Parenting a Neurodivergent Child Is Hard! Self-Compassion Is the Antidote to Stress and Pain

Parenting a neurodivergent child can be exhausting. The stress, the worry, the ongoing lists of extra things to monitor and manage can seem endless. Often it feels like there’s no spare moment to do anything other than be on constant guard for what is coming or might be coming.

It is hard for those who do not parent a neurodivergent child to understand how complex, sad, and draining it can be to see your child constantly triggered, flaring up in ways beyond the child’s ability to control and your ability to resolve.

Parents of neurodivergent children commonly report that when they share with other parents that things are difficult, the response is often, “Yes, my child also screams and has meltdowns.” This is a well-intended but confusing response, leaving many parents of neurodivergent children wondering why it is so hard for them to cope with things that other parents seem to manage just fine.

Parents of children suffering from a variety of diagnoses are vulnerable to such stress. This includes parents of children with Sensory Processing Disorders (SPD), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), conduct disorder, Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD), and neuroimmune conditions such as PANDAS/PANS/AE and many more.

What these children share in common is this: The reptilian part of their brain is unusually sensitive and reactive. Once triggered, it persists in staying in control of brain functions longer than it should. This means that tantrums, meltdowns, or high anxiety are more easily set off and last longer than they otherwise might.

But neurodivergent children often can’t calm down. Worried parents respond by turning up the intensity of their cajolery and discipline; children react further and become even more out of control.

When parents eventually reach out for help, they often end up with the wrong kind of therapy. Behavioral and cognitive modalities should not be the first line of intervention in most circumstances for neurodivergent children, but, in fact, they lie at the core of training and treatment for most therapists.

It is equally important that parents and families also address the toll of the stress and trauma that they, the caregivers, are facing as a consequence of neurodivergence.

Self-compassion as an antidote to shame, guilt, and feelings of inadequacy

Feeling inadequate, ashamed, and guilty is common for neurodivergent parents. The best strategy for living with these inevitable feelings is rather counterintuitive: Don’t try to change how you feel.

Trying to change how we feel creates a signal that something needs to be changed or fixed in us. This signal is itself so stressful that it can activate our own survival mechanism and add to the stress we carry.

It is difficult not to judge ourselves for all the things we wish we could have or should have done differently. Many parents get sucked into a downward cycle of their own, dominated by self-criticism and constant struggle to change, to be “better,” to be “fixed”.

Self-compassion offers a path out of this trap.

Simplified self-compassion:

  • As a general rule, remind yourself that you are always doing the best that you can at any given moment. Given a choice, you may have responded differently to this or that. But you couldn’t. It happens to everyone!
  • When you are able not to try and change how you feel, you “expand” your response to what you are feeling. When you criticize yourself you “contract.”
  • When it is difficult and painful, say: “It’s ok to feel pain, it’s ok to feel this way” “I don’t like to feel this way but it is okay to feel this way.” Saying this helps your nervous system calm down. The more you do it, the more you expand your ability to relax when you choose.

Excerpted from “Parenting A Neurodivergent Child is Hard!” by Odelya Gertel Kraybill Ph.D. Read the full article online in Psychology Today.

Source: Psychology Today | Parenting A Neurodivergent Child is Hard!, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/expressive-trauma-integration/202108/parenting-neurodivergent-child-is-hard | © 2021 Sussex Publishers, LLC

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