By Susie Hopkins
It’s a heart-breaking reality that as humans we tend to behave in ways that push others away when we need them most. As mums of kids with neurodevelopmental conditions such as ADHD and autism, we see this all too often. Before I learned about autism and how to meet my son’s ever-changing needs, we had so much conflict in our little family.
Harry, who’s now 7, was completely out of control as a toddler – biting, scratching and hitting – he was like a wild animal at times. I would never have believed just how much a toddler can hurt others until I went through this. It is when our kids are having a hard time and need more love than ever that we are tested in ways that you can’t imagine until you’ve been though it, sometimes beyond our capacity to cope.
In these moments, we end up running out of patience, losing our temper, yelling at our kids and behaving in ways ourselves that we feel so ashamed of. The conflict that can arise as we struggle to understand and meet our gorgeous kids’ complex needs can be the cause of so much distress. Only other mums who have been through this can understand just how traumatic it can be.
What can we do?
Any mum who has been there wants strategies. But it’s before everything gets out of control that our actions will have the most impact. It’s essential we take a step back and focus on putting in place strategies that prevent our kids from getting out of control in the first place – as much as possible.
It’s all about setting our kids (and therefore us) up for success. This means we must enable them to stay as emotionally ‘regulated’ as possible. (Making sure their senses are regulated is also really important and OTs are really helpful in this regard).
One of the most regulating forces in our kids’ lives is the strength of their connection to their mum. But it’s not only the strength of the connection you have with your kids that’s important. For our own wellbeing we also benefit so much from intentionally nurturing all the connections in our lives. These connections make sure our cup is full to provide our kids with the support and understanding they need when times are tough.
In this article, we will explore how to strengthen and improve the quality of all the connections in our lives because this is paramount when it comes to mental fortitude. First, we’ll take a look at maintaining a strong connection with our children and then we’ll look at how to nurture the other important connections in our lives.
What is emotional regulation?
Understanding and managing emotions is called emotional regulation. For those of us with ADHD and who are autistic, it is very common that controlling our emotions more difficult than it is for others. This often applies to both the parents and the kids so that conflict may arise more often than in other families.
Because they develop differently to other kids, we need to therefore have realistic expectations of what they’re are capable of developmentally and take extra care in making sure their environment enables them to them stay as regulated as possible.
Most of these kids have the social and emotional development of a child much younger than they are. So, a three-and-a-half-year-old autistic/ADHD child may be able to manage their emotions as well as a child who is just two. And primary school children may have the emotional development of a child two years younger.
Remember, human connection and a sense of belonging is a basic human need for survival. When kids don’t feel a strong sense of connection, they will be in ‘fight-flight mode’ more often and will likely become more out of control. Their nervous system can go into in overdrive because their stress levels are too high too much of the time. This is when everything becomes unmanageable.
Reframe won’t as can’t
Meeting neurodivergent kids’ needs in this way can be challenging as they may need more connection than most kids but our ability to cope may also be compromised. To help you cope when you feel your child is being defiant, it’s very helpful to remember that what can look like defiant behaviour usually isn’t. It’s not as simple as that.
Even when our kids appear to be blatantly defiant, if we look deeper, we will be able to see that they are trying to communicate a need. Kids on the whole will do ANYTHING to please their mums. Mostly, they will only willingly upset you if they’re expressing deep hurt or anger and they feel less connection than they need.
If we see challenging behaviour simply as defiance, this is likely to lead to conflict and makes providing emotional stability more difficult. Having patience and understanding is so important, even though it can be hard to muster when our own stress levels are through the roof. But if they’re repeatedly not doing what you want them to, the likelihood is they can’t.
And remember that they may have been able to do what you’re asking of them last week, are even yesterday, but that doesn’t mean they can do what you’re expecting of them all the time. Capability can change from day to day depending on tiredness, hunger, and all sorts of other factors.
Attachment and emotional development
With all the tasks we need to get done day in day out, it’s easy to forget that our kids need to feel really connected and have a strong sense of belonging to develop in a healthy way emotionally. This strong attachment is absolutely critical to them being able to regulate their emotions.
If we prioritise this above all else, as more important than therapy, developmental milestones or the hundreds of things that we all need to get done every week this will make such a difference. This means intentionally and actively tuning into your child and responding to what their behaviour is telling you that they need and being as responsive as you can be.
Whenever possible, building time into your routine to pay full attention to your child, play with them and spend time doing the things that they love. If you let them lead and allow them to control what happens they will feel less out of control in a world that wasn’t designed with them in mind. Then they’re likely to feel less need to control things in other ways.
Never mind teaching them that the world doesn’t work this way. That can come later when they feel secure and they can regulate their emotions better as they get a little older.
Co-regulation is the idea that however we feel, our kids will pick up on and mirror back to us – and vice versa. I’m sure you’ve heard before that the behaviour we model to our kids impacts their behaviour, but it goes deeper than this. If we are frazzled, they will feel frazzled and vice-versa. This is why ignoring your own needs really is problematic.
Doing everything in your power to nurture your soul, to experience as much joy as possible and to promote your own mental wellbeing doesn’t only benefit you, it’s essential to your child’s happiness as well as your own!
We need community and connection to adults too
Intentionally nurturing our relationships with our partner, girlfriends, other family members and the wider community is also going to have a positive impact on your whole family. Making time for you to have quality time with people who make you feel great can be difficult when you’re busy with family and work commitments.
Seeing this time as an important part of meeting everyone’s needs can make it easier to make time to do so. Even if it’s a long call with a girlfriend or sister, a cuppa with a neighbour or a movie with your partner, it will make a difference to your stress levels. If your life becomes solely about looking after your kid’s needs, your ability to co-regulate will suffer.
You might also consider telling those closest to you how hard things can get with lots of detail as otherwise they can’t possibly begin to understand what you’re going through. Sharing the tricky times helps create more connection. If you strive to give the impression that everything is fine when it’s tough, no-one knows that you need extra support!
Lastly, don’t forget to ask for help when you need some time out so you can spend time with your partner or friends. If you don’t ever get a break, you’re setting yourself and your kids up to be stressed out which just makes everything worse. Respite can be difficult for us mums to consider, but it doesn’t have to be. You can learn more about the many ways you can build respite into your family’s life in a way that suits your needs here.
At the end of the day, quality connection with others has a calming influence on both ours and our kid’s nervous systems. It follows then, that a harmonious family life depends on us doing whatever we can to nurture and strengthen all the connections in your lives. After all, I know the saying goes “happy wife, happy life” but in my mind, what’s far more relevant is “happy kids, happy life”! And with this in mind, I hope this article motivates you to nurture all the important connections in your life.
A service offered by this author – Parent Support and Education Program:
Do you ever wish you had a knowledgeable sounding-board to help you meet your child’s complex needs?
If the answer is yes, Susie can help. As well as being a parent to a child with complex needs, she has a Masters’ of Public Health, is a Registered Nurse and worked for many years at the Royal Children’s Hospital & the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.
This online consultation service can help you with: Getting clarity on how to meet your child’s needs | Practical day-to-day tips | What specialists and therapists to see | How to get NDIS funding and much more.
For more info go here – www.lilowellness.com.au/supportservice.