183: How to Foster Connection with Neurodivergent Kids, with The Behavior Revolution

183: How to Foster Connection with Neurodivergent Kids, with The Behavior Revolution

Picture of hosted by Penny Williams

hosted by Penny Williams

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One of the most impactful and transformative aspects of parenting is your relationship with your child (this is also true of the teacher-child relationship). A solid, calm, trusting relationship helps keep everyone regulated and feeling good. In this episode, Sarah Wayland, Ph.D. and I offer you four actionable strategies to foster connection with your child and build the relationship you want and need.


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My Guest

We’re Penny and Sarah, parenting coaches who help neurodiverse families like yours understand your child’s neurology and behavior, and shift your parenting to help your child thrive — without the frustration of trying to figure it out on your own. We’re also moms of boys with ADHD and/or autism, so we get it. We live it, too.



Sarah Wayland 0:03

When you are calm and projecting that calm energy into the world, your kids feel that they feel that you're calm. So if they're upset, they can we call it borrowing your calm, they can borrow your calm, and it helps their nervous system to calm down when you are able to stay calm and connected with them.

Penny Williams 0:25

Welcome to the beautifully complex podcast, where I share insights and strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids straight from the trenches. I'm your host, Penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author and mindset mama, honored to guide you on the journey of raising your a typical kid. Let's get started.

Hi, everyone, and welcome back to the beautifully complex Podcast. Today, we have our monthly behavior episode from the behavior revolution with Sarah Wayland. And I, Sarah, you want to say hello, hello. We get silly with each other. And we're going to talk about how to foster connection with neurodivergent kids. And Sara and I both believe really strongly that connection and the relationship that we have with our kids is very powerful. And it can really help with any of the types of struggles that are going on. And the stronger the relationship that we have with our kids, the more connected they feel with us, the better things are gonna go. And so we wanted to talk to you today about how to build that connection, and that relationship with our kids. Sarah, you want to say anything else? In the intro? Before we kind of dive into our, our list of strategies?

Sarah Wayland 1:55

Yeah, one of the things I wanted to say is that, when when you have kids who are having a really hard time coping with the world, I think sometimes we protect ourselves by cutting off that connection with our kids, because we're protecting our own emotional safety. And our kids feel that. And the thing is, is that it is through connection that our kids are willing to put themselves out there and try to do something more. And so you know, because they're like, Well, my parent thinks I can do this. So I'm going to try, right. But if they don't feel connected to you, then they're just going to be like, Oh, here's another thing I'm supposed to do. And so the connection, I mean, the connection truly is what it's all about. Like that's the best part of being a parent and being in a family is being connected with each other.

Penny Williams 2:49

Yeah, having that connection support. Plus, we all know that. When we have connection, we are regulated, and we can be calm, and we can feel good, which then allows us to be able to do good. So there's a lot to that. But just connection in general, is a fundamental human need. Right for everyone, not just our kids who are neurodivergent. Exactly. There's a fundamental need for everyone. And, and so much comes from that. Yeah, as you were saying it really builds trust, it allows them to trust us, and to come to us with things or to be open to doing what we ask. So it's so very important.

Sarah Wayland 3:31

And to have faith in themselves. Like, oh, if my mom thinks I can do this, maybe I can do this.

Penny Williams 3:38

Yeah, yeah. I'm thinking about all the times that my kids probably didn't get that message from me. And we've all been there, right? Because not all perfect parents, but I can think about times where my own stuff got in the way of that. And my own stuff made it seem to my kids, like, I didn't think that they were capable. And part of that is definitely part of the relationship. You know, they have to feel positive things from us, or they're never going to have that connection. That is really valuable. You know, for me for a long time. I was in fix it mode. And so all I did was think about read about talk about ADHD nonstop to everyone every waking hour. And it clergy out into the family though. And it actually pushed everyone away from me. Yeah. And so what you were saying is very, very important that what we're giving off, they're receiving. Yeah, and we have to be very mindful about that. In order to foster the relationship that we want to have.

Sarah Wayland 4:51

And you know, Penny, one of the things that's heartbreaking about that story, is that you were doing it because of your powerful love for your Children, right? Like that was what was driving you is this incredible need and desire to help them, like be able to navigate the world. And you were doing all that because you love them so much. Right?

Penny Williams 5:17

The intention is always good, right? What I think is so hard about being a parent, is that our intention is always good. It's always to help. But so often, it's not quite the right thing, or the best thing, or it's not received in the way that we intend it. So often, we're trying to help and our kids do not feel like we're trying to help, right? They feel like we're trying to do anything but help them or that what we're doing is not helping.

Sarah Wayland 5:46

There's there's a difference, right? There's a difference between doing things that are not helpful versus not even trying to do something helpful.

Penny Williams 5:56

Right. Right. Yeah. And again, it comes so much of it comes back to teasing apart with our stuff. And what's actually our kids, I am an individual thing. xiety. And so, I have lived my life through that lens of particular things that were very anxiety provoking for me. Yeah, and especially as a child and in social situations. And so I have really projected so much of that onto my kids, unintentionally thinking I was doing what they needed. Yeah, because it was what I needed when I was their age, right. But it was actually not helping them. And sometimes it was hurtful. Sometimes I was giving them my stress that they didn't need, that they didn't want. It wasn't important to them until I stressed them out with it, right. Which is really hard. I can I actually think of an exact example of that. Two days ago, I was in the car with my kids, and we were going to an event and the traffic was heinous. All the roads to the parking garage were blocked. It started at a particular time, and I am very time conscious. I feel like it's super rude if you're not on time. It's just a me thing, right? And so I was getting keyed up and keyed up, and the streets were crammed and people were walking in front of my car, like one stressor after another right. And what ended up happening is that I stressed out my already super sensitive, stressed out kid 10 times more. And there was a lot of resentment. But say for that, when we got to where we needed to be. And, I couldn't control my own stuff in that moment. And I disputed on everyone in that it was a little digging a little hole in my bucket of relationship, right. And it happens, it happens because we're all human. But the more we can be aware of when we're doing that, when we're putting that energy out there, that's ours, and that our kids maybe don't need or want or deserve. Before super aware, as much as we can be, we can try to prevent that. And that preserves the relationship.

Sarah Wayland 8:07

It's so hard Penny, because I mean, yes, of course, what you're saying is true. And at the same time, you're a human being and you have your emotions, and they are real. And it's not like we can be robots, and just navigate the world without emotion. Right. And so part of it too, is how do I say this, like letting them know that you have an emotion that you're having feelings? Without taking them down with you? You know?

Penny Williams 8:39

Right? Which can be super hard, especially when we have super sensitive kids? Yeah, exactly. Because they so much are more prone to you know, taking that in and taking it on themselves or being triggered by it. Right? Exactly. And it is really hard because we do want to show our kids that we're human, we have to we have to let them know that people make mistakes, and it's okay,

Sarah Wayland 9:03

Right? And they feel bad, right? Like that you are having bad feelings like you were having anxiety about being late and you know, all the traffic making you even later and all that. And I think knowing that people have those feelings, like then it's less surprising when you see it in somebody else. Like if we give our kids a false expectation that people don't ever get upset about anything, then they don't know that people who get upset about things also recover from being upset, right, and that they will get through it and that it was a momentary feeling. And you got through it and it went away. And I got through it way faster than the one in which I dumped on.

Penny Williams 9:51

That was quite the grudge for a while. Yes. Because, yeah. You know, I mean, it's hard to take in other people's stuff, especially the hard stuff, want it either, right? And I certainly get that. I mean, I was so flustered, I started turning down a one way street the wrong way, this dream that I have known as that direction for 19 years. And, like, I mean, I was really just like spinning, and it happens, but we just have to be mindful, we have to try to be mindful to find that balance between showing that we're human, and that we have emotions. And sometimes we have hard emotions. And sometimes they spew over. And kind of like constantly giving our kids our staff and weighing them down with it. Yeah. And it can be really hard to find that line.

Sarah Wayland 10:41

Yeah. And I think you know, going back to our topic for today, like connecting with your kids, is partly letting them know that you're having an emotion and that your connection with them, is helping you navigate that emotion, because that's what we hope our kids will do with us to, they're having some tough emotion and they will share it with us, and that we can help them figure their way through it. And so fostering that sense of connection is really, what it's really all about?

Penny Williams 11:10

Yeah, I remember after we finally got parked, and we had to walk a few blocks. I said, Okay, now I just need to like, walk and breathe. So that I don't explode. Yeah, and that was true. I don't know that I was necessarily consciously saying that out loud to model but I literally said, Okay, it's time for me to breathe. So by the time we get in there, I'm not super angry still. Right, right. super mad at the world because it didn't go the way I wanted, like it's not just our kids, we all get there. Yeah, we all have our meltdowns. I had mine on Saturday. Well, hopefully this week will be better. Yes, it will be better it will be for sure. So let's let's start our strategies for fostering connection. I think we should start with the concept of calm, because this is one that parents want so badly, to be able to stay calm, and it's so powerful to. And so you know, it's a really good piece of that relationship to like, if we're never calm, how in the world would anybody want to be around us? Right? You know, if we are not giving some calm energy out in the world, sometimes worse, pushing everyone away. I know, you want to talk about CO regulation and the different types of CO regulation, which I think is so important in fostering connection.

Sarah Wayland 12:36

So you know, we were talking before we got on for the recording. And I was saying people use CO regulation in two different ways. And we're going to talk about both of them, because they're both important for fostering the sense of connection. But the first one, which I'll talk about now, is that when you are calm and projecting that calm energy into the world, your kids feel that they feel that you're calm. So if they're upset, they can we call it borrowing your calm, they can borrow your calm, and it helps their nervous system to calm down when you are able to stay calm, and connected with them. And so if you can try to take some deep breaths, or do whatever it is, you need to do think about the fact that this is temporary, and you'll get through it, just whatever strategies you need, if you can stay calm, then if your kid is getting upset that energy, like they feel the calm, and then they can match your calm energy instead of spiraling up. A mistake that's so easy to make for parents is that you get really, really upset about something and then your kid gets upset with you. And you know, something that we always say is that we are wired to respond in kind. So when we're upset, our kids are upset, which means that you are co regulating, but not in a direction that makes things feel calmer, not the kind we want you to do. Right, right. And so the idea here is that by having that calm, peaceful energy, your children will match your energy and be able to regulate themselves. And it's such a critically important life skill. And that is the first place that our children learn to regulate their emotions, is by matching their emotions to our emotions as parents.

So that is such a fundamental way of connecting with your child and bringing the temperature in the room down. Yeah, and it's instinctual, like, our kids don't have to choose to borrow our calm that brings up a really important point, Penny, which is that they can also suss out when you're pretending to be calm. Right. And so if there's a disconnect between how you're actually feeling and what you're trying to project into the world, our kids know that they feel it. And so I And I remember like being very angry at my son about something. And I can remember like closing my eyes and trying to calm my body down. And he would just look at me and you say, you're mad at me, you're mad at me, you hate me. And then he would get so upset, because he could see I was trying to calm myself down. But I think that sometimes parents are like, but I was being calm. And I think it's important to remember our kids do feel what's going on inside us. And so I mean, it feels like an unrealistic expectation to ask you to be calm. But sometimes I'll have parents say to me, Well, I was I was calm, I wasn't yelling, I was being calm. And I said, You were acting calm. But what was the energy inside you about? Because kids can smell that out? Yeah. And I think our neurodivergent kids are sponges for that. Yeah, that energy for sure. I think that they're really perceptive about that a lot of times.

Penny Williams 15:57

I agree. And what's the second type of CO regulation?

Sarah Wayland 16:00

Well, the second type of CO regulation is just actually the act of moving together, doing things together moving in a contingent way, the sort of most basic form of this is taking a walk together, that's not the most basic, the most basic is like sitting next to somebody and just hanging out with them. But you know, like, think about when you're walking with somebody. So very often, parents who have kids who have trouble co regulating, will report that their kids will do things like bolt for the hills, when you go for a walk outside, or they get distracted by stuff, they're not attending to you walking, you're doing all the attending to match your pace to their pace. And often parents are terrified to take their kids just for a walk around the neighborhood, because they don't know when their kid will do something unpredictable, that is not co regulated, and ends up being dangerous. So you know, taking a walk somewhere where it doesn't matter if your kid runs off is always a better plan. But walking together, matching your pace to the pace of the person next to you, if you think about it, like if you're walking along with someone you love, maybe you're holding their hand and your arms are swinging together, your feet are moving together at the same pace. That's a co regulatory activity. But there are also you know, co regulation, just simple things, like doing chores together. You know, I was talking with you before the podcast about washing dishes together where each of you has a role. And you know, like one person is the washer, and the next person is the dryer and put her away or, and so you wash a plate, you hand it to the other person, they dry it off and put it in the cabinet.

Meanwhile, you're washing something, you hand it to the other person, they dry it and put it in the cabinet. And you know, that activity is just a chore, we all do that chore every single day. And you know, very often we'll do it by herself, just wash and put it in the dish tray. And then if you don't leave them to dry off by themselves, then you know, maybe you dry them and put them in the cabinet by yourself. But we don't think about ways to make these activities activities that we do together, where each of us has a meaningful role. And whatever happens is contingent on what the other person does. So for example, if I'm washing plates faster than my partner can dry and put away, then I'll be throwing them in the drain tray, but they're gonna get you know, all these dishes piled up, and it's not going to feel very good to them. But if I slow myself down, so that it's you know, me do my piece, they do their piece, I do my piece, they do their piece back and forth, you get the chore done, you did it together. And you get the sense that both of you had a meaningful, made a meaningful contribution to what you're working on together. And so that kind of CO regulation is really just doing things together. And you know, I've given this simple example of walking together, or doing a chore together. I actually really love chores as a thing to do together. Cooking together is wonderful, where maybe one person puts the ingredients in and the other person is stirring, right? Or there's all sorts of ways to think about how to give each person a meaningful role. And when we do this, then that helps our kids feel like they have something to contribute. Which gets us to one of the things that you were talking about penny before we got in here, which is boosting your sense of efficacy.

Penny Williams 19:39

And as I was just listening to you talk about CO regulation and doing a task together. Yes, I was thinking about rhythm and how, yes, there's a rhythm to that. And we know that rhythm can regulate our nervous system music. So there's that sort of second layer of good stuff there from those kinds of activities.

Sarah Wayland 20:00

Absolutely. And that rhythm is so fundamental to calming our nervous systems. Is this one reason people love dancing, right? So you've got rhythm and you're coordinating with other people. Like that's one of the powerful experiences of dancing.

Penny Williams 20:14

I think rhythm is way more powerful than we realize. And I think it explains why my son started making digital music in ninth grade to cope with school. He was at school making it on his iPad, but he needed that beat, to regulate in an environment where he was very dysregulated. You know, I think there's actually a neurobiological reason that he that he started doing that, it was actually soothing to him.

Sarah Wayland 20:42

I just had an aha moment when you said that my son was talking to me today. And we went to a doctor's appointment. As we were driving home, we were talking about music, and he really likes EDM. And I asked him, like, what is it you love about EDM? And he said, he likes the beat. And he was talking about what is the Game Beat Sabre, where you have to move your body in time with the music. And you know, some of the music is fast. If you're feeling like you need to get access to energy out, some of the music is slower. But you know, the idea is to move your body in time with the music, and he just loves that. And I realized as you were talking, that's probably one reason he loves it so much.

I think the other piece of it too, is predictability, which just struck me. My son will talk about predictability and unpredictability and things like adaptability makes things harder for him. He doesn't want to try unpredictable things. He doesn't want to be around unpredictable people. And rhythm is very predictable. Wow. Yeah, I think you're right. Wow. And some epiphanies right there together. Yay. You can always learn new things. Like you and I have been doing this a long time. And we still are constantly learning new things, or making new connections, or recognitions of things. But I think that that's a big part of it. Probably I agree, melody as well. I know when I talk to new coaching clients, often they'll talk about how their kids like to either make music with a heavy beat or listen to me, like my son listens to stuff that literally makes me want to crawl up in a ball and burrow six feet under, and never come out. Like it's so family up and heavy. And my brain doesn't do that. And for him, it's soothing. For me, I feel like my skin is gonna peel off. And that just goes to show how different we are for my kids, right?

I was talking to my son about this because one of his favorite artists, and I know that your son loves this artist, you know, mine is Camilia. And Camilia has some stuff where I mean it just to me it just sounds like it's really, really fast. Yes. And yeah. And he did he did say that he loves that beat that fast driving beat. Really? Like just makes his body feel good.

Penny Williams 23:12

Mm hmm. Yeah, it's soothing for them. And I'll let him play it in the car. Yeah, because those are opportunities for connection. Yeah. I have learned pretty quickly once he became a teen, and there were always headphones and no conversation in the car, that I had to talk about music if I wanted to, really have a conversation with him. And so I would ask him to play something for me that he's been listening to. And that's what he would play. So we'll jump into efficacy. All right. We want to give our kids a sense of purpose, so that they feel confident and competent, but also valued. It's really important that kids feel like we value them, who they are their input, having them in our family, that can really be sort of a bonding momentI think.

Sarah Wayland 24:09

For sure, I mean, like, there's nothing like feeling like other people are relying on you to do something that you know, you can do well, right. I learned this when our family took an international trip right before COVID. thank Kevin, we took it then. But we went to Australia and I'd never been to Australia and my younger son has a very limited diet. And I was really worried about whether he was going to be able to eat enough while we were there. So I actually put him in charge of the food. I said, Okay, you have to choose the restaurants and you have to choose restaurants that your dad and I aren't going to go crazy app because we don't want to eat the beige diet the whole time. We were in Australia, but um, you pick the restaurants and so he did. He totally owned it. And he chose some amazing same restaurants, we had great food. And he was really happy because he was picking restaurants where he knew he could eat. And he was also having fun trying to find things that he thought that his dad and I would enjoy. It just worked out amazingly well. And he felt so good about that. We were actually just talking about it today that he loves that trip, because he, he said the food was really amazing. And it was, it was amazing. So, but he had that sense of control over family vacation in a foreign country, which let me tell you, we were terrified to travel. But it went so well, partly because we gave him that sense of control.

Penny Williams 25:40

Yeah. And that sense of control is the next thing on our list, actually, yeah, in fostering connection, is giving our kids a sense of control, letting them make decisions, and not just decisions for themselves necessarily, like Sarah just illustrated, letting them make decisions for the group, trusting them with that responsibility, can really build that sense of trust between us and our kids. But also, that can really reduce some anxiety as well, because we're giving them a say in what's going on for them, when oftentimes, they feel like they have absolutely zero control over what happens in their lives.

Sarah Wayland 26:25

Yep. Yeah. And that sense of self efficacy and sense of control, like I can do it. And people want me to do this. And so you know, that helps you feel like you have some impact on the world around you. Like the world is a thing that you can handle and manage, which is hard. A lot of our kids don't feel that way. They don't feel like they can handle the world.

Penny Williams 26:49

Yeah, that's such a good point, too. Because I think, and I'm very guilty of this myself, but often as parents, we do too much for our kids, because we want to protect them, or we want them to just be kids or you know, there's a myriad of reasons. And by doing that we're actually sending the message to them that we don't think they're capable. Right. And, Ben, obviously, that's going to erode our relationship with them, and really feel bad for them in general, right that if my mom doesn't think I can do it, nobody would.

Sarah Wayland 27:23

And that erodes their relationship with the rest of the world, right?

Penny Williams 27:25

Yeah. Yeah, that's so true. The last thing on our list for this episode is personal time. That's what I called it. Amy McCready was on the podcast recently. She calls it mind, body and soul time. Sarah, I think you have another phrase for it as well. I'm sure there's many. Yeah. But basically, time that we spend with our kids, that's just one on one. And we're doing what they want to do. And we're completely engaged with them. We don't have our phones. We're not keeping the TV on in the background. We're just one on one doing what our kid wants to do. And showing them how much we value them and spending time with them.

Sarah Wayland 28:09

Yeah, no questions, no commands, and no teaching during that time. You know, and it's so hard to do that. Because of course, we always want to teach and help our kids figure out how to navigate the world. But during that I call it special time or time in, like, no questions, no demands, and no teaching, I just try to keep that in mind the whole time. I'm interacting with them. It's all about them and what they want to do.

Penny Williams 28:37

Yeah, and I think this is something really valuable for siblings as well, because they often feel like they don't get as much of our time and attention. And honestly, a lot of times they don't get as much, right. But they interpret that as loving them less, right? Yes. And so we have to be really careful that we're also giving siblings that same one on one attention, where the struggles of having a sibling with differences are not able to interrupt. Yeah, that time together is really important as well. Yeah. So we've given some good strategies for building your relationship with your child, why it matters, and what you can do. And we've given you several action items, I think one of the quickest and easiest to implement is to plan a time in playing some special time with your child. Spend 10 minutes doing that this afternoon, this evening, this weekend, whenever you can fit it in. It doesn't have to be hours or a whole day, right? It can just be a small bit of time. That is just very focused on your child. Anything else you want to add?

Sarah Wayland 29:51

You know, just to that point, it's so true. And you know, when our kids are little, we can schedule it on our schedule, but one thing And that I have had to learn to do as my kids got older is to grab those moments when I see them available. Because my kids are, now they're young adults. And so if I see that I can share a moment with them, I'm going to grab it right then. Because oftentimes if I say let's have special time together, they're all i Rowley, and whatever. But I think just grabbing those little moments, like you said, one or two minutes of just having someone's undivided attention is a really powerful feeling.

Penny Williams 30:33

Yeah, and it can even be part of daily life. You know, like I was describing earlier, we talked music, we played music in the car on the way to appointments or school, because that's when I could get his attention. Right. It was a captive audience. So it worked well, and he was a teenager. So that's part of what we did. But my point is that it can be part of what you're already doing. You don't have to find more time, necessarily, right? Sure. It'd be great if you plan for longer special things. Sometimes if that's what your child wants. Some kids don't want to do something more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time. Some of our kids don't have that kind of attention span yet. And so you know, really tailoring it to the kid that you have is super important as well. So we will link up everything that we have talked about in the show notes for this episode. You can find those at parentingADHDandautism.com/183 for episode 183. And as always, Sara and I will be back with you together for another behavior revolution episode in about a month and we'll see you then. Take good care. Thanks for joining me on the beautifully complex podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share. And don't forget to check out my online courses and parent coaching at parentingADHDandautism.com and thebehaviorrevolution.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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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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