Transforming Behavior: When You Know Better You Do Better

with Penny Williams

In this episode of Beautifully Complex, I’m sharing a deeply personal story about a challenging experience with my son and the valuable insights it brought us regarding challenging behavior and supporting our neurodivergent kids. Through sharing this experience, I emphasize the need for flexibility and understanding in dealing with challenging behaviors, as well as the role of an individual’s nervous system and behavior. I’m also sharing info about the upcoming Transforming Behavior workshop series, which will provide free workshops for parents and caregivers.

3 key takeaways:
    1. Your Mindset is the Foundation: Changing perspectives and approaches is crucial to effectively supporting neurodivergent kids.
    2. Understanding Neurodivergent Behavior: Biology and behavior are deeply interconnected. It’s important to recognize the underlying reasons for challenging behavior and adapting strategies to meet the child’s unique needs.
    3. Empathy and Flexibility: Empathy, understanding, and flexibility are paramount when addressing challenging behavior. Recognizing a child’s experience and effort is essential for creating a supportive and safe environment.

You’ll Learn

  • Understand the impact of traditional parenting approaches and the importance of flexibility in supporting neurodivergent kids.

  • Learn actionable strategies for handling challenging situations with neurodivergent kids, such as valuing equal exchanges and recognizing the significance of emotional and social safety.

  • Learn about the Transforming Behavior Summit, which includes 19 free workshops on behavior strategies for neurodivergent kids.


  • Transforming Behavior Workshops, FREE February 23-25, 2024

  • Subscribe to Clarity — my weekly newsletter to help you get clear on how to be the parent your neurodivergent kid needs.

  • Work with me to level up your parenting — online parent training and coaching  for neurodiverse families.

Some of the resources may be affiliate links, meaning I receive a commission (at no cost to you) if you use that link to make a purchase.


Penny Williams [00:00:03]: Now I know that a lot of it has to do with me, the adults in our kids' lives, and I had to change my mindset. I had to make shifts in the way that I thought about behavior, the way that I approached behavior in order to be able to really be helpful.

Penny Williams [00:00:21]: 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 atypical kid. Let's get started.

Penny Williams [00:00:43]: Welcome back to the Beautifully Complex podcast. I wanna talk to you today a little bit about behavior, and some of the foundational aspects of being able to help our kids to have better behavior. But I wanna start by telling a story because I think it's really important that you understand that I have been where you are. My son was diagnosed first with ADHD in 2008, 16 years ago, I believe, I don't wanna do the math right now, but it's somewhere around that amount of time, there was very little information out there, any help on parenting when you had a child with ADHD. And so I spent a long time trying to figure it out and teach myself what I needed to do. And it took a really long time. There was at least a two and a half to 3 year period where I was spending every moment I possibly could reading books, researching, doing everything I could, talking to other people, trying to figure out what the heck do I do to help this kid. And it really was about helping him.

Penny Williams [00:02:04]: It wasn't about helping me at that time. My biggest concern was my kiddo. He was 6 years old. He was very down on himself. He was crying all the time. I look back at pictures from that period. He was in tears all the time because he couldn't do what even he wanted to do. And so he was in trouble or being called out, right, for being off task or whatever.

Penny Williams [00:02:34]: And it was really hard for him. And in school, things were getting a little better with a new teacher in 1st grade, but we were still struggling so much. And, yes, it was really hard for me. But at that point, my focus was him. How do I help this kid not have this really, really hard traumatic experience in life? And so I was really looking for, how do I help him with his ADHD symptoms? How do I help him with being able to attend at school, to focus at school, to do what he's being asked to do. Right? And that wasn't really the right questions. I talk about this in, my stop battling course, also in at least one of my books, it just wasn't the right question because I can't change his ADHD. I can't change the brain that he has.

Penny Williams [00:03:32]: Right? He also got an autism diagnosis at age 12. So, you know, there's a lot of things going on there. And I was asking the questions to try to mitigate those symptoms, but what I really needed to be asking was, why are these things so hard for him? And then what can I do to help with those things that are so hard? Right? I needed to look deeper than what I was seeing on the surface, but I didn't yet know that. And it took me a really long time to learn that. And so it's part of the reason why I do the work that I do, because the thought of every family struggling for years to even come up with the 1st glimpse of making things better sucks. Like, I don't want that for any of you. And so I started blogging and writing books and creating online courses and now doing the online conferences, the summits. And I have learned so much over the years, but I continue to learn more every day, at least every week.

