By Jen Dryer, M.A., PEP Parent Educator, parent advocate and coach for parents and educators of neurodiverse children
A 5-year-old boy, Felix, is playing with blocks near the kitchen while his dad is busy cooking dinner. Felix starts singing loudly, but his dad doesn’t respond. Felix then suddenly throws his blocks across the room and yells as they crash against the wall. His dad reprimands him in a stern voice for throwing the blocks and demands that he pick them up. Felix then turns to his dad and yells, “Stupid, Daddy!”
An 11-year-old girl, Ashley, comes out of her room after a long day of distance learning and grabs the iPad. Mom tells her that her brain needs a screen break and that she can play later. Ashley slams the iPad down, kicks the wall and yells, “I hate you!!” at her mom.
Chances are, most of us have had similar experiences with our own children, usually resulting in yelling, punishment and tears. Often, the most difficult part of managing challenging behaviors is managing our own reactions. Parenting is definitely not for the faint of heart, nor the short of patience, and parenting neurodivergent kids can be exponentially more intense. (The terms “neurodiverse” and “neurodivergent,” or ND, refer to children with different “brain wiring,” which can manifest in learning, behavioral and/or developmental differences from their typically developing or “neurotypical,” NT, peers.)
The good news is that there are constructive ways to respond to our ND children’s challenging behaviors. As a baseline, it’s important to understand that all behavior is simply a response to the environment or to a specific circumstance and is a mode of communication. Our children are trying to tell us something via their behaviors, not simply trying to frustrate (or torture!) us. Understanding that, we can more effectively address the challenges.
Most of us focus on challenging behavior itself and try strategies to address it without really considering the cause of the behavior. To rein in challenging behaviors more effectively, first understand the purpose that behavior serves for your child and what they are trying to tell you. Start by asking, “why?” And I don’t mean the face-up-toward-the-sky, rhetorical-questioning-of-the-universe “WHY????” I mean working to unearth the underlying factors that are triggering your child’s behavior.
In his book “Uniquely Human,” Barry Prizant works to reframe the perception of autism from something wrong with a child to simply something different, and asks us to stop attempting to “extinguish” a ND child’s behavior before asking ourselves why the behavior may be happening. This strategy aids in addressing any ND child’s behavior, regardless of diagnosis. Once we identify the trigger or motivation for the child’s behavior, we can begin to identify the most productive intervention.
Typically, the purpose driving behaviors for ND children can fall into these categories:
It is critical to understand that caregivers can change what happens before and after a behavior occurs (“the antecedent” and “the consequence,” in behavioral therapy parlance), but the behavior itself is not in our control, as much as we would like it to be. Although most parents focus their energies on setting consequences for what happens after undesired behaviors occur, a bigger “return on investment” comes from addressing the antecedent, in other words doing things in advance to mitigate the underlying triggers of challenging behavior.
Overall, when we start from a place of empathy for our ND kids, especially in these challenging times, we can better understand and address their dysregulation and the behaviors that come along with it. Celebrate small steps toward a larger goal and keep your focus on what you can do to set your child up to thrive. Ask what conditions and supports they need to help make that happen and involve them in determining those supports whenever possible.
Visit Jen Dryer’s website at jendryer.com.
This article originally appeared in Washington Parent magazine. Reprinted with permission.
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