How to help your neurodivergent child embrace change

Adapting to change is a universal challenge. For ND kids, the stakes can feel much higher, especially when it comes to personal milestones like birthdays.

I recently had the privilege of working with an almost 9-year-old who was grappling with the idea of getting older and all the changes it entailed. Throughout our session, we explored this challenge and discovered ways to make the process a bit less daunting. Let me share what I learned here.

Reflecting on being 8.

I have two sliding white boards set up in the office. In the center of one board, I wrote "what it was like being 8" so we can pull together some ideas from the past year. We sectioned off the year into 3 categories: fun, learning, and hard things. 

Starting with fun, this boy recalled the trips he took with his family, the parties he attended, and of course, LegoLand. The learning section included math and spelling skills, a spinning hook kick in martial arts, and making kale chips. All instances that were personal and relevant to him. Then, came the hardest one of all.

It was first met with "Oh no, the hard one!" and then a pause. He took a moment and realized that the hardest thing he did while being 8-years-old was putting his face underwater in summer camp. Bravo!

We turned the collection of words into images and he realized that there are 3 different versions of him: "This is me having fun, this is me learning, and this is me doing something hard," he said to mom. 

The way we examined his outlook on that past year allowed him to appreciate all he had achieved. More importantly, a self-awareness component emerged as he was able to see himself as a multifaceted individual capable of experiencing joy, acquiring new skills, and overcoming obstacles. It was a self-realization and recognition of his bravery and growth.

Envisioning life at 9.

Then we turned our attention to the future, we discussed his hopes and challenges for being 9. In the center of another board, I wrote "what it will be like turning 9" so that we'd have a side by side comparison. 

He immediately wrote down something he wished for in terms of a birthday gift. It was so interesting to witness because younger neurodivergent kids mainly wish for tangible objects. Another item on the list was a challenge he came up with, "trying new foods." 

The following conversation transpired:

My goal with our conversation around the word "try" and its practical implications was to spark a deeper understanding of action versus intention. I wanted to highlight how language shapes our perception of ability and effort.

Embracing change with humor.

Change still remains hard for this soon to be 9-year-old, and yet he is beginning to understand and reflect on how different parts of him exist. Rather than telling him that he should think of change as a good thing, we are working on figuring out what happens during periods of change. It doesn't hurt to insert a little humor too!

Language you can use.

When helping your child adapt to change, focus on language that encourages effort, rather than words that praise. Instead of saying "you have to do a good job," frame challenges as options they can make, such as "you can figure out how to explore new foods." This emphasizes autonomy and control over their experiences. We can also help ND kids gain a sense of wonder and curiosity with comments like, “I wonder what can happen when…” to open up a possibility they may not have thought about. 

Language bridges together successes and with each success you gain insights into self-efficacy.

What can I do if my child always says "no"?

As a parent of a neurodivergent child, you've likely encountered the resistant “NO!” more times than you can count. It’s a scenario that fuels continued conflict, loss of control on both sides, and feelings of immediate rejection.

What if I told you that there's a way to navigate this response, understand the meaning behind the “no,” and transform it into a meaningful conversation?

The power of "no."

First, it's crucial to recognize the importance of the word "no" in your child's vocabulary. It's not a barrier; it's a communication tool. When your child says "no," they're expressing their autonomy, their preferences, and sometimes, their anxieties or uncertainties.

Breaking down the "no."

When faced with a "no," we want to dissect it. The language that follows your child’s “no” will depend on their individual comprehension needs. Generally speaking, we want to acknowledge the initial response with phrases like, “I hear your ‘no’” or “I get it. You’re telling me “not right now.”

You can also include a comment about different ideas, turning perspective taking (them thinking like you) into perspective seeking (you thinking like them). Here's a script that will help: "In your mind what I'm telling you is unfair. I definitely see the unfairness. I'm wondering what else feels unfair."

With the acknowledgement comes an understanding that the “no” holds a lot of power. And you’re not asking your child to let it go (at least not all of it). For other kids, you want to figure out where the “no” is coming from with a statement that brings in a sense of wonder: “I’m wondering what part you’re saying ‘no’ to.”

Now, this poses an inquiry that seeks clarification and your child’s perspective first. It shows them that you’re not jumping to change their stance, you’re getting curious. You are also inviting your child to think critically about their response and identify the specific aspect they're uncomfortable with.

For example, if you suggest going to the park and receive a “no,” your child might not be rejecting the entire idea. Perhaps the "no" is meant for just one element, like the time of day or the particular park you’ve chosen.

Another great example is when a child says “no” to a new game or activity. That “no” is filled with uncertainties, such as “I don’t know what’s expected of me,” “Will I be any good at this game,” “What if I don’t understand it,” “I don’t like it because it’s new and new things are way too hard.”

You can turn the “no” into a moment of curiosity by taking that worried answer and shifting your own perspective with, “It sounds like you’re not sure” and “I’m thinking this new game could be hard.” Again, we are acknowledging, holding space, and giving enough time for your child to process this novel insight. The follow up is then an invitation into a unique opportunity of “let’s figure it out” and “I can show you the idea…we’ll see how it works.”

Setting boundaries and guardrails.

Understanding your child's "no" isn't about giving in; it's about providing a framework within which they can make sound decisions. This structure is vital for neurodivergent children who thrive with clear expectations that match their skills, as well as supportive boundaries. Remember, rