop with the constant verbal output, or the behaviors that are increasingly agitating to those around them, because of the apparent relentlessness of the behavior. But this isn’t your child wanting to irritate those around them and/or to continuously get in trouble. This is their extreme cognitive rigidity getting in their way, keeping them stuck in the behavioral or verbal loop. While it can look like willful behavior from a behavioral lens, what is really happening is our child is stuck and needs help getting unstuck.
Now that we know these behaviors are a result of poor executive functioning skills, and not intentional misbehavior, how can we, as parents, support our children differently?
Six starter strategies to consider:
1. Disengage from the argument. If your child cannot let go in an argument, do what you can to disengage, diffuse, or change the subject. This allows your child to settle and offers you time to calm down and “think brain-first,” so you can then approach the situation in a softer, gentler way that does not clash with your child’s rigid thinking.
2. Distract and use play. If your child is stuck in a loop or is unable to be flexible at a time where it is needed, use distraction, redirection and/or play to help them get unstuck. It may be just what they need to be able to ease into (or out of) whatever is required of them in that moment.
3. Give as much lead time as possible regarding transitions and changes. Write it down or illustrate it to help solidify the coming transition in their mind. Giving verbal timeframes and countdowns might be too abstract for some kids, even at older ages, leaving them to feel like the transition snuck up on them.
4. Physically assist your child with getting started on a game or task— hand-on-hand, if needed — versus simply giving them verbal instructions to do so.
5. Take the time, when everyone is calm, to talk to your child about what happened. Circle back. Lead with empathy, letting them know that you recognize the situation was challenging for them, and that if they could have done better, they would have. If they can tell you what was difficult for them, wonderful. If they can’t (which is not uncommon for our kids), then don’t get discouraged. The fact that you are leading with empathy and then helping them connect the dots (what led to what) will develop a deeper connection with them and help them build their skills.
6. Take time to reflect. At the end of each day, reflect on where you first started to notice your child experiencing anxiety, overwhelm or agitation. What was happening? What were they being expected to do in that moment? What cognitive skills were required of them? It is through this process that we begin to see patterns of where our child struggles and how we can then accommodate them to reduce their frustration and ours.
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.