Unsticking Sticky Brains


I ask my son to put his plate in the sink and am met with a blank stare. I’ve asked him all week to sweep up a pile of trash by his room and it is still there. I ask him what time he has to leave for work and he says “why do you need to know?” I tell him it’s chore time and he tells me “no”. He is still angry at me for making him get off his video game last week, but is confused why I am upset he broke my favorite fruit bowl by being careless doing the dishes. I ask him to sit in a different seat in the car so we can transport a friend, and he begins to cry.

Does this sound familiar to you? I could go on for pages with these situations. I call it “Sticky Brain Syndrome”. Children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, prenatal drug exposure, Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and other brain differences often have Sticky Brain Syndrome. Why does this happen? The reasons are many, but some of them include:

  • Slow processing: Think of it this way. A neurotypical brain is like the processor in the most expensive computer, and children with sticky brains are dealing with a processor from a 1990 Dell personal computer. It is much slower and glitchier than a neurotypical brain.
  • Confusion: Due to learning and/or cognitive deficits, the child/young adult did not understand what you asked. Maybe you used a word they weren’t familiar with, or said something indirect hoping for a result, like “boy, I wish this living room was picked up!”
  • Memory issues: Maybe you gave a multi-step command, like “please finish your meal, rinse your plate and put it in the dishwasher.” Because their brain doesn’t have efficient working memory, they could only remember the first step in this command, which will result in them getting stuck on “I did what you said!” and truly believing it.
  • Negativity bias: All brains are wired to think of all the negative scenarios attached to an action. For children who have experienced trauma, this negativity bias is heightened. It is a protective mechanism, focused on thinking of all the possible life-threatening problems that might arise from an action. This can also result in a child saying “no” automatically to anything unexpected in an act of self-protection.
  • Lack of cognitive fluency: Cognitive fluency is the ability of the brain to quickly adjust to changes in plans, new ideas, the ease of thinking about things. When poor cognitive fluency is coupled with slow processing speed, the brain can grind to a halt.
  • Anxiety/fear: Fear and anxiety can trigger fight/flight/freeze behavior that cause the brain to get sticky. For example, walking into a noisy restaurant with lots of people in it can cause anxiety to rise, prompting a freeze response in which the person stops in their tracks and refuses to be seated. Fear of certain items or situations can cause similar reactions, for example, one of my children was afraid of garbage trucks and would refuse to take the trash out due to this fear.
  • Stuck in opposition: Sometimes children and young adults are in a “groove” of opposition and just start saying “no” to everything, no matter how small. I’ve had children refuse meals, ice cream, family outings, etc. when stuck in this mode.
  • Lack of attention/focus: In children with attentional problems, they might not have been paying attention when you spoke to them or be paying enough attention to remember what you said.
  • Physiological state: The child or young adult might be too tired, hungry, emotional or depressed to absorb information.
  • Executive functioning problems: Many children with ADHD, FASD, and ASD have significant problems organizing information and making action plans to resolve situations. For example, they may understand they are supposed to clean their room, but once they go in their room, they can’t figure out where to start, so they just start playing with their toys instead.

Now that we’ve looked at many of the reasons for these behaviors, what can we do about them? There is no one-size-fits-all approach. The reason for the behavior, the personality of your child, and your own parenting style all impact which response will work in any given situation. That being said, here are some things to try:

