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PEP Blog

06|01

The Value of Special Time and Reflective Listening for Neurodivergent Kids

By Jen Dryer, M.A.

Come ON, Miles, get your shoes on! I’ve asked you four times already! We have to go, or you’ll be late!” This is a frequent directive from 9-year-old Miles’ mom on school days. The more agitated she gets as the minutes tick by, the angrier he gets, yelling, “Leave me alone! I AM getting ready!” He storms off and the whole interaction feels terrible for everyone involved.

Whether it’s ADHD, Autism, or other types of neurodivergence or neuro-difference, many tasks that seem straightforward and simple to neurotypical parents can be much harder for a neurodivergent child. If it’s a “non-preferred task” like getting ready for school or doing homework, many neuro-different brains are wired to avoid even starting the task, which is why these kids so often become distracted and struggle to get things done. When they become emotionally dysregulated, like Miles did in the scenario above, completing tasks can become exponentially more challenging.

Reframing Our Understanding of Behavior

The good news is that there are ways to mitigate difficult interactions if we start with the basic premise that behavior is simply communication. Dr. Ross Greene explains that kids do well when they can, and if they are not doing well, they are lacking the skills or the specific supports to do better. In “Brain-Body Parenting,” Dr. Mona Delahooke notes, “The problem is that too often we focus on a child’s behaviors instead of the child. We’re concerned about solving problems instead of cultivating relationships and building bonds.” When we shift to focus on buttressing our relationship with our child rather than focusing on our relationship with their behaviors, it can reap wonderful rewards for the whole family.

As the parent of an autistic child with ADHD (AuDHD, as it has been recently coined!), I use “co-regulation” as an ongoing tool to help him navigate the challenges of moving through a world not built for his AuDHD brain. Co-regulation occurs when parents have warm, responsive, and supportive interactions that help build a child’s capacity to modulate their emotions and teach them the skills they will need to self-regulate (down the road!). In short, co-regulation can be seen as lending your child your calm, and when their brain develops more fully, they will call on those emotional regulation skills you modeled over the years to develop their own self-regulation skills.

“Special Time” as a Co-Regulation Strategy

While there are myriad ways to co-regulate, one strategy I highly recommend is equivalent to putting money into an emotional bank account. Special Time, sometimes called Time In, is protected, non-contingent one-to-one parent-child time. In Special Time, the parent is fully present, attentive, and interacting with their child for a brief amount of time (usually between 10-30 minutes). Phones, devices, and other parental distractions are put away, and the child takes the lead in choosing the activity and directing the play. Ideally, Special Time is screen-free, but exceptions can be made if it involves your child teaching you a skill, like building in Minecraft.

In one variation of Special Time, the parent refrains from asking any questions and instead offers “I wonder …” statements, which can be a subtle but powerful shift for kids who are forced to answer questions from adults for most of their day. An “I wonder …” statement (such as, “I wonder where I should put this Lego piece”) allows the child the choice to respond or not and lets them stay in the driver’s seat. This is highly valuable for kids who are asked to follow adults’ directions for most of their waking moments! Letting your child take the lead confers your vote of confidence in their competence. For neurodivergent kids who tend to struggle much more in school and life than their neurotypical peers, building their sense of competence can help regulate their nervous systems well beyond the 10-20 minutes of Special Time.

Special Time activities vary by age and there are many wonderful possibilities. If your child struggles to come up with ideas, provide a menu of options to choose from. You can also set parameters in advance; for example, the activity must be inside (or outside) the house. For teens, walking the dog or going to a coffee shop can be a good option. Finding Special Time activities with older kids can be harder, so I recommend finding a “third thing” to focus on. A big puzzle, a crossword, a game, or even doing a Wordle together can feel like solid bonding since for teens sometimes sitting and talking with a parent is less than appealing! My AuDHD son loves physical activities for Special Time, and he has created some inventive games that often help him meet his sensory needs as a side benefit.

Since neuro-different children often struggle with transitions, clearly set expectations ahead of time. Using a timer is often ideal to manage expectations. For children who benefit from advance notice for transitions, using a countdown strategy can be helpful (“five more minutes of our Special Time together!” or a hand gesture indicating the time). You can also use the opportunity to help them better understand the sweep of time by using an analog “time timer,” which allows them to see time tick down. For some kids, the time timer will be anxiety-producing, so know (or ask) which supports resonate best for your child. Anticipate that the transition out of Special Time will be difficult for your neuro-different child’s brain to manage. Setting a regular routine for Special Time on certain days and/or times will help remind them that it will happen again. A visual reminder/calendar posted prominently can help, so you can point to the next one scheduled, and have some strategies ready to help redirect them to the next non-Special Time activity.

Reflective Listening: Another Co-Regulation Strategy

Another strategy for co-regulation is Reflective Listening, which involves the parent talking less, listening more, and restating what the child is saying without judgment to let them know you’ve heard and understand them. As parents, we often rush to try to fix our kids’ problems, which inadvertently conveys that we don’t think they are competent enough to solve problems themselves. Whether or not that’s true, it’s important, especially as kids grow, to teach them the problem-solving skills they will need to become independent, self-sufficient adults. Some of our neuro-different kids will always need additional support to navigate life, but we can still teach them that their thoughts and ideas are valuable and coach them toward the confidence and skills to solve problems they encounter.

To engage in Reflective Listening, ask clarifying questions and restate what the child is saying, using sentence starters like:

  • “It sounds like …”
  • “It seems as if …”
  • “What I hear you saying is …”
  • “It feels like …;”
  • “Help me understand. On one hand, you …, and on the other hand, you …”

The goal is to help both clarify and work through an issue with the child (this works well with adults too!) and identify ways to solve the main problem. For neurodivergent kids, Reflective Listening can have a side benefit of helping them better understand perspective-taking. Pragmatic language – language used in social situations – is often a lagging skill in neurodivergent kids, so Reflective Listening can help them hear how what they say is received by others and whether that matches their intention.

It is important to note that some neuro-different kids may get triggered by a parent repeating what they have just said or misinterpreting their meaning. For those kids, it’s best to focus on the clarifying questions and validate their emotions (“That sounds like it was really hard for you. I get it”) and ask permission to help them problem-solve (“I wonder if you would like me to help you figure out what the main problem is and how you can solve it”).

Remember: Investment in the Relationship Shifts Behavior

Overall, whether it’s Special Time, Reflective Listening, or another strategy you use to connect with your child, focus on the relationship with your child rather than with their behaviors (which, again, are just information about what is going on for them internally). The time you invest will bring you an incredible return. When children feel seen, respected and deeply connected to their parents, their nervous systems are more regulated. They are more resilient and able to withstand situations their brains perceive as challenges or threats. When we can shift our mindset to see challenging behaviors as indications that they are having a hard time, we can find more empathy and compassion for our children. When parents take time for meaningful connection with their children, it fills their emotional bank account and helps them better tackle challenging or non-preferred tasks. Try it out and notice what you see!

This article appears in the June 2023 issue of Washington Parent magazine.

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