Dedicated to Ellie
To be fair, it wouldn’t surprise me if you are! Parenting a neurodivergent child is not easy without access to the information, tools and strategies we need to support and educate ourselves, not to mention trying to access the educational and health professionals we need. In fact, right now advocating for a neurodivergent child asks for skills that would look really good on the CV of a senior corporate manager.
A typical ‘OE’ neurodiverse (more) able or bright child, has a level of sensitivity and intensity, and a strength in their emotional reactions, that often is overwhelming for the children themselves, who don’t know yet how to direct constructively the energy associated with neurodiversity. This can be a real challenge for the close and extended family members who are supporting them, who may also be dealing with a child who has difficulty sleeping, which affects their own rest time.
The first time we realise we have a child that is different from the norm, when we are told they are ‘odd’, ‘weird’, ‘too sensitive’, ‘overactive’, ‘aggressive’ or ‘selfish’ etc., can be a lonely place.
We understand that our children are evolutionarily designed to want to please their caregivers and if they are struggling to do that it is because they aren’t able to.
However, as the child grows up often we are presented with all kinds of unasked advice and sometimes mental health diagnosis by our family, friends and bystanders that can contribute to us feeling isolated and unsupported. People standing on the sidelines around us – other parents, extended family, professionals – may blame and shame us by critiquing our parenting instead of supporting us, thinking that the child’s behaviour is the result of poor parenting skills. Such figures might suggest we are being too soft with our children, or too strict, and are quick to advise us on where they consider we are going wrong, leaving us feeling we don’t have anyone to turn to for support.
“We are always the best person we can be, and that is good enough!” Simone de Hoogh
When we come to the conclusion we have a neurodivergent child, we often have to go through a grieving process. Our preconceptions of parenting have likely taken a big hit and we have lost the ‘normal’ child we had hoped and planned for, those ideas and dreams about playing football, going for lunch, sleepovers and heading to festivals have gone out of the window. We may also experience grief because we feel that our child may have a difficult path to tread, as we often discover when they enter the educational system.
Besides that we also often revisit our own childhood and see that we ourselves are also neurodivergent, and grieve about the lack of understanding and compassion for ourselves as a child we experienced, and how that lack of support has influenced our path and confidence. So of course, because we love our children we want to compassionately understand them and do everything we can to support them, even at the cost of our own wellbeing.
Compassion is the key
Yes, compassion is key – and not only for the child, but also for us. When we fly in aeroplanes, we are told that in the event of problems parents should put their own oxygen masks on before putting them on their children. We can take this analogy into life, too. We can’t help our child if we have metaphorically run out of oxygen ourselves.
This may feel counterintuitive for those of us with emotional OE, who can be prone to putting others’ needs above our own. However, our ability to care constructively for our neurodivergent children increases with the compassion, appreciation and care that we are able to give ourselves.
If we are exhausted, we are much more likely to be triggered into a stress response. In fact, on waking up we can feel already overwhelmed, which is no wonder when we are running on empty. Below are some ideas that work for coping with being exhausted for many individuals and families – and me too! This is solely focussed on building our energy level and emotional resilience up.
When we are overwhelmed it can be useful to switch off inputs into our nervous system for a while.
When we are in overwhelm our brains are on alert all the time, even though we may not realise it. Small changes in our environment can start many levels of processing, for instance if we see something moving out of the corner of our eye, or hear a noise, our brains get busy trying to make sense of this new information.
Creating a sensory time-out is done by preventing new sensory data entering our brain, so nothing has to be processed and our brain can have a break.
Step 1: Stop demanding
Mums are never able to do nothing, there will always be practicalities we need to attend to.
But we might constantly be on our own case thinking we should be doing more. This can trigger our stress response and consequent feelings of guilt if we don’t live up to our own expectations, which of course we are unlikely to do because we haven’t got any energy. So let’s give ourselves the same level of compassion as our children. We recognise in them that they aren’t doing something not because they ‘won’t’ but because they ‘can’t’. We need to extend the same compassion to ourselves and see that we also ‘can’t’. In this scenario, we need to declare ourselves incapable of doing anything extra on top of the minimum we need to do for the foreseeable future, declare ourselves ill if possible. This will help to stop those thought processes that we ‘should’ be doing more than we are currently capable of, which will help prevent draining our energy further.
“Whenever I get irritable or start feeling stressed, or I notice my mind drifting off to thoughts that are not helpful, I use the awareness mantra followed by the 4-7-8 breathing exercise, which helps me to be calm while also strengthening my baseline.” Anna, mum of three
Step 2: Plan daily downtimes
If possible break the demands of the day in two, maybe even in three. This will help ensure your stress levels don’t build up too high over the day, because some of that stress will likely dissipate during your downtimes.
Because it can be hard to start new habits, especially when exhausted, make them as doable as you can. It’s very normal when exhausted to feel resistant to changes even if you feel they would be helpful. If that is the case you could perhaps aim to take a short break mid-morning and another one mid-afternoon at whatever point works best for you and add more minutes weekly or as you get more comfortable with it.
Use these times to doze off, listen to music or a spoken book (not too scary), do a guided meditation, have a bath. You may find that at first your body (and mind!) find it hard to relax, but trust in the process and it will come. If you have the energy you can do the The Awareness Mantra whenever you have an unhelpful thought followed by the ‘4-7-8 breathing practice. But it may be that you don’t have the energy for those, and if that is the case accept that is where you are and be kind and compassionate to yourself.
If you are working and you are not able to plan daily downtimes, use the ‘4-7-8 Alarm‘ to prevent building up stress during your working day, by adapting the frequency of the alarm to your stress level. You can also use all the sensory time-out tools described below during your work, by dedicating maybe a few minutes per hour to applying them.
Step 3: Creating sensory time-out
Creating a sensory time-out means we are aiming to either prevent sensory information from entering our system or preventing emotional reactions in ourselves. Applying a sensory time-out practice will help to strengthen our baseline, which in turn defines how well we are able to take care of ourselves and our children. We can create sensory time-out by:
Close your eyes
Visual signals pass through more than 10 stages of integration, involving many different areas of the brain. They perform signal-processing functions that include feature detection, perceptual analysis, memory recall, decision-making and motor planning. (Source)
So no wonder that just the act of looking activates our nervous system. Closing your eyes, even for a small while, will help you become calm and rest your brain.
“When my baseline is low, I try to refocus on myself, taking care of my own needs (as far as possible) before giving to others. When there is a lot going on, it’s often not easy, and I often start rebuilding first my baseline with a ‘sensory time-out: getting back in bed’.” Mary, mum of a tween and a toddler.
To strengthen our baseline when feeling uncomfortable or anxious it helps to look down (below eye level). Ensure you do this while keeping your head level so you don’t constrict your ability to breath freely, which can further activate your central nervous system.
Cancel out noise
Noise-cancelling headphones are a great help in calming down our, and our children’s, nervous system.
People with sensual overexcitability (OE) might be “hardwired to produce an “excessive” emotional response”, and can often overreact to noise. This article Misophonia: Scientists crack why eating sounds can make people angry shows that science has demonstrated what many of us with OE already knew, that certain noises can be physically and emotionally painful for some people. For many, this gets worse when we are tired, worried or hormonal, which is one of the many reasons why keeping up our baseline is so crucial. Wearing noise-cancelling headphones (US) or ear defenders (UK) can be a good way of protecting ourselves and our child from being overwhelmed by an emotional reaction to noise. You can also explore Loop, earplugs designed to reduce sound stimuli adaptable to your needs.
The Awareness Mantra
The Awareness Mantra is a simple and fast tool that can bring calm in a challenging situation. It stops me in my tracks for a few seconds. Every time I am aware I am feeling overloaded, or have a negative thought, I just say (out loud if possible) “I’m proud and grateful to be to be aware that I have an unhelpful feeling (or thought or action)”, this creates some space and helps me break a the unhelpful thinking loop. It helps strengthen my baseline and create more calm and harmony in the family. For more information on this please see The Awareness Mantra.
The 4-7-8 breathing technique
The 4-7-8 is very simple and quick to do, and highly effective. Put simply, you breathe in to the count of four, hold for the count of seven and breathe out through the mouth to the count of eight. (The breathing needs to be performed with the tongue on the roof of the mouth just behind your top teeth – you will know you are doing this correctly if it produces a faint ‘whooshing’ sound). This sequence should not be performed more than four times in a row. For more information on this please see ‘Breathe the 4-7-8 ‘ and ‘The 4-7-8 Alarm‘.
Distraction can be a useful tool in escaping the cycle of negative thoughts and overwhelm. One of my favourite displacement activities is to play BlockuDoku on my phone. I disable the sound (I can’t cope with sounds when I’m overwhelmed) and disappear to another room (or toilet) without any explanation and play a game. BlockuDoku and similar games help me to stay calm, or get calm if the primal part of my brain gets overactive, by forcing my brain to think and thereby redirecting its activity. And, of course, a great side effect is that I get better at the game!
The value of the PowerPose
Whenever we feel overwhelmed at home with the children, we can just stand up, make fists and bump them up into the air while jumping shouting triumphantly ‘YEAH’, and children will join in very naturally as they love it.
“Fake it until you make it” Amy Cuddy
The PowerPose is a universal way of expressing triumph and success, and by making the gestures we will induce the feeling that comes with it. As Amy Cuddy says in her TED talk: “Fake it until you make it.” (See the talk here – Your body language may shape who you are ). This article ‘The proven way to feel less anxious, more confident & more empowered in two minutes’ gives some background information and this is the research it’s all based upon.
I wish you lots of compassion for both your child and above all for yourself!
© 2023 Simone de Hoogh, senior coach and educational and parenting consultant, and founder of PowerWood. All posts by Simone de Hoogh
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