  • Time: Give that slow processing brain time to process. Don’t expect instance compliance. I often count to 30 in my head while I wait for my kid to think things over. Give it a minute or so and ask if they heard you.
  • Reapproach: If you get an instant “no”, wait 5 or more minutes and check in again. Sometimes they will spontaneously go ahead and do what you asked, be sure to praise that! If not, I use “are you ready to _____ now?” If that still gets a “no”, I ask “when do you think you’ll be ready?” and then make a suggestion if I get an “I don’t know.” For example, I would say “what do you want to do before you do _____? “ and then ask “how long do you think that will take you?” I might give a time frame if my child has a hard time quantifying time. Once we reach an agreement on the time, I set a timer for them or have them set the timer.
  • Support: If you think what you asked is too difficult or the child/young adult might think it’s too difficult, offer to help them get started. This is especially important if it is the first time they have done something, for example, putting dishwashing detergent in the dishwasher. Something that might seem simple to us may seem daunting to them.
  • Repeat after me: If you think your child is not paying attention or has attentional problems, ask them to look you in your eyes and repeat what you asked them to do. If they still seem detached, check for understanding “what does that mean to you?”. Often we have unspoken wishes and don’t realize it. For example, we might ask them to do something and expect them to do it immediately, but they plan to do it later. Clarify when you want the chore done and get an agreement from them (be prepared to compromise on the time).
  • Once you have, then you may: Use this phrase to encourage your child to complete their chore. Instead of saying “no screens until you do your chore”, say “once you finish your chore, you can have screen time”. It’s a subtle difference, but avoids telling the child they can’t do something directly.
  • Setting a compliant mood: If you have a child who is stuck in a cycle of opposition, find something to engage them in where they are saying “yes” to you. This could be offering a treat, doing a fun activity (often one that seems a little destructive, like “let’s go throw dirt clods at the hill”, will be a winner), or something else you know will be hard to refuse, but it’s best if it’s something you can do together. This will help to set a compliant mood so that they will be more likely to say “yes” to your request.
  • Meet physiological needs first: Sometimes kids get stuck in crying, whining, refusing because they are hungry, tired, sick, emotionally upset, or feel disconnected. Meet these needs by offering snacks, a rest, ask how they are feeling, discussing emotionally upsetting things that have happened, giving hugs or shoulder rubs, making it clear you are caring for them. It can be frustrating to have to delay what you want to do for these reasons, but your child often CAN’T do what you ask until these needs are met.
  • Provide structure: Children with poor executive functioning need help planning and organizing chores. They may have been able to do something independently last week, and be unable this week. These children often have uneven brain performance, just as we all do, but have less resources to pull from to make up the gap in performance. They might need the job broken down into smaller parts with time limits, instruction for each section of a job, and help problem solving. For example, for cleaning a bedroom, give them a clothes basket and say “put all the clothes in this basket. How long do you think that will take you?” If they offer a reasonable time, accept it and set a timer. Let them know if they finish on time, they will get a break for screens or playtime. Check back when the timer rings.  If they completed or came close to completing, give the reward for 15 minutes or a set time, letting them know the next task will be putting all the toys away (or whatever). If the child is not able to be successful with this structure, provide more support, such as “if you pick up one, I’ll pick up one, let’s see how fast we can do it!”
  • Close the loop: Some children perseverate (get stuck on) certain subjects or perceived wrongs. It is best to give them a time to air their thoughts. Give a time limit and just LISTEN. Don’t justify or explain. For example, if a child wants to talk nonstop about trains, say “I’m going to listen to you tell me all about for trains for 5 minutes and then it will be time for you to ______. Will you agree to stop talking about trains and _________ if I let you talk about them for 5 minutes?” With a complaint, just letting the child be heard and letting them know you understand their feelings, but we still need to ______, often will help them move on.
  • Cognitive fluency problems: Provide an outline for each day, so your child knows what to expect. When plans change, let them know as soon as possible. If you’re not able to let them know ahead of time, help them prepare their brains and gather their resources by using a warning such as “I’m going to tell you something that might be hard to hear, let me know when you’re ready.”’ If you have to have a hard conversation or discuss an issue, warn them ahead of time and let them let you know when they’re ready. Usually they won’t be able to wait long as they are anxious to know what you are going to tell them.

There are many reasons our children get stuck, and many ways we can help them unstick them. The more we can understand why they get stuck, the more we will be able to help them unstick. Here’s to less sticky times ahead!

Do you have other techniques that work for you? Or a question about how to handle a certain situation? Comment below!

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