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The Brain First approach will change how you parent



I vividly remember a time in my life, nearly a decade ago, where there were frequent and intense waves of stress, anxiety, concern, sadness, grief, and confusion for me as a parent. As the mother of a daughter who has a serious brain-based condition (FASD), I was at a complete loss as to how to connect with and support her in ways that did not intensify the challenging behaviors she was experiencing. Understandably, I fell back on what I knew about parenting from the way I was raised, and from what was already working for my son, who is considered “neurotypical” and 15 months older than his sister.


There was nothing “bad” about the more mainstream parenting style in which I’d already found success and comfort. It was patient and kind, with firm boundaries and consequences for actions, age-appropriate expectations, and the belief that behavior was intentional and within the child’s control. I didn’t have any other “lens” to hold next to this more traditional parenting lens, nothing to help me see that things needed to be done differently with my daughter if she was going to settle in her body and thrive in her environment.


And because I did not realize I was missing critical information about how to parent our daughter successfully, I tried harder and harder, implementing the “very good, tried-and-true” parenting techniques I was raised by — all with little success. Not only did those approaches fail to help our daughter control her behavior or regain a sense of calm (my singular focus at the time), they often made things worse. As my concern for my daughter grew, my confidence in what we could do about it was rapidly diminishing because, it seemed, nothing worked.


And yet, even then — because we still didn’t know any differently — we held onto this fantasy that with enough consistency, she would learn to behave appropriately and respectfully. We believed that if we provided her with the most supportive home environment imaginable, she would catch up enough socially and emotionally to fit in with her peers. My belief was that if we, as her parents, continued to give her enough unconditional love, attention, and patience, she would get there.


Her childhood (and then later, her adulthood) would be “normal.”


This line of thinking ultimately led to feelings of hopelessness, and the distinct feeling that we were failing as parents as we continued to experience her behaviors escalating and intensifying, instead of dissipating. In the midst of this struggle, there was no slowing down to consider the toll this experience was having on me, my husband, or our health and dwindling resiliency. The focus was solely on our daughter and how to get control of her challenging behaviors.


This period of searching endlessly for answers, and drifting toward hopelessness, is the first of several developmental stages of “getting it” (as described in Diane Malbin’s work), with “it” being an understanding of neurobehavioral conditions as brain-based disabilities, and achieving the paradigm shift from thinking “brain” instead of “behavior.” During the first stage of this journey, that Malbin appropriately termed “The Dark Ages,” parents and caregivers have little to no information about parenting their child with the brain in mind. They are chronically frustrated as they do their best to parent through a behavioral lens, meaning: targeting the behavior for intervention and hoping that each new behavioral intervention they try will be successful. During this stage, numerous parenting techniques have been attempted, and fail, and the behaviors they’re trying to calm or extinguish continue to get worse.


Parents find themselves yelling more often, becoming more rigid in their interactions with their child who struggles, breaking down in tears more frequently, and feeling increasingly hopeless.


It wasn’t until I learned of the neurobehavioral model, and then later was trained and mentored by Diane Malbin, that I was able to emerge from my own “Dark Ages.” I was able, over time, to achieve the paradigm shift required to parent my daughter with her unique brain function in mind, so she could settle in her environment and experience much less frustration in her day-to-day life. And still, it wasn’t until many years after this initial shift occurred that I began to understand that this unique parenting paradigm must include a keen focus on the parent experience as well, for without it, parents like you and I will see progress stall or we’ll feel stuck.


It’s not enough to know what is happening with your child in terms of their brain/behavior connection. You have to understand what is happening and shifting and emerging within yourself as well.


These two sides of the coin, parenting with the brain in mind and being ever-mindful of the parent experience, is what the Brain First Parenting approach is all about. Let’s take a closer look at each of these essential components.


Thinking “Brain First” in Everyday Interactions With Your Child


The neurobehavioral model is supported by over 50 years of neuroscience research, and is considered a best practice for working with kids who have neurobehavioral challenges. Research has shown that this framework increases understanding, lowers frustration, expands options, and reduces and prevents problems.


It starts with recognizing that the brain is the source of behaviors. The two can never be separated. Every behavior we perform each day, big or small, is connected to our brain function.


Giving equal weight to the idea that the brain has something to do with behaviors is not diagnostic. Asking about brain function does not excuse inappropriate behaviors or enable them. It reframes behaviors, giving an alternative explanation for what is happening, which opens up a new set of possibilities in terms of how to parent your child more successfully. This is the basis for trying differently, rather than harder.


We know, based on neuroscience research, that there are over 50,000 different reasons why someone can experience changes in their brain structure and function. Prenatal events (trauma endured by birth mom, drug/alcohol exposure), birthing events (loss of oxygen), and post-natal events (trauma, neuroimmune illnesses, traumatic brain injury) can all cause significant physical changes in the brain. These are just a few examples.


Yet, many individuals with these physical changes to their brain appear outwardly "neurotypical," and behaviors are usually the only symptoms to manifest (remember the brain and behavior connection!).


Neurobehavioral conditions are invisible physical disabilities with behavioral symptoms.


If neurobehavioral conditions are invisible physical disabilities…


Then providing accommodations for people with these disabilities is as appropriate and effective as providing accommodations for people with other physical disabilities.


This belief shifts the target for interventions from the person (behavioral lens) to the person-in-environments (brain-based lens). Recognizing and implementing this shift is when challenging behaviors begin to resolve and outcomes improve.

No matter what diagnosis or label the child’s cluster of challenging behaviors is given (ADHD, FASD, Autism, SPD, ODD, PANS/PANDAS, and more), the behavioral symptoms often look the same: executive functioning challenges, learning and memory issues, slow processing pace, social and emotional challenges, and many more. These behaviors are symptoms of the brain-based differences. While there are valid reasons for obtaining a diagnosis for our child, when we're working on parenting through this brain-based lens, the brain is the organizing principle. This means that the brain is the brain, and no matter what may have caused the changes in structure and function, the behaviors are the symptoms of these brain-differences. This again encourages us to move away from behavior modification and to instead focus on developing appropriate accommodations with our child's unique brain function in mind.


Challenging behaviors (aggression, meltdowns, shutting down, anxiety, becoming easily tired, depression — along with many more) are what the neurobehavioral model considers “defensive behaviors.” They are normal reactions to pain and discomfort, and often develop over time due to “poor fit” within the environments through which children move. When a child's lagging cognitive skills are not recognized, and the child is then deprived of appropriate accommodations, we see these defensive, challenging behaviors emerge as a result.


When behaviors are understood differently, the shift is made from judging and reacting to curiosity, understanding and exploring. There is less anger and frustration. The same relentless behavioral symptoms now mean something different, because they are understood differently.


That is the paradigm shift.

“Children exhibit challenging behavior when the demands being placed upon them outstrip the skills they have to respond adaptively to those demands. The same can be said of all human beings.” - Dr. Ross Greene

Because individuals with neurobehavioral challenges have a brain-based, physical disability, they need (and deserve) accommodations for their condition. When we see that they cannot meet an expectation due to their lagging cognitive skills, we need to adjust those expectations to be in-line with their skills. For example, if we know a child processes information slowly, we need to give them more time and/or provide them with visual cues. If we know they can only hold on to one direction at a time (versus two- or three-step directions), we need to provide one direction at a time. If we know that they are younger (socially and emotionally) than their chronological age, we need to teach and explain things to them at developmental age level. There are endless opportunities to support a child through accommodations, but the key is that these accommodations are tailored to the child and the unique ways in which their brain works.


The Other Half of the Brain First Approach: Looking Inward


If you’re a parent reading this blog, I am going to assume that parenting (and subsequently, your life) looks different than what you might have expected.


I remember all the times I’ve felt that way, too.


