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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!

Turning No to Yes in Oppositional Kids

We had just moved to a new house, where my teenage son was in the basement and my bedroom was on the main floor. I called down the floor to my son “dinner’s ready!” and waited for him to appear. Seconds ticked by, and no reply. I called again, a little louder. Still no reply. Hesitant to climb downstairs in a body that was aching from unpacking all day, I tried a third time, more loudly. “Don’t yell at me!” he replied, and still didn’t come upstairs. Exhausted, sore and frustrated, I began to eat dinner alone. Halfway through, he came upstairs and said “why did you eat without me?”. I explained I had called him 3 times and he never came upstairs. He said “I don’t like it when you yell at me, that’s why I didn’t come.”

Boy makes the protest. Isolated.

As we continued to live in this new house, I noticed that often when I called downstairs to him, even for something positive or neutral, I would get an automatic “no” or the question “am I in trouble?”. He was pretty used to being in trouble, as his stubborn refusal to comply with almost any request made for rough going. He wouldn’t be seen in public with me. He wouldn’t do his homework. He wouldn’t sit inside his classes in school. He wouldn’t pick up after himself or do any chores without threat of dire consequences. He was very often grumpy, angry and out of sorts. Living together was difficult. He’d been diagnosed with ADHD long ago, and had always struggled in social situations. The move to high school seemed to put him over the edge.

I knew my kid was struggling emotionally. Although he was attending a school he had chosen, and he got himself to school early each day, he was calling me several times a week pleading to go home due to headaches or stomach aches. He was “too tired” to do homework or chores, and he really did seem tired. The child who used to love to be always at my side now would hardly speak to me. He came home and slept, seemingly from exhaustion. I worked tirelessly on his Individualized Education Plan (IEP) at his school, trying to improve the experience so that he would be able to succeed.

He was diagnosed with depression, and new medication was tried, but didn’t really help. I re-examined how I was parenting him, which was basically a behavioral model with consequences, and realized it just wasn’t working. My child clearly was struggling with his mental health, and needed that struggle to be acknowledged. I began to involve him directly in solving the problems his behavior created, using a method called Collaborative Problem Solving. (link to website). I began with the upstairs/downstairs problem. I asked him why he often said “no” or asked if he was in trouble when I called down the stairs to him. He said when I yelled it sounded like I was mad. I asked him what he thought we should do about that. He suggested I text him when I needed something, rather than call down the stairs. Problem number one sorted.

Next, we discussed him calling out from school sick frequently. He said the noise, crowding and sometimes the academics made him feel overwhelmed, making his head and/or stomach hurt. We discussed various ways to cope with this, including taking a break from the classroom, using his earbuds during individual work time, taking deep breaths, etc. We got some of these items added to his IEP. We also made an agreement where he could call out sick from school once per week if needed. Over the months, we narrowed that down to once every 2 weeks, then to once per month, until it was no longer needed. This didn’t make school easy for him, but it let him know he was not alone in trying to make school work for him.

For chores and hygiene, we discussed what the problems were and how we could both have our needs met. He didn’t like some of the chores he had been assigned, and also wanted to learn how to cook, which was usually my chore. We switched some of his chores around to ones he liked better, and agreed I would give him cooking lessons and do the dishes on the nights he cooked or helped cook. The aim was not for the result to be completely fair, but arrange things so there was less strife in the home, less reasons for him to get locked into the “no” mindset. Little by little we began to work on all the things that spurred on the “no” response, such as where to sit in the car, being reminded to do chores, being asked to do something that was not agreed on, etc. For each one, at a time when we were both calm, we discussed our viewpoints and came up with a compromise, often one that meant I was shouldering a little more of the housework or yard work. I didn’t see this as a win just for him, it was also a win for me. Most of what was draining my energy was the emotional work of managing his negative emotions. If I could do a little more physical work and have the benefit of a child who mostly complied or talked things out rather than stomp off, yell at me or refuse to speak with me. I also was very pleased to know that the “yes” and compliance pathways in his changing teenage brain were finally getting more of a workout than the “no” pathways. He was learning skills that would help him manage throughout his adult life, which was looming ever closer. Most of all, we were connecting and I had more glimpses of the loving kid I remembered from childhood. I could finally see a path through the struggle, and so could he.

8 Easy Steps to Improving Your Teenager’s Sleep

Why is your teenager not sleeping well?

Have you noticed your teenager is staying up all night texting on their phone or playing video games? Do they complain of being too tired to do homework? Do they sleep the weekends away? Or do they complain of disturbed sleep or problems falling asleep? Here are some steps you can take to help your teen improve their sleep.

  1. Observe: Over the course of a few days, make a mental note or physical list of the effect lack of sleep or poor sleep is having on your teen. When they get up in the morning you can ask “how did you sleep?” and have a short discussion with them about their sleep. If they didn’t sleep well, ask a few more questions, such as “did you have a problem falling asleep or staying asleep?” “did anything wake you?” “how long were you awake when you woke in the middle of the night?” “what did you do when you woke up?” Also try to notice the effects of lack of sleep, such as grumpy mood, needing a nap in the afternoon, being too tired to do after school or evening activities or a drop in school grades.
  2. Model: Consciously model positive sleep habits, even if you don’t usually follow them. For example, you could say “I notice if I go to bed too late I’m too tired the next day, so I’m going to bed now.” “I’m going to get away from screens now because I’m going to bed in an hour and I want to be able to go right to sleep.”  
  3. Discuss: Choose a quiet time to discuss with your teen about their sleep habits.A car ride is a great time for this type of discussion. This is not a time to scold, it is a time to be curious and a helpful problem solver. For example: “I’ve noticed you seem to be having a hard time sleeping/staying asleep at night and I wonder if that is why you’re too tired to do homework in the evenings. I know you really want to go to X University, and I am worried about how that might affect your grades. Have you noticed a problem with your sleep?” (If they don’t, use your memory or notes from step one to remind them of what they told you or what you observed to gently encourage them to acknowledge their sleep issues). Ask if they would like to learn how to have better sleep. If Yes, go to step 4. If not,  leave the door open by telling them you are ready to discuss it anytime, and then go back to step 1 and try again in a few weeks. Sometimes teens, like all of us, have to think things over for a while before they are ready to make change.
  4. Educate: Let your teen know the benefits of adequate, good quality sleep. These include doing better academically, having higher test scores, having fewer accidents, including car accidents, getting along better with others (even parents), getting sick less often, having less moodiness, being less likely to be overweight, depressed and have behavior problems. Here’s a link to a video if you think that’s an easier way for your teen to absorb the information: https://youtu.be/xxxWv6PM4EM .
  5. Assess: Explore with your teen the items that might be contributing to poor sleep. No Sleepless Nights website lists a number of sleep tips you can review with your teen.  Make a list of the ones that apply to your teen’s sleep situation.
  6. Plan: Choose 3 or 4 items from the list for your teen to try out. Help them implement the tips if they like. For example, you can help them blackout all the lights from their room. One idea if your teen usually sleeps with their phone so they can listen to music is to buy a cheap bluetooth speaker that can be synced to their phone with the phone placed outside the room and the speaker inside. That way they can listen to music without being tempted to text friends at midnight. Another idea might to be agree on a bedtime with your teen and have them set an alarm for 30 minutes before their bedtime so they can start their bedtime routine.
  7. Reassess: Using the process in #1, assess if the changes made are helping your teenager sleep better. Point out any changes or improvements you notice.
  8. Repeat: After one week, if your teenager’s sleep still isn’t what they would like it to be, repeat steps 5 and 6, adding some other sleep hygiene tricks to what you are already doing and then reassess again after one week.

What if none of this works? That might mean it is time to talk to your teen’s doctor. Let the doctor know everything you have tried. Sleep problems can be caused by physical or other problems, so medical assessment is a good idea if none of the above have helped. Or, if you are having a hard time even having this conversation with your teen, maybe you need some parent coaching to get you through it. If so, I’m happy to help! Email me at wiseowlparenting@gmail.com to set up an appointment with me or check out my website for more information at wiseowlcoaching.org .

Mindful Parenting: Non-Judging

Judge Owl sits at the bench, gavel in hand—er… wing.

In the American justice system, judges are supposed to be fair and impartial. They are supposed to look at the evidence objectively and make a fair and balanced decision, that doesn’t rely on their own biases. So the mindful attitude of non-judging seems a little backward. Don’t we as parents need to judge? Don’t we need to teach our children right from wrong? 

I don’t want to disrespect the American justice system too much, but it is clearly broken. People get differing treatment based on their age, ethnic background, religion, socio-economic status, parenting status, and more. Special needs children who grow into adults suffer at the hands of this unfair system. Why? Because judging people is inherently biased. It is also a trap. It slaps labels on behavior and calls it all the same. Stealing groceries to feed your family is counted the same as stealing a gaming system you just “can’t live without”. 

Non-judging in the mindful parenting sense means to look at your child in the present moment and assume the best of your child. For example, if your child gets home after school and is grouchy and complaining about everything, just raring to pick a fight, you might say to yourself (or even your child) that he’s just being a brat. He needs to learn how to behave himself. So you start piling consequences on him to get him to behave better. Does that usually work? What about once you start having to administer all those consequences? Can you follow through? Does it help your relationship with your child?

Or, you can think to yourself, that’s right, we got to bed late last night and he had soccer after school today, so he is probably both tired and hungry, causing him to be dysregulated. I’m going to offer him a snack and see if I can get him to settle on the couch and rest until dinner. Later, when he is well-regulated, you can have a chat together about how he was feeling and how he might regulate himself in the future. This both models for him and teaches him how to regulate himself, which is important because dysregulation is at the root of most misbehavior. 

Non-judging also means other things, like not classifying days as “good days” or “bad days”. They are just days. Grading them only leads to disappointment. Same with labeling behavior good and bad. It’s just behavior that is trying to communicate a message you may or not be able to understand. It’s also important to be non-judging of yourself and your parenting. You are constantly doing your best, and your best may fluctuate from day to day. That’s perfectly OK.

Non-judging also means not bringing the past into the present situation. If you carry the fact that your child yelled at you this morning into this afternoon’s dysregulated behavior, it will only exacerbate the situation. Your child may be actually feeling guilty and defensive about his morning behavior. If you join with him on that in a blaming or shaming way, you are increasing his negative emotions about the situation.

Now, the criminal justice system tries to use these blaming, shaming and punishing tactics to keep criminals from re-offending, but how well does that work? Rehabilitation is what really works to keep behavior from repeating. One definition of rehabilitation is the action of restoring something that has been damaged to its former condition.

You can rehabilitate the morning situation with your child by saying something like “I wonder if you might be feeling upset over yelling at me this morning and wondering if I’m still mad at you.” If the child agrees, a reply could be “it did hurt my feelings, but more it made me worry what might happen if you yelled at one of your teachers like that. What do you think?” If your child doesn’t agree that is how he is feeling, it would still be good to acknowledge that you are not holding a grudge from this morning (if you can sincerely do so).

As parents, when children find a way to push away from us, it is our job to find a path of reconnection, because many children, especially those with attachment issues, are not equipped to do so. It is important to see our children as they are in the present moment, without holding all their past behavior against them. Yes, your child might have a misbehavior “rap sheet” that is pages long, but what if you wiped all that clean and just viewed your child as you did the very first day you met them? Maybe they were a newborn baby, a squirmy toddler, a sulky teenager. Start again with fresh eyes and a fresh heart, without judgment. Connect to your child with unconditional love. 

Welcome to Holland

For my first blog post I thought it fitting to talk a little about the poem below. The first time I read it was an “ah ha” moment for me, and perhaps it will be for you, as well, if this is your first time reading it. Now that my children are young adults, we can joke with each other about how tough some of their disabilities make their lives and my life. In those moments where I’m expressing my displeasure with the messy state of the house that I share with my 18 year old, he likes to playfully tell me “you knew what you were signing up for, Mom! “. I always reply “I had no idea, son!” in a joking way. But that answer is truthful.

When I adopted 3 children from foster care who all had significant challenges, I was still naive enough to believe that lots of love and good parenting would wipe away any problems that arose. Instead, it has been a transformative journey that has been so challenging  at times that I did not think we would all make it out alive. I think I got the Mount Everest version of this Holland poem.

Well-meaning acquaintances who don’t quite understand ask “do you wish you would have given them back?” and I want to harshly reply “would you give back your child?” but I don’t. I know what they are asking. Would I avoid all the pain, heartache, stress, financial expense, and chaos? And no, I wouldn’t, because without all those challenges to strengthen me, I would never have been able to see the view from the top of Mount Everest.