153: How Creative Parenting Helps Neurodiverse Kids, with Nina Meehan

Picture of hosted by Penny Williams

hosted by Penny Williams

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Creative parenting not only helps you create moments of magic, but it also fosters trust and independence, emotional expression, out-of-the-box thinking, happiness through connection, and the ability to let go of perfection. Creative parenting can cut through the stress, anxiety, and struggle to bring more light and joy to your child, yourself, and your family, as well.

In this episode, theater producer, Nina Meehan, shares the basics of creative parenting and the tools you need to embrace creativity in all aspects of your parenting. We all have creativity within us — Nina helps you rediscover it and use it to bring more magic and joy to your family.


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My Guest

Nina Meehan

Nina Meehan inspires creativity and imagination in the broader community as a skilled theatre producer, award-winning director, and dedicated arts educator, with expertise in youth development.

Nina’s award-winning theatrical work for young people as CEO and Founder of Bay Area Children’s Theatre has reached more than 1 million kids and adults and has toured nationally and internationally. She is also an internationally recognized arts educator and youth theatre specialist.

As president of the board of directors of TYA/USA, the national organization of theatres for young audiences, she actively engages in outreach and advocacy on behalf of the profession and the issues it embraces.

Nina speaks and writes frequently about creativity, arts education, nonprofit management, and theatre for young audiences (TYA) and she is the host of the Creative Parenting Podcast.



Nina Meehan 0:03

The process of creation gives kids that self efficacy that allows them to see themselves as creators. And there's nothing more independent, and there's nothing more strengthening than seeing yourself as a creator.

Penny Williams 0:21

Welcome to The Parenting ADHD podcast, where I share insights and strategies on raising kids with ADHD straight from the trenches. I'm your host Penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author, ADHD a Holic and mindset mama, honored to guide you on the journey of raising your a typical kid. Let's get started. Welcome back to The Parenting ADHD Podcast. I'm really excited today to be talking to Nina Meaghan and we're going to talk about creative parenting, and how this can be such a wonderful tool, when things are hard when things are easy, great tool for connection with our kids. And also can be really powerful in helping our kids with big emotions and lots of other sort of struggles that come up pretty often for kids with ADHD or autism or anxiety. Thanks for being here. Nina, I'm really excited for you to share some of your insights and wisdom and creativity. With everyone listening. Can you start just by letting everybody know who you are and what you do? Sure,

Nina Meehan 1:33

Thank you so much for having me. So I am trained as a theatre artist, I've worked in the world of youth arts, education and children's theatre. For my entire career, I actually started working in the world of children's theater when I was 16 years old when I was basically still a child. And I'm a mom of three, my oldest was a 31 week preemie, and had some developmental delays and has an ADHD diagnosis. And I really love the part of my work, where I bring families together through the creative lens, where they experience a show together or experience a workshop, and understand how to connect with each other in a slightly different or new way. And that little spark of joy that happens when people bring their creative selves together. So that's who I am. And I'm really thrilled to be here on this podcast, because I think it's such an important topic to be talking about with parents of neurodiverse kids, we need all the tools we can get. And this is just a toolkit that's actually a lot easier than a lot of adults think, because we've put up so many walls for ourselves blocking our own creative self and our own creative play.

Penny Williams 2:51

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I feel like most of us are not very creative, day to day, and we've just sort of lost that spark. I think sometimes we feel like, well, we're the responsible parent now. And we have to be serious. And you know, and it's such a shame. It's such a big shame. And I feel like maybe parents too, will think that if they're not good at creative endeavors, music or art or drama that maybe they shouldn't be creative with their kids. And what would your response to that be?

Nina Meehan 3:24

Oh, I'm so glad you started with this question of the good kid with a capital G. Because I would say this is probably the number one barrier of parents engaging in creative play themselves and with their kids, because we live in this world of like Pinterest. Perfect. Yeah. And the idea that oh, when I say, oh, yeah, talk about creative parenting. People immediately go, oh, well, I can't craft. And it's like, I don't care if you can craft. That's cool. I mean, for those of you who can do craft projects, that's awesome. But I'm actually talking about like, the messy side of creative, the fun part, the place where it's not about an outcome that has a particular desired look or feel. But it's about the process of being creative and the process of engaging in creative play. For so many adults, we've had these stories in our head, right? I can't sing, I can't draw. Because you know, at some point, like when we were in second grade, there was that one kid who could do those things really, really well. And the teacher gave that person all the praise. Yep. And so we label ourselves is the one who couldn't? Well, in reality, we are all creative beings. I mean, any one of us we are all capable of picking up a paintbrush or picking up a pen and making a squiggle or a doodle or whatever it is or opening our mouths and letting sound come out, because that's what singing is, is just opening our mouths and letting sound come out. And there's so many ways to engage in the creative process without having it have to fit in a box of perfect and light ourselves relax about that.

Penny Williams 5:02

Yeah, I love that you brought that up. My daughter in college is actually an art student. And she has fallen in this trap so many times, while I'm no Picasso or you know, and it's like, yeah, they were great, but we all have value and beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right. So, what one person would deem like this wonderfully creative work, another person might think, is terrible. And, and none of that really matters. None of it matters. What matters is our enjoyment of the process. Right? And of connecting with others.

Nina Meehan 5:37

Exactly. And, for those of us who are parenting neurodiverse, kids, the opportunity to have tools that allow for weak you, we know that mindfulness is helpful. We know meditation is helpful. All these pieces are great, but they're really hard for kids to execute, like telling a child okay, mindfulness well, great, but what's something that they already know, kids are already like, they are programmed, their language is play. They're all innately creative beings. It's how they interact with the world. It's how they learn. And so if we, as parents can support that and actually speak their language, it breaks down those barriers where you know, I mean, you talked about, how we sort of get trapped in practical, we wake up, we have to get the breakfast on the table, we have to get the lunches in the day, we have to get into the car to get to the school, right? We have this constant like demanding schedule. Well, that's not necessarily how our kids are programmed, our kids are programmed to say, whoo, I see a big giant cardboard box in the middle of the living room. What if it's a spaceship? Right? And then we need to still get them to school? How do you how do we make that happen?

Penny Williams 6:58

Imagination, exactly. Right. imaginative play. I mean, that's creativity, too. I won't say it's easy for everyone. But I think that it's mostly achievable. For everyone. You know, there are some people on the spectrum who just struggle with that. But for the most part, as parents, we can dive into that curiosity and that imaginative play that our kids are already doing, they're already enjoying.

Nina Meehan 7:22

Exactly. And for some kids, it'll be imaginative play. For others, it would be music, or for others, it might be art, or whatever it is that they are using to communicate. And for some, it could be storytelling, from their own lens, right? It doesn't have to be imaginative play the way that the neurotypical community thinks about it. There's a lot of imaginative play where you're diving deep into a world that somebody else has created, and then starting to think about that world and learn everything you can about it. All of that is exercising your own ability to see yourself in a different world or see yourself in someone else's shoes. And his parents. We don't actually have to know how to do it. This is like a one of those secrets that people are like, oh, man, I can't do imagination play with my kids. But we have movement, which is dance as something as simple as freeze dance while you're in the kitchen, or feelings movement, I see that you're feeling sad. What does that look like in your body, or I see that you're feeling angry, and that you're expressing that through movement by throwing yourself on the ground. I respect that your body needs to feel anger right now, right? So we have lots of different forms of movement. It doesn't have to be like this isn't you know, ballet class. Right? Right. So story. And this is something that's very close to my heart, because of course, I make theater for a living. But story is something that is just, it's a fundamental way that we as humans communicate with each other, think back to cave people era and sitting around a fire and telling stories. And stories help to bring out the experience of a scary experience or something like that. So you can use story to model what might happen or have a child tell you? Well, this is something that I'm excited about. Great. Tell me the story of that, or hey, I'm feeling scared about something cool. Let's talk about the story of what that might feel like or what that might look like. Music obviously, music is traditional music, like you can play music on your phone. You can play it on the piano, but it's also sound effects silly noises, learning how to use your voice to lighten a moment and reduce stress like our voices are incredibly powerful tools. And as parents, I'm even something as simple as remembering to lower our tone in a moment of high tension. Yeah, right. Like there's a reason that kindergarten teachers and librarians always speak in whispers because it works right. They listen, they leave In, it calms them. So we have this incredible tool of our voices and music, which is so powerful when kids need an opportunity to release emotions or express their joy. Whatever's happening in that moment. We've talked about this already, but visual art, and by this I mean, painting, gluing, drawing, making of any kind ripping up paper, I love ripping up paper, it makes the most cool thing, right, you rip it up and glue it down. And that's I mean, talk about a visceral experience that's connecting to your body. And wow, how powerful is that? Rip? Right? Yeah. And then the last one is games, gamification. And games fall into creative play, because kids respond to games and learn without even knowing it? Yeah. So the more that we can bring games in games are 100% creativity in action, particularly if we are using a lens of play, and allowing that game to feel light and fun,

Penny Williams 11:06

and even encouraging to create your own games. My son took an art class in high school that was on creating games. And what he thought it would be was video games. And what ended up being was more about board games or experience games, right. And so it was such a process. And it was pretty fascinating to watch, because you did have to adjust, you had to come up with a concept. You had to make a mock up of it. And then you had to try it. And what if it didn't work the way that you expected it to work, then you had to pivot and you had to come up with a new idea and something else creative, and keep working at it until you had something that actually worked. But kids, especially young kids love to make up their own games, right? I mean, I remember my daughter, especially when she was younger, she had a new game, she made up every other day that we were playing, right that the whole family had to try out.

Nina Meehan 12:03

Oh, absolutely. And gamification is also your best friend, when we're talking about as parents, there are practical things that need to happen. Every parent has tried at some point in their life to do a countdown, right five, four, that's a game, that's a game or race to who can get their shoes on faster, any of those things. And obviously, you have to be aware of your own child's needs, for an anxious child who can do it faster game is probably not going to feel good. But maybe a game about, oh, well, we better be emptying the dishwasher. Because otherwise, the mean, which might come and cackle in your head, like like just using that imagination, making it a game, engaging gamification and story together, these are really powerful tools, because again, it's speaking the language your child is already speaking. It's just that we as adults, forget. And we speak our language. And our kids don't care.

Penny Williams 13:06

Yeah. And, injecting fun and creativity, like that often breaks the tension. You know, it's something that can really help us when things are getting tense, and people over emotional, we just kind of need a little breath, and a little break from what's going on. Injecting, a fun voice or, all of these things that you're talking about. It just breaks the tension. I'll never forget a therapist that we had speak at the happy mama retreat one year in, she said, when things are tough, you open the freezer, and you start talking to the peas, you have a conversation with the peas, and really what she was doing was being creative and breaking the tension. And you know, it's really hard to stay super raging mad when your mom is talking to the peas in the freezer, right? Or when your mom is the witch that's coming to get you or whatever it is.

Nina Meehan 14:01

Exactly. And I want to just own and recognize that asking a parent to open the freezer and talk to the peas or you know, or to suddenly remember that, oh, we left the unicorn in your bedroom, can you go check, I think the unicorns next to your shoes, which you need to go and grab, having those moments. As a parent, it's really hard. It's hard to stop and get out of our own reactivity totally, and giving ourselves permission to just take that deep breath and stop. Okay, where can I find the creative play in this moment? I think is something that the more that we can really allow ourselves to know that it's okay if it's hard, the more successful we're going to be because it's easy to say, Oh yeah, let's just all be creative and to a certain degree, it does become practice and it does become habit once you've done it over and over again. Right once you've Add success Yeah, with adding in the silly voice or bringing in the fairy godmother, and whatever it is, then it's like, oh, that thing worked. Let's do it again.

Penny Williams 15:11

Right, right, then it's top of mind. Yeah, it is so very hard to stop in a moment that we are also struggling not just our kids, but ourselves and find a different path, right to find something else. Because what we're doing in that moment isn't working anyway. But it is hard. It does take a lot of practice. And, and it really starts with awareness, trying to really practice some awareness of what's going on for yourself, what's going on for your kid. You know, one of my parenting mantras over the years has been that my kid isn't giving me a hard time my kid is having a hard time. Then I can say, okay, now I understand what's happening here. It's not personal. And I am able to now think more clearly, right? Like, my cognitive brain can come back online now, because I've toned down that emotional part. And now I can think about bringing in creativity, what can I do to sort of break the moment, and it just takes a lot of practice, it takes time to get there, but everybody can. And I don't think, I can hear some people saying, but you know, you're taking away the seriousness of the moment. Like, your kid can't just throw things and rage at you. And now it's funny, and it's okay. You're not saying that it's okay. Right? You're not reinforcing that behavior. You're helping everyone through it, so that when you're on the other side of it, you can work on it.

Nina Meehan 16:47

Exactly. And then when you're in that reactivity moment, when you're in the moment when the child is having a tough time, their system is too overwhelmed, to even be able to understand this behavior is not okay. Mm hmm. Right? Like you can't have that conversation in that moment. Now, what we can do is interrupt the moment, surprise, the moment basically surprise the child system enough to help them shake themselves out of that moment. And for some kids, that can happen easily. And for others, that's a multi hour process. And I respect that that is so hard, and so challenging. But the more that we can put the money in the piggy bank for later, so that the trust is there, the connection is there, so that those conversations can happen? Hey, I saw that this was a challenging moment for you. Let's talk about what was happening inside? What was the emotion inside? Could you paint me a picture of what that emotion looked like? Yeah, then you're in a place where for some children, and depending on their age, and you know, their specific emotional state at any given moment, they're actually capable of starting to express themselves. Mm hmm. But you're not gonna be able to do that in the moment when they're on the floor screaming like, it's just not there, can't they? Right, like, no, they're in fight or flight? And we respect that like,

Penny Williams 18:11

okay, yeah. And knowing that alone is so helpful for parents, their emotional brain has taken over their cognitive thinking brain is offline. Yeah. And doesn't matter how much you talk and rationalize that isn't gonna work, because it can't work. Yep. Because physiologically, that part of their brain is just not online right now, at that moment. Oh, yeah. And I want to say to that, what we're talking about isn't going to work all the time. Absolutely. You know, like, sometimes the meltdown is just so severe. And, everybody has completely flipped their lid. And, talking to the PS, it's just not gonna break what's going on. And that's okay. Yeah. And, sometimes you've just, you've fallen so far off the cliff, that they really have to recover their brain, their system, their nervous system has to recover. And that's okay. But there's so many times where we can bring in this creativity, this fun earlier, and maybe we prevent ourselves or our kids from falling over the cliff, right?

Nina Meehan 19:11

Yeah. And even if we don't prevent, right, because there are things we can't control, yeah, what we can do is find that joy, find those moments of magic, find that connection. In the little moments that aren't the tense moments in the moment of, I'm pouring Cheerios for you. And all of a sudden, that Cheerios start to make interesting noises as they fall into the bowl and paying attention to what that rhythm is, and sharing a moment over that, or, a quick goodbye in the morning where you transform yourself into a silly ogres or have a good time at school today, or whatever it is. Sometimes if we can sort of give ourselves those moments of joy. It doesn't balance out but it at least makes some of those harder moments easier for us to remember as Parents, okay, this is hard right now, let's look forward to the next moment of connection. Let's remember that we had a fun, silly dance party this morning, as we were, putting on our clothes or something I used to do with my oldest when he was four years old, he was very challenging Lee slow at putting on clothing. And so we started doing a robot where I would become the robot and he would have to do for every piece of clothing we made noises be wrong would be the pants coming on and, and all of a sudden, something that was driving me absolutely bonkers, which was that it would take him 45 minutes to get on a shirt. Mm hmm. We were able to work together, have fun, and it didn't become a source of tension. For me. It was never a source of tension for him. But it was for me. But instead it became a moment of shared connection. That was really fun. And we laughed every morning.

Penny Williams 20:57

Yeah, what you're talking about here, and texting. Creativity is for all of us. It's not just for our kids benefit. It really does benefit us as parents as well, we we get so caught up in the day to day and just kind of going through the motions, I think that we often are not really sort of living, we're not noticing the moments, we're not cherishing the moments or, filing them away as memories or anything. It's just kind of going by, and this is a way to really, live life. I know that sounds cliche, but it's a way of bringing that joy to the surface. And especially when we have kids with challenges. We need more of this right? We need more of the reminders that there's so much joy despite the struggle.

Nina Meehan 21:49

Yes. And I think as parents, it is so easy for us to forget that parenting can be fun, as she says hesitantly knowing that there are many people out there that it doesn't feel fun. And I get that and I respect that. But particularly when parenting a neurodiverse. Child, let's, let's find something it's fun in it for us, right? Like what are our, if you like to dance, if you like to sing or even if you don't remember that you do, but you did when you were a kid. Anything that you did as a child that you enjoyed is probably your language of creative play. Yeah. So I was an imagination game person, right? All I want to do is live in my imagination. Well, now as an adult, guess what, I love stories. I love reading. I love telling stories. I love watching television with a really phenomenal, compelling story. And all of that is my own version of creative play. I'm lucky enough, I also get to do it for a living, right, because I direct Theatre for a living. But it can be the small things. And so remembering what we did as child, bringing that into our own adult lives and sharing it with our kids is a really great first step for bringing creative play into your paradigm. And so

Penny Williams 23:01

powerful for us as adults. Like I think we get so disconnected from who we were as a child. And I'm just so inspired myself now to just like really sort of focus on what brought me joy. When I was younger, what can I bring back into my life and my world and making time for it? That's another big piece for parents, we have to make time for this stuff. We have to make time for the lighter part of life and parenting. Yes, there's a lot of struggle. But when we live just in that place, it's just perpetuating. Yes. You know, it's just keeping us focused on nothing but struggling. It's really, really holding our kids back a great deal. And I think just finding some levity, and making those magical moments is the key. It's the key to getting through parenting in general. But you know, even more challenging parenting for some of us with neurodiverse kids.

Nina Meehan 24:03

I mean, we find time to brush our teeth, right? Because we know it's the right thing to do for our teeth and our health and all of those things. Mm hmm. It doesn't have to be much longer than that. It can be a couple minutes a day. And in the same way that that's good for our teeth and good for our long term health. creative play is good for our soul. It's good for our anxiety, it's good for our depression, it increases connection. The studies are so clear that the long term benefits of bringing creative play into your world. It's not just good for your health, your mental health and your entire family's well being. It really is a I don't want to get, too overly dramatic, but it really is sort of the ultimate way to bring mindfulness and consciousness to the process of raising kids.

Penny Williams 24:51

Yeah. 100%. Absolutely. And we're out of time, of course, because this always tends to happen and there's just so much goodness to talk about. But I want to be sure that we wrap up in a timeframe that's helpful for our parents so that they can get the whole conversation through in that little snippet of time they've found somewhere in their day. To learn more from you, Nina about creativity in our parenting and creativity in our lives. I think creativity should be one of the aspects of wellness. Absolutely, we need to start really focusing on bringing that in and sort of reconnecting with ourselves in that way too, which is so powerful. I hope that everyone has been inspired by this conversation, and has some new, wonderful tools to use with your kids and for yourself. We can't forget ourselves as well. For everyone listening, you can find Nina online, her work her podcast, which we should mention creative parenting podcast as well, and all sorts of stuff through our show notes page for this episode, which is at parentingADHD,andautism.com/153 for episode 153. And again, I strongly encourage you to learn more by connecting with Nina and getting more inspired to bring creativity into our daily lives again, thanks so much, Nina for sharing a little bit of not just your time and your wisdom, but also your energy. It's infectious and really inspiring. I think for so many of us.

Nina Meehan 26:31

Thank you so much for having me. This has been really fun. And I will see everyone on

Penny Williams 26:35

the next episode. Thanks for joining me on the parenting ADHD podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share. And don't forget to check out my online courses, parent coaching and Mama retreats at parentingADHDandautism.com

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Thank you!

If you enjoyed this episode, please share it. Have something to say, or a question to ask? Leave a comment below. I promise to answer every single one. **Also, please leave an honest review for the Beautifully Complex Podcast on iTunes. Ratings and reviews are extremely helpful and appreciated! That's what helps me reach and help more families like yours.

I'm Penny Williams.

I help stuck and struggling parents (educators, too) make the pivots necessary to unlock success and joy for neurodivergent kids and teens, themselves, and their families. I'm honored to be part of your journey!

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About the show...

I'm your host, Penny.

Join me as I help parents, caregivers, and educators like you harness the realization that we are all beautifully complex and marvelously imperfect. Each week I deliver insights and actionable strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids — those with ADHD, autism, anxiety, learning disabilities…

My approach to decoding behavior while honoring neurodiversity and parenting the individual child you have will provide you with the tools to help you understand and transform behavior, reduce your own stress, increase parenting confidence, and create the joyful family life you crave. I am honored to have helped thousands of families worldwide to help their kids feel good so they can do good.

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