When you pictured yourself as a parent, you likely imagined the tough moments every parent experiences — sleepless nights with a newborn, meltdowns with a toddler, moodiness with a middle schooler, and teenagers who are pulling away in search of greater autonomy.


But I’m guessing that didn’t bring you a great deal of concern or worry, because you understood that those experiences, throughout each developmental stage, are inherent in what it means to be a parent. You were confident that you’d have the skills and wherewithal to parent successfully through those “typical,” more challenging moments. It wasn’t even a question.


I remember feeling this way, too.


With all you had anticipated in your parenting journey, it’s understandable if parenthood, as you experience it now, is sometimes difficult to reconcile with those expectations. Of course, it stirs up emotions that are difficult to acknowledge and work through, emotions that your previous self might’ve never imagined would be associated with parenting your precious child. Of course, you never could have imagined just how challenging it would become, at times, to parent your unique child. No one can imagine that until they’re actually in it themselves. I know it can feel isolating. I’ve been there, too.


You may have heard me say before that this “parenting differently” journey is a marathon, not a sprint. You don’t run a marathon by cramming for it overnight. You prepare for it each day, putting into place the frequently small (but critical) components needed to be successful. You build your resilience gradually, through intentional and daily steps.


The same is true as you learn to parent your neurodiverse child in this distinctive, Brain First approach. You can have all the information in the world about how your child’s brain works and how this connects to challenging behavioral symptoms, but if you do not invest in looking inward, healing your nervous system that has become burnt out over time, and then building your own resilience, you won’t get very far. You will continue to feel burnt out. You will get stuck.


This is why, within the Brain First Parenting framework, we focus on how you are doing at a physiological, nervous-system level. It’s about the how and why behind your nervous system health, and how this is connected to your regulation which allows you to provide co-regulation support to your child. It’s about paying attention, in very intentional ways, to how you are doing at the deepest levels of your spiritual, physical and emotional health. It’s about understanding why we require resilience for this parenting journey, and how we go about building that resilience each day. And most importantly, it’s about continuously elevating your awareness of what is happening within your body, mind, and spirit, so that you can always be moving towards greater resiliency and wellness.


An approach that reduces challenging behavioral symptoms and promotes healing, understanding and relationship


There’s no blame or shame if you’ve primarily been using a behavioral lens in parenting your child. We’re all human, after all, living in a world entrenched in a behavior modification approach to understanding challenging behaviors. We were taught from a very early age to believe that behaviors are always willful and intentional, and there is really no other way to view them.


Fortunately, in more recent years, neuroscience research has taught us that there’s actually a great deal more to behaviors than we’ve been led to believe. The accumulated science continues to encourage us as parents of kids who live with brain-based differences — kids who, at times, exhibit incredibly challenging behaviors — to pause, to take a step back and to look through a different lens — always thinking brain first.


Here are some small, but impactful steps you can begin taking today to get started on the Brain First Parenting path.


When confronted with a challenging behavior, if you can take a moment to step back and ask, What if...? — “What if this behavior I’m seeing actually has nothing to do with what I thought, and is instead about my child’s unique brain function? How do I respond with empathy and understanding instead of punishment? How can I add an extra layer of support, now that I can see that it’s lagging cognitive skills that are causing this agitation and frustration?”


Alongside these curiosities, be mindful of your own experience. Shower yourself with self-compassion and understanding that you’re doing the best you can in a really difficult situation. Give yourself the space, time (even if it’s only moments each day) and energy needed to heal. Find support to gently ease into acceptance of who your child is, and what it means to be their parent, while also giving yourself the support you need to actually thrive in your experience as their parent. If you can do this, which is the essence of the Brain First Parenting approach, then you will be on a path of parenting differently that will lead to more success, less frustration, and greater connection with your child.


You can sign up to access to Eileen’s FREE workshop for parents of kids with challenging behavioral symptoms, Brain First: The Essential Framework for Parenting Your Child with Challenging Behaviors, by clicking on the button below.



 

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.

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