Penny Williams [00:04:36]: Every time I talk to another professional, so if I'm talking to someone on the podcast or someone pastor someone for the workshops that are in these summits. I always learn something from them because there's so much complexity, really in human nature to begin with. But then we're adding many more layers of complexity when we're looking at someone who's neurodivergent. And so I've been recording all of the workshops with our different experts for the Transforming Behavior Summit that is coming up February 23rd through 25th, 2024. And it will be free for those 3 days, or you can buy the pass and have forever lots of bonuses. And I'll give you all the information at the end of the episode to be able to register and take advantage of that. We have 19 free workshops on behavior. And let me tell you, they are amazing.

Penny Williams [00:05:34]: I really focused on packing them full of actionable and practical how to's for this particular event. And so I know that every person who takes advantage of these workshops is going to walk away being able to help their kid and themselves. Because now I know that a lot of it has to do with me, the adults in our kids' lives, and I had to change my mindset. I had to make shifts in the way that I thought about behavior, the way that I approached behavior in order to be able to really be helpful. So that story that I was talking about. I'm gonna tell you this story, and then I'm gonna tell you about the things that have been coming up as kind of common threads in these behavior workshops for this summit. And kind of looking at where I was and how much I wished I'd had this information then, and correlating some of that so that you can get real life examples of what you might be going through these workshops are really gonna help you with. But, also, if you don't want to take advantage of the workshops, then you're going to get some valuable information here just by listening to the rest of this episode.

Penny Williams [00:06:49]: So back when my kid was little, he's 21 now, when he was, I would guess, 7 years old, this particular thing happened. And I wrote about it in Boy Without Instructions. So anybody who's read my book already has probably read this story. But I wanna make sure that everyone's heard it because it's such a clear illustration of the interconnectedness of biology and behavior and what I didn't know then. Right? So we live in the mountains of North Carolina, and that particular winter was brutal. And it isn't typically here. We were actually snowed into our home, up the mountain, for 7 days. We could not get out.

Penny Williams [00:07:40]: My husband's car was half a mile down, and he was hiking out with backpacks and getting water and food. We were boiling snow for water because we're on a well, so we had no water. We had no power. We just had gas logs, fireplace in the house for 7 days and a gas burner stove where we could boil the snow to make water. And these kids were so bored. You know, we played so many board games. We did so many things. When it got dark, we just went to sleep because there was nothing else to do.

Penny Williams [00:08:09]: And, you know, we were all huddled up together for body heat and had layers and layers on. We were sleeping in coats and sweatshirts and lots of blankets, it was bananas. And so this particular event that I'm talking about was the day after, we were finally able to get out. And my son actually was invited to a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese from a classmate at school, and so we were gonna take him down and do that, let his sister play some games too. And then when that was over, it was about 4, 4:30 in the afternoon, and we really didn't wanna go home. Like, we had been literally trapped in there for 7 days, and we did not wanna go home. And I did not wanna cook either.

Penny Williams [00:08:53]: And so I said, why don't we just, like, tinker around for a bit? And then we can go out to dinner together, and then we'll go home. And so I had been wanting to find some picture frames that I could repurpose and paint. And so we went to the Goodwill store. And I assume that most Goodwill stores are about the same everywhere, at least in the United States where we have them. It's a pretty chaotic sort of shopping experience. It's just a bright box with lots of shelves with things kind of tossed on them. There isn't any real visual order to a lot of it. And so what I know now is that can be really dysregulating.

Penny Williams [00:09:35]: And it can cause a lot of sensory struggles as well. But at the time, I had no idea. So we had finished at Chuck E. Cheese. He had astoundingly great behavior. He had such a good time. We went to Target so that he could spend his allowance for the week because it was killing him that he had had money for days and he hadn't spent it. He bought himself a Lego set.

Penny Williams [00:09:59]: And on the way out the door, I said, we're not buying anything else today. You know, we had spent money on the games at Chuck E. Cheese. We had let him spend his allowance. And I had learned, by this point, to set expectations when going into stores. Otherwise, we were doomed for a meltdown every time because he didn't have good frustration tolerance. He also is time blind. And so if I said, oh, next week, you're gonna have allowance again.

Penny Williams [00:10:27]: You can get that next week. That felt like never. And so it was a real struggle because of those skill deficits. So we had done all that. We get into Goodwill. And I said, you know what? If you guys wanna each pick out a book, because they had a huge section of kids' books, you can pick out a book, I'll get you a book here. And they had done that. He had picked out the book.

Penny Williams [00:10:48]: My daughter had picked out a book. And I was just sort of puttering through the aisles while they were doing that. And he came to join me, and we were gonna go up and check out and be done. And a like, an RV remote control little car caught his eye where I was standing, and he desperately wanted it. And we looked at it, and it was like it only had 3 wheels. It was broken. We couldn't find the remote to it. It didn't work.

Penny Williams [00:11:16]: And I tried to explain to him, you know, we said we were gonna buy a book. This thing doesn't even work, so we're not gonna buy this. And he sits down on the floor. He's like, no. Look. I can run it on the floor. And right? He's trying to find all these ways to sort of rationalize and validate that he needed to have this instead of the book. And, of course, you know, I was that new ish parent with younger kids going, oh, you know, we don't need so many toys.

Penny Williams [00:11:44]: Books are great. Right? And so I stuck to it. I was like, this is what I told you. This is what we're doing. And as you can imagine, because I'm telling you this story, and it's been pretty boring so far, this is where it started to devolve. He started to really struggle with being able to put that on the shelf and walk away. He was not okay with it. He had become fixated on that little truck, and he needed it.

Penny Williams [00:12:13]: And he didn't want the book. He wanted to exchange the book for the truck. They were the same price. They were both a dollar. I'm like, nope. We sent a buck. And he started to melt down a little bit at first. Right? Because we know tantrums, they can start as tantrums, but they can turn into meltdowns.

Penny Williams [00:12:32]: And the difference is that a tantrum can be turned off when you get what you want. It is conscious and manipulative behavior. A meltdown is where the brain has actually been hijacked, and that person is no longer in control of their behavior, of their body, of what they say. It is out of their control. They have gone into, you know, that state, probably of fight or flight, because meltdowns are usually pretty active. Couldn't be in freeze or shutdown, but for the most part, it's usually fight or flight. So their thinking brain is offline. They can't access it.

Penny Williams [00:13:10]: They can't process language. They can't access rational thought, logic, none of that. So everything we say when a kid is in meltdown actually escalates that meltdown. But I had no idea at the time, no clue about meltdowns. I had no clue about what that meant for the body and the brain, and so I didn't know any better, but then to try to rationalize and talk through that situation. Right? And so it was just escalating. Now we had loud voice. We had screaming.

Penny Williams [00:13:45]: We had, you know, I hate you. You're the meanest. We had lots of tears. We had begging. And I just stood my ground, and I said, you know, this is what we're doing. And if you don't wanna do that, that's fine. And, you know, then it was, well, I don't wanna buck. I don't wanna buck.

Penny Williams [00:14:04]: I'm like, okay. Then we're gonna put the book back. And we put the book back, and we were still focused on the truck, right, and begging for the truck. And as things started to escalate, my daughter and husband went outside because neither of them could stand a public meltdown. And so they were already out in the car waiting for us. And so I said, okay. It's time to go. We have to leave.

Penny Williams [00:14:27]: We just won't get either thing. I you know? And he started getting more physical. And it was winter, of course, because we had been snowed in. And so his little tiny body with all of his might, he grabbed onto the back coattail of my coat and just leaned and pulled as hard as he could to try to keep me from leaving the store. Now it was, okay. I'll take the book. Okay. I'll take the book.

Penny Williams [00:14:53]: I'm like, no. At this point, we we've got to get out of here. This is no longer working for anyone, and we've got to go. And we got out to the sidewalk, and you know how I write about this. And when I tell this story in the book, those automatic doors at the front of the Goodwill. I got him just outside the door, but we were standing so close in front of it, still outside, that it stayed open. And it was like a theater curtain, and there was a whole audience of people inside the goodwill watching this unfold. Right? And I'm sure judging because they don't know our story.

Penny Williams [00:15:26]: And at that point, I hadn't yet done the work on myself to be okay with kind of people judging and not knowing our story. So I was mortified, and he was pulling and pulling. And I almost fell to the ground because I was trying to step off the curb, and my feet got tangled up in the way he was pulling on me, and I just lost it. And I was like, I am not safe. This is not okay. We are going to the car. And I sort of pulled on him until we got to the car, and his dad helped me get him inside. And we're inside, and we can't get him to buckle.

Penny Williams [00:16:03]: And he's just screaming and losing it. And I said to my husband, I'm like, we can't drive right now. We just need to said here, it's not safe. He's kicking and screaming in the back seat, and we just needed to take some time. And so we sat for a bit, and my husband and I actually grabbed each other's hands. We were crying. It was just so hard. We were so heartbroken for him.

Penny Williams [00:16:26]: We were so embarrassed as parents. We were heartbroken for our daughter because she was having to go through this too. It was creating such anxiety and panic for her. It was just so hard, and we sat there. And finally, when he started to sort of, he sounded like what I would describe as a scratch in a record or a scratch in a CD. He kept just saying the same thing over and over. I want the buck. I want the buck.

Penny Williams [00:16:51]: I want the buck. I want the buck. And the volume was going down, and he was still at that point. And so it was like this recovery of his brain. Right? He was stuck, but he was slowly coming out of it. And so I offered him a snack. We had purchased some snacks and some juice boxes and stuff while we were at Target. And so I said, how about a snack? You know, I think maybe something to drink would really help.

Penny Williams [00:17:19]: And he was like, okay. You know, it was the first time that he had really answered me consciously, in probably 20 minutes or more. And so he was starting to recover. And we got that. We sat for a little longer until everybody was calm. And I think we ended up getting takeout food. I don't think anybody was able to sit in a restaurant nor wanted to at that point. We were all just wrung out from that experience.

Penny Williams [00:17:48]: But that was the turning point for me in understanding that sometimes the behavior is completely outside of my kids' control. His body, his biology, was triggering that because he didn't feel safe in not being able to have things go as he was visualizing them, that created a feeling of not being safe for him. And without the skills to manage that better, it devolved into one of the most massive meltdowns that he ever had. And so, of course, you know, knowing what I know now and looking back at that, I'm like, wow. I know so much more now than I did then. I understand that behavior now. I understand how that happened. I understand that I should not have been talking and rationalizing.

Penny Williams [00:18:46]: That was not the right thing to do. It was actually escalating the situation. I understand that sometimes I need to be more flexible. And it really is okay if we get a broken truck for a dollar instead of a book for a dollar. We have lots of books. He's still reading books and learning. It's okay. But, you know, I still had a lot of those traditional parenting ideas in my head.

Penny Williams [00:19:06]: If I told you something, that's it. That's the line. I'm toeing that line. We're not crossing it. We're not changing it. And I didn't know better. Right? And so when I know better, I can do better. What would I do now? I would have, 1, let him change what he was getting if it was of equal value.

Penny Williams [00:19:28]: And it was in this case. So I would have let him put the book back and get that truck. Number 2, I would have walked out way, way, way, way earlier. I have learned that it is okay to jump ship sometimes. And maybe it's not fair for others. Maybe it's not fair for me. But if it's what my kid needs, it's what needs to be done. And so I would have walked out much sooner.

Penny Williams [00:19:55]: I probably would have taken more of a break and not tried to go to, you know, 4 places in a row for the 1st time we'd been in public in a week. Right? That wasn't the best idea either. So there are a lot of things that I would have done differently had I known better. But at the time, I did the best I knew how to do. And you get in so many of these situations where you look back and you feel bad. You feel ashamed. You feel like you made bad choices. Right? But you didn't know.

Penny Williams [00:20:33]: We have to assume for ourselves and everyone else around us, that they are doing the best that they can do in that moment, in that situation. And that is true for you and your parenting too. So when you have these struggles and you look back and you go, wow. I didn't handle that the way that I wish I had, then give yourself some grace, because you were doing the best you knew how to do. That was the best you knew how to do, or the best that you could do. Maybe you were dysregulated. Maybe you were having a bad day. You know? Maybe you had already spent all of your reserves.

Penny Williams [00:21:09]: And you had nothing left to give, but you still had to give. Right? There's so many reasons why sometimes we're not able to do things the way we want to do them, but there's always room for repair. And so in telling my story. I hope that you feel less alone. I hope that you understand that we all do the best we can with what we know in the moment. And I hope that you learned some lessons from that in me explaining why that was happening, you know, where we had lagging skills, where I was escalating the situation, and, also, what you can do differently. You know? What lessons can you take from that? I wanna touch real quickly before I wrap up on some of those common strategies and threads and foundational ideas that I have been hearing again and again in recording these workshops for the transforming behavior workshop series that's coming up in February. And the first thing that has come up in, I think, almost every single one of these 19 workshops is the idea of safety.

Penny Williams [00:22:19]: We're not talking about danger. That, of course, affects how we feel, and if we're regulated or regulated too. But we're also talking about felt safety, emotional safety, mental safety, social safety. Because sometimes we don't feel safe in those areas. That also causes dysregulation. And for neurodivergent kids and teens and young adults, they often don't feel safe emotionally, socially or mentally. And it's important to recognize that. So we're talking about that again and again on different topics through the behavior workshops.

Penny Williams [00:23:01]: Relationship also comes up in a lot of these conversations because relationship guides everything. Your relationship with your child, your relationship with your student. Having a strong, connected, trusting relationship changes everything. And we talk about that in a lot of different ways and with a lot of different strategies for implementation in these workshops. Another running theme is that behavior is communication. And you have heard me talk about this again and again and again on this podcast. But that's because we're at episode 252 and also because it is that important. This is the turning point for me and my parenting, reading Ross Greene's book, The Explosive Child, and understanding that behavior is communication, it is just a signal.

Penny Williams [00:23:59]: It is not something to be punished. It's not something to be judged. It is just a signal. It may be inappropriate, but it is still just a signal. What is it telling you? We talk a lot in these workshops about being able to figure out what the behaviors are telling you, how to be able to really get into the nitty gritty for your own kid, your own student, your own family, your own classroom, right, your own home environment, because that is the key. I can give you lots of strategies. All these experts can give you lots of just one off individual strategies. Right? But these foundational things have to be in place for you to get the most positive result from these individual strategies.

Penny Williams [00:24:49]: So that's why I love reflecting on these common threads in these workshops because they are telling us the foundational things that we need to have in place for all of the strategies and the other good stuff to offer the best results for both you and your child or student. Mindset comes up so, so, so, so often. And the fact that it really starts with the adult. The adult in the room, the adult in the child's life. Right? It starts with us. We have to shift our mindset. We have to shift the way that we look at behavior. We have to shift our ideals and our expectations for the kid that we have.

Penny Williams [00:25:38]: It starts with us. I know I've said this multiple times on the podcast too, but about 90% of it is us, and about 10% of it is our kids, where, yes, we're gonna help them build skills. We're gonna help them mature. We're gonna help them learn how to find success in whatever way works for them. We're gonna support them on that journey, but we are not changing who they are, and we are not changing the brain and the neurology that they have. And so a lot of it comes from changing perspectives. And that is also a running theme in these workshops. And then, of course, regulation and dysregulation, because we understand when we talk about the interconnectedness of biology and behavior that a lot of behavior is instinctual and automatic biologically.

Penny Williams [00:26:30]: So we get triggered, and our nervous system reacts. We don't think it through and make a thoughtful choice. And especially for people who have a much more sensitive, more easily triggered nervous system, that is what is happening. So we might wanna punish or judge behavior as something that was intentional and thoughtful when it wasn't. And that's why it's so important to really understand that interconnectedness between biology and behavior, and how that informs us about regulation and dysregulation, and how that informs us about why behavior is happening. Right? And also what is most helpful at different times of dysregulation, be it fight, flight, freeze, or shut down, things like that. So you're gonna learn so, so, so much more detail, so many more strategies if you take part in the transforming behavior workshop series, the summit. Again, it's February 23rd through 25, 2024.

Penny Williams [00:27:33]: And you will register at the behavior revolution dot com slash summit. As I said, it is entirely free for those 3 days. You will get 6 or 7 workshops a day for free. If you want to take your time with them, if you want to sort of uplevel your results with what you're learning in the workshops, there is an action pass that comes with a very detailed workbook that helps you to be able to plan from what you know, make a plan of action for you and your family or you and your classroom and your students, there's a bonus from every speaker. There's a group coaching call with me afterwards. Lots of goodies there that will just sort of level up that experience. But as I said, you can absolutely watch all 19 of these workshops for free. I'm also hosting a free master class to kick off the summit on February 16th, and it is all about how to stay calm when your kid or your student isn't.

Penny Williams [00:28:36]: And I get asked this question so so often, so that is the topic for that master class this year, which is also free. If you register for the summit. You will get information about joining that master class on 16th as well. If you happen to be listening to this after the event is over, you will be able to access these sessions toward the end of 2024 and later in our Answer It membership. And you can get information on that at parentingadhdandautism.com. So in the show notes for this episode, I will link up how to join the summit and get in there for free and watch all these workshops for free. And anything else that I've referenced here, I think really that's most of it. Ross Greene's book as well, I will link up there for you too if you're interested in to in that.

Penny Williams [00:29:29]: And so those show notes are at parentingadhdandautism.com/25 2 for episode 252. And with that, we are done on this episode. I will see all of you next time, take good care.

Penny Williams [00:29:49]: 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 at thebehaviorrevolution.com.

Thanks for joining me!

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