Raising Healthy Kids Who Live With Neurodivergence
How to Support your Child’s Neurodiversity
Today, let’s talk about neurodiversity and why it’s important to move away from the medical model of disability that leans toward pathologizing differences rather than accepting and appreciating them. Read on if you’re interested in ways to tune into and build in accommodations for your child’s unique neuro-differences.
A few years ago, I started seeing families in my private practice where parents were struggling to raise kids who showed extreme avoidance behavior in the face of routine and everyday demands. As I tried to help parents support and understand their children better while reducing conflict at home, I happened upon the description of Pathological Demand Avoidance, or PDA, which is currently thought to be a profile of autism. I’ve talked about PDA before in an episode called opens in a new window“What To Do If Your Child Has An Extreme Need For Control and Autonomy.” As I delve deeper into working with parents whose children meet criteria for the PDA diagnostic label, I’m learning more and more about neurodiversity—and why it’s so important to not only support but affirm a person’s neurodiversity.
What is neurodiversity?
The term “neurodiversity” was coined by Australian autism rights activist Judy Singer in the late 1990s. A person on the autism spectrum herself, she used the term to describe the diversity of human brains and minds and to promote the idea that neurological differences should be recognized and respected as a natural part of human diversity, rather than being pathologized or treated as deficits or dysfunctions.
The concept of neurodiversity has since gained widespread recognition and has been embraced by activists fighting against societal dynamics that aren’t accepting of neurodivergence.
The term neurodivergence is typically used to describe people who have neurodevelopmental conditions that can affect how a person thinks, learns, and communicates. Being neurodivergent means that a person’s brain functions, learns, and processes information in ways that are significantly different from dominant societal standards for “normal.”
People who fall opens in a new windowunder the umbrella of neurodivergence include but aren’t limited to those with developmental, intellectual, psychiatric, or learning disabilities, and those who have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), dyscalculia, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and Tourette’s Syndrome.
Why does neurodiversity need a movement?
Led by autistic and other neurodivergent and disabled people, the neurodiversity movement advocates for the acceptance of neurological differences, autism/neurodivergence acceptance, equal opportunity, equitable inclusion, self determination, autonomy, and the end of discrimination.
In her guidebook called “A Parent’s Introductory Guide to Neurodiversity-Aligned Therapy and Educational Practices for Autistic Children,” opens in a new windowEmily Harvey helps readers understand what fueled the birth of the neurodiversity movement by contrasting the dominant perspective in today’s society—the more pathologizing medical model of disability—with the neurodiversity-affirming social model of disability.
The medical model of disability and the pathology paradigm perceives that there is only one “right” kind of brain: a “normal” or “neurotypical” one. Brains that diverge from normal are considered abnormal and deficient, which results in disability. The person is seen as broken and in need of “fixing”—and fixing them means making them learn to act more neurotypical. And sure, a neurodivergent person can “act” more neurotypical (this is called “masking”) but this won’t change their neurology. And it sends the message you have to change if you want to be accepted.
In contrast, the social model of disability and the neurodiversity paradigm stress the lack of acceptance of neurodivergent people and take the stance that the barriers created by society and the environment are what result in disability. Neurodivergent folks should have equal rights and access in society just the way they are without being “fixed” because they are equal humans with the right to autonomy and self-determination like everyone else.
If we look at neurodivergent folks through the lens of neurodiversity and the social model of disability, we can move away from deficit-focused perceptions of them as those whose developmental disorder is defined by social and communication difficulties and “abnormal” behaviors. We could instead see this population as having a developmental condition or disability that affects how they experience and therefore how they interact with the world around them.
What’s the best way to educate your child about their neurodevelopmental diagnosis? Dr. Nanika Coor gives seven tips for talking with neurodiverse kids about their diagnosis in a way that focuses on their strengths and abilities.
Supporting your neurodivergent child
The goal of a neurodiversity-affirming parent is to raise a child who accepts themselves in a world that isn’t always great at being accepting. To that end, the focus is on helping your child learn skills that will foster a positive self-identity, make their life easier, and help them live a joyful life.
Fostering self-acceptance and a positive self-identity involves accepting and appreciating your child for who they are, focusing on respect, empathy, and trust, and assuming that your child is capable and competent with the right support. It’s important to encourage your child to advocate for their needs and listen to them when they do. Spotlight what your child is skilled at, not only their challenges. Commit to learning from other neurodivergent peoples’ lived experiences.
opens in a new windowRadical acceptance can help you cope with challenging and upsetting situations that life and parenting bring. Dr. Coor explains radical acceptance and how it can help when things get hard. Head to that page, or listen to the episode with this player:
Another great way to set your neurodivergent child up for success is to focus on the ways your child’s environmental surroundings affect their neurodiverse characteristics. From a neurodiversity-affirming perspective, if your child is struggling, it’s likely that something in the environment needs to be adjusted.
opens in a new windowFoundations for Divergent Minds (FDM) is a nonprofit organization that offers training and education for parents and professionals who work with autistic and neurodivergent children. FDM recommends assessing 5 key areas to identify what environmental factors may be getting in your child’s way:
1. Sensory Integration
Understanding your child’s unique sensory needs allows you to modify the environment accordingly and helps your child advocate for their needs. Your child can fall anywhere along the hypo-sensitive to hyper-sensitive spectrum in each of the eight sensory system areas: Sight, Sound, Smell, Touch, Taste, Balance, Movement, and Internal State.
2. Executive Functioning
Does your child need help in an area of Executive Functioning (EF)? EF is made up of eight interconnected processes: Initiation, Inhibition, Working Memory, Planning, Organization, Self-Monitoring, Shift, and Emotional Regulation.
3. Respectful Communication
Communication comes in many valid forms—and behavior is a child’s earliest reliable tool. Neurodiversity-affirming parents respect and facilitate all forms of communication and support neurodivergent kiddos to communicate in the way that’s most authentic for them, i.e. through technology, ASL, speaking, etc.
Check out this opens in a new windowSavvy Psychologist podcast on how to communicate more effectively.
4. Operative Social Interaction
Social Interaction involves two or more people—each with their own style(s) of engaging interpersonally. It’s important not only for neurodivergent kids to understand how neurotypical people communicate, but also for neurotypical people to understand neurodivergent styles of thinking, feeling, socially communicating, and interacting.
5. Emotional Regulation
It’s hard for your child to regulate their emotional state when the environment isn’t a good fit for their specific needs. Identifying and resolving unmet needs promotes self-regulation and improves your child’s quality of life.
Practice makes progress
For the next couple of weeks, each day choose one of the FDM 5 key areas and tune in to your child’s needs and wants in that area. Where do they seem to struggle? When do they seem to thrive? What changes might you make in your home, at school, or to daily routines? What external accommodations would make their day-to-day lives and relationships easier for them?
Let me know what you learn by shooting me an email at !
Various spheres of society are based on the assumption that there is only one “normal” kind of brain and thus many systems (health and social services, education, employment, and even social relationships) have been built assuming that the only people taking part in those systems are neurotypical. As such, we’ve all internalized some if not all of the medical model of disability and pathologizing ways of viewing those challenged by disabilities. Creating an accessible society for neurodiverse people is beneficial for everyone—but requires self-reflection and continued learning from neurodiverse individuals.
If you’re raising a neurodivergent kiddo (perhaps you’re even neurodivergent too), and down with the neurodiversity perspective—start accepting, understanding, and appreciating your child’s neuro-differences—and your own too! Neurodivergent folks deserve to feel inherently accepted and safe in the world and also be able to access the things in life that bring them joy. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being different than “normal.” Embrace it, and your child will learn to do the same!
Parenting child with ADHD
Parenting kids with ADHD can be challenging, but your role as a parent is crucial for your child’s success as an adult. In his book opens in a new windowScattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do About It, Dr. Gabor Mate describes how the quality of the parent-child relationship can be used to help promote the emotional and cognitive skills that are underdeveloped in a child with ADHD.
A diagnosis of ADHD requires two of the following three features: deficient attention skills, poor impulse control, and hyperactivity. Your child may be easily distracted unless engaged in activities that they are highly motivated for or interested in. And then, when they’re involved in these high-interest activities, they might hyperfocus to the extent that they are completely unaware of the environment around them.
Your child may also have great difficulty inhibiting their speech or behavior. They might chronically interrupt others or have a hard time waiting for a turn. Regardless of negative consequences, they act impulsively and without forethought.
Your child’s reactions are influenced by your reactions to them.
If your child is also hyperactive—not all kids with attention deficits are—they may also have trouble being physically or mentally “still.” This might look like constant fidgeting, nail biting, and excessive talking and explaining. Other symptoms might be low motivation, poor memory, and social problems. People with ADHD also tend to have high emotional sensitivity, which can make for unpredictable and outsized mood swings and angry outbursts when interrupted or thwarted.
Parenting a child with ADHD can be anxiety provoking and frustrating, but reacting with your own impulsiveness, verbal and/or physical aggression, or helplessness will only escalate the situation in a vicious cycle. By the time families receive a diagnosis, this cycle has usually been in place for a while. Before embarking on any plan to help your child learn missing skills, it’s important to work toward opens in a new windowstabilizing your relationship with your child by doubling down on emotional connection. The closer you and your child feel to each other, the easier it will be to work together toward positive change.
Here are 10 tips on how to parent a child with ADHD
Be conscious of your own emotional regulation
As the person with the fully developed brain in the parent-child relationship, your moods set the emotional atmosphere in your home. Your child’s reactions are influenced by your reactions to them.
Model taking responsibility for your own emotional reactions. Rather than becoming overly exuberant or rageful, or falling into despondency and dissociation, focus on maintaining your internal emotional equilibrium. Don’t let yourself be controlled by your child’s challenging behaviors and moods. Learn to tolerate the internal anxiety that can arise in the face of challenging and ever-changing external circumstances. The emotional stability, safety and security that you can provide as a self-regulated parent is exactly what your ADHD child needs to to regulate themselves.
Change your lenses
Dr. Ross Greene, creator of opens in a new windowCollaborative and Proactive Solutions, invites parents to change the lenses through which they are viewing their children’s challenging behaviors.
When you view your child as doing well if they want to, you become focused on getting children to “want to” by trying to control their behavior with rewards and punishments. When you view your child as doing well if they can, you begin to focus on what makes it possible for them to do well and what gets in their way.
See your child in a positive light, as wanting to do well because they prefer their adults to be pleased with them. Your child’s challenging behaviors aren’t because they’re trying to give you a hard time. The challenging behaviors are a signal that your child needs your help.
Compassionate responses diffuse your child’s anxiety
Focus on your child’s need for connection that drives their challenging behaviors.
Often, behaviors that look like negative-attention-seeking are real attempts at connection. When met with disapproval, your child perceives that as rejection. Rejection ignites your child’s anxiety and shame, further escalating their challenging behaviors, and inviting even more disapproval from you.
The remedy to this escalating feedback loop is to opens in a new windowprovide connection before your child begins to demand it. Overfill your child’s emotional cup proactively, before it gets empty.
When your child does demand attention in button-pushing ways, pause, take a breath and resist responding with irritation. Instead, kindly respond with an I-statement like: “I can’t play right now.” Or “That activity doesn’t work for me at the moment.” Help your child tolerate your refusals by resisting the urge to shame your child for demanding your attention. Instead, tolerate their angry or frustrated disappointment with empathy.
Choose curiosity rather than blame
Kids with ADHD are often accused of intentionally seeking to control and annoy their adults. In actuality, in addition to poor impulse control and self-regulation, it’s often internalized anxiety, shame, and anger that can fuel their button-pushing behaviors.
Rather than jumping straight to scolding and admonishments, get curious about why your child might engage in harmful, annoying, or rigid behaviors. What in the moment or in their life could they have been reacting to? What needs were they trying so unskillfully to meet? Try to be understanding and supportive of these underlying needs and help your child meet them in more acceptable ways.
Understand your role in your child’s resistance
Children with ADHD often experience involuntary, reactionary, and reflexive resistance driven by an anxiety around being controlled.
This kind of rigid resistance is a developmentally normal reaction in a toddler or adolescent in the service of a child becoming an individual, separate from their parents. However, people of all ages with ADHD will often resist perceived control or force with an out-of-proportion amount of counterforce.
The escalating feedback loop of your child’s challenging behaviors and your resulting displays of disapproval increase your urge to control their behavior—often with scolding and punishment—which only increases the amount of resistance with which your child automatically reacts. Instead, prioritize connection over control and cooperation over compliance. When you and your child are strongly and warmly connected, they are less likely to resist you and more likely to want to cooperate.
Don’t take your child’s resistance personally
When you see your child’s challenging behavior as being directed at you, you start participating in the unhealthy cycle of control-resistance. View your child’s oppositional behavior as their nervous system’s reaction to the perceived threat of control. Instead of imposing consequences, prioritize empathy and opens in a new windowemotional co-regulation.
Don’t be blindsided by your child’s resistance
Realize ahead of time and accept that your child will often display opposition and resistance. Proactively plan to respond to that resistance with patience and understanding. Practice asserting your parental needs and limits with kind firmness rather than rage or helplessness. It’s important that your child be able to express resistance without the belief that such expressions will damage their relationship with you.
Validate your child’s feelings of resistance
Verbally acknowledge that your child dislikes the feeling of being controlled, but also offer more acceptable ways to express disagreement. “I hear that you don’t like being rushed to get dressed. I don’t like being spoken to with hurtful words. Next time you can say—’Mama, I need you to give me more time.’ Or, Mama – I get frustrated when you ask me things lots of times.’”
The more accepting you can be of your child’s differences, the more self-accepting and comfortable your child will be with themselves.
Practice relational repair when you lose control as a parent
As the parent of a child with poor attentional/emotional regulation and impulse control you will inevitably lose your patience. You can reduce the impact of your parental blow-ups on your child and your relationship with them by initiating a relationship restoring conversation as soon as you can following such an incident, once everyone’s heightened emotions have subsided. Preferably during a strongly connected moment, revisit with your child what happened. Show understanding for their resulting anxiety, fear, anger or sadness, and take responsibility for having lost control. This lets your child know that no impulsiveness on their part or your part will have any lasting damage on your relationship – that you’ll always come together again.
Encourage your child’s self-motivation by encouraging their autonomy
Allow and encourage your child to make their own realistic and developmentally appropriate choices within the calm, predictable, and supportive structure that you provide. Make sure your child clearly understands your limits and boundaries, but be generous with them. As long as their choices don’t deliberately and knowingly harm themselves or others, try to allow for and empathize with them even when you don’t entirely agree. Let them learn from the naturally-occurring consequences of their chosen actions, and show appreciation for their motives even when you don’t like the outcomes of those choices.
Now that you have some information on how to parent a child with ADHD, I have a challenge for you. For the next 30-90 days, pick one or two ADHD parenting tips to focus on and notice the impact on your relationship with your child and their behavior. Let me know how it goes!
Children with ADHD often feel very different and have trouble conforming to the neurotypical world. While parenting kids with ADHD can be challenging, the more accepting you can be of your child’s differences, the more self-accepting and comfortable your child will be with themselves. A self-accepting child who feels unconditionally accepted and loved by their parent has better self-esteem, can better pay attention, and can better regulate their emotions and behaviors. Win-win!
How to Help Your Anxious Child
Let’s talk about helping your children develop the skill of handling their fears and worries. We’ll go over how anxiety works, some of the signs of anxiety in children, and even provide a creative way to help your child reframe their worried thoughts toward the end.
When your child has a brain that is often telling them to anticipate every possible thing that could go wrong or to be overly cautious in a situation, it can be baffling and overwhelming for parents. You might find yourself feeling very overprotective, impatient, or judgemental because it’s hard to understand what your child is feeling or perceiving when they’re anxious. You can feel stuck—the whole family held hostage by your child’s anxiety. You don’t know how to fix it. You often wish for some kind of magic wand that could stop your child’s anxiety in its tracks. You might be wondering: why does this even happen?
Understanding how anxiety works can help you empathize with your child, and when they register your understanding and empathy, they are more likely to accept your help and your influence.
Fear helps humans survive
The human species would not survive without the ability to detect the presence or level of danger and take actions to avoid it—so we’ve evolved an inner defense system. In the part of the brain that processes emotional experiences is a structure called the opens in a new windowamygdala. It’s always scanning our environment for cues of safety and danger, and if the amygdala concludes that danger is present, it mobilizes all of our body systems to survive the perceived threat—to either fight, run for our life (flight), or play dead (freeze). When the perceived danger or threat has passed, the logical part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, sends signals to the amygdala to put on the brakes and settle down, and the body’s systems slowly return to its baseline equilibrium.
The thing is, the amygdala doesn’t always make accurate assessments and can cause your child’s body (or yours) to mobilize for survival when there is no threat or danger to fear. The interactions of genetics, how your child’s brain is wired, their temperament, the parenting behaviors they’re raised with, and environmental factors like trauma all contribute to your child’s sensitivity to or resilience in the face of anxiety.
Your child isn’t giving you a hard time, they’re having a hard time
It’s easier to empathize with your anxious child when you understand that anxiety impacts your child’s body, thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. Every child will be impacted in these areas to some degree, but your child could be impacted by one of these areas much more than the others.
Your child’s body may tense, tremble, or sweat. Their heart may race, they might feel lightheaded, nauseous, or have a dry mouth. Their body temperature might change and their pupils might dilate. These are all the body’s survival systems gearing up for a fight/flight reaction and when there’s no danger or when fight/flight actions are inappropriate to the situation, the build-up of that tension in their body is extremely unpleasant for them.
Anxious children pay more attention to things that make them anxious than things that make them feel safe or neutral. They also generally find more things threatening. Plus—when a child is anxious, they necessarily hyperfocus on the negative. The human brain has evolved to deal with threats first and put everything else on hold until safety is regained. So it makes sense that your child can’t pay attention or talk about anything else but their fear! Their mind is telling them there’s a fire and mobilizing them to put it out, but because the fire is imagined rather than real, there’s no fight/flight/freeze action your child could take to make themselves feel safe again. They’re stuck in tunnel vision about their fear without being able to make it stop.
Thoughts are not always intentional—they can just pop into our heads out of nowhere whether we want them or not, and anxious kids might have more anxious thoughts than other kinds of thoughts. Trying to push away thoughts usually has the opposite effect. Your child may spend a lot of time trying to push thoughts away that just come back bigger and stronger.
You might see a great deal of avoidance behavior—your child doing or not doing things in an attempt to stay away from anxiety-triggering things—and this avoidance can grow to include more and more people, places, and things. Anxious kids can have trouble sleeping or have lots of nightmares. They may undereat or overeat. They may be in constant conflict with family members, excessively clingy, irritable, rigid, or controlling, or have explosive meltdowns. They may not enjoy things they usually would. Your kiddo is struggling—they’re not trying to make you miserable. They don’t want to feel this bad.
Parenting strategies that can reduce anxious behaviors in kids
- When your child attempts a new challenge, acknowledge even a partial success and the coping efforts they made to attempt it, even if they couldn’t reach the desired outcome.
- Respond neutrally and calmly to your child’s anxious behavior—there is no actual emergency. Resist the urge to react with excessive concern or anger.
- Manage your own distress and take care not to introduce your own anxieties into the situation.
- During times of calm connection, work on collaborative problem-solving skills and positive parent-child communication that you can draw upon in the heat of your child’s escalated anxious episodes.
- Use a collaborative and democratic parenting style that makes room for your child’s autonomy rather than an overly controlling, punitive, or permissive style.
Helping your child with anxious feelings in the moment
The first step in making contact with a very worried child is through empathy. Verbally or nonverbally, acknowledge what is going on for them, let them know you’re on their side, and that you can see how their anxiousness is interfering with what they want to do. That could sound like: “I know this is making you really upset.” Or: “Everything feels like a struggle right now, I hear you.”
The next step is to reframe the problem as a glitch in their brain functioning—a false alarm telling them there is danger when there isn’t, so it’s not to be trusted. Invite your child to get angry with or humorously scold their anxiety for bothering them with annoying thoughts and lying to them about all the bad things that could happen. This can help your child learn to dismiss those kinds of worries when they arise. Help them differentiate their lying “worry voice” from their own thoughts.
Next, help your child do a true/false test on all of their “what ifs” of the problem to separate their feelings from the truth: Will every person in your class laugh at you if you raise your hand to answer a question? Will Dad forget to pick you up so you have to stay at school all night?
When your child is in the heat of an anxiety moment their body will get amped, going into survival mode. You can say, in a calm voice, “This is a hard moment, but I know we can get through it together! When you’re ready you can try to slow yourself down.” If they’re really agitated it may be some time before they’re ready to slow down their breathing. It’s important to firmly encourage them to do so when they feel they’re ready.
Then, help your child move forward. “If you weren’t anxious right now, what would you want to be doing? Let’s start doing that and then your brain can switch channels and get back to calm thinking.” And lastly, acknowledge how well they used coping skills to get through a tough moment! Praise any even partial behavior they did in the spirit of coping to reinforce their hard work.
Anxiety phase or anxiety problem?
It’s completely normal in childhood and adolescence to experience anxiety in new social situations, in the dark, when sleeping alone, after nightmares, and when dealing with the scrutiny of one’s peers on social media. But how can you know when your child is suffering from anxiety?
When your child is simply experiencing the normal anxiety that comes with things like challenging life experiences or difficult periods of development, their worry seems reasonable. You’d expect a child entering a new 3rd-grade class in a new city in the middle of a school year to be nervous on the first day, for instance. It’s an age-appropriate response.
Your child will be responsive to suggestions you might make for feeling calmer or making the day easier for themselves. They understand that they’ll have to face this temporary uncomfortable situation. They’ll accept your reassurance and take in the information you give them about what they can expect to happen. Outside of the school setting, they don’t display much anxious behavior. And as the school year progresses, the intensity of their anxiety begins to dissipate, and they gain some resilience from having weathered a challenging time.
It’s time to seek help for your child if they refuse attempts you might make to talk with them about the problem, if they don’t seem to understand what’s happening to them or how they might work on a solution, or if their distress seems to worsen rather than lessen over time and none of the help you offer them is actually reducing their worries. This might look like worry and fear that seems developmentally out of sync with their age and disproportionate to the situation, or them becoming overwhelmed or shutting down when you offer suggestions. Reassurance doesn’t help—they are distressed about the present and the future. They’ve begun to worry about more and more things and become focused on avoiding the feared thing rather than how or why they might overcome it. And perhaps you’re noticing that the anxiety has been interfering with their growth, development, and daily functioning for over a month.
Getting professional treatment
Anxiety disorders are the most treatable psychiatric condition—and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the gold standard treatment. It involves challenging anxious thoughts, exposure to feared objects and situations, relaxation techniques, and learning to take control of feelings. Medications can also be used to reduce childhood anxiety and are best used in conjunction with CBT treatment. It’s important to remember that beginning, discontinuing, or switching medications should always be done in consultation with a prescriber who has personally evaluated your child.
Make sure that in addition to treatment, your child is getting regular and nourishing meals, limiting caffeine, and getting an appropriate amount of sleep each night and physical activity or movement each day!
I challenge you to collaborate with your child on externalizing their “worry voice.”
Have your child think of a name for their worry voice, let’s say it’s Madame Scaredy. Draw a picture of it or make a puppet to represent it. Then you do a role play acting out the two roles yourself, both Madame Scaredy and your child’s real truth-telling voice, let’s call it Brave Sally.
You, as Madame Scaredy: “Hey Sally, don’t forget that swim lessons are REALLY scary. All that water? All that splashing? You gotta tell Mama that you don’t want to go!”
You, as Brave Sally: Oh no you don’t! I know this isn’t MY voice talking to me—it’s YOU Madame Scaredy, and I’m not listening! You’re so annoying! And you don’t even know me, you’re just a false alarm!”
Or: “Oh just stop it! My parents wouldn’t even let me be in danger—so obviously swimming lessons are safe Madame Scaredy!”
Or: “Hey! You’re just my brain overreacting silly, but I don’t need to.”
Or even: “You’re just an annoying pop-up—I’m clicking ‘close’ now!”
Do two or three rounds of the worry voice telling lies and Brave Sally giving that Madame Scaredy worry voice a hilariously hard time. Then invite your child to join the role play and give them a chance to play the brave voice.
For older children, explain that worry is their body’s false alarm going off when there isn’t anything dangerous to deal with at all – or at least isn’t as threatening as their brain’s proverbial “spam” is telling them it is. Invite them to give their spammy brain voice a funny name and boss back the worry when it tries to trick them. Let them know the more they correct the spam worry voice, the more their brain gets used to sending alarms when there’s something risky happening – and it won’t bug them with the little things. Invite them to draw a picture of their spam worry brain and role play with them some ‘bossing back’ the spam they get from their brain.
Tell teens that they can learn to treat their inner worry talk (their brain overreacting) differently than their rational thoughts, that they don’t have to trust it. Imagine it’s a caricature of a bumbling superhero super-villain. They can choose to pay it no respect – give it no authority – and turn down its volume or turn it off entirely. With practice, they can teach the super-villain over-reactive part of their brain to calm down more and they can think more rationally about their abilities and what they can handle. Ask them if they want to practice. If so, you can role play!
Then, the next time your teen comes to you with a worry or fear, after acknowledging how hard it can be to have thoughts like that, you can remind teens that they can turn down the volume on their inner super-villain. With young kids, try saying something like:
“Uh oh—sounds like Madame Scaredy up to her old tricks again! Well, not this time, pal—Sally is in control here! You tell ‘er Sally!” and see if your child joins you in bossing back their worry voice!
Test it out and report back!
Your kids need to feel safe coming to you with their worries, so instead of telling your child to “just get over it” or colluding with them to avoid any kind of discomfort or distress, show them that you’re on their side and that you get it. Get the support you need so that you don’t get overwhelmed by your child’s distress, and so that you have the bandwidth to help your child realize that things get easier when they deal with the things that cause them anxiety rather than avoid them.
opens in a new windowChansky, T. (2008). Freeing your child from anxiety: Powerful, practical solutions to overcome your child’s fears, worries, and phobias. Harmony.
opens in a new windowLebowitz, E. R. (2020). Breaking Free of Child Anxiety and OCD: A Scientifically Proven Program for Parents. Oxford University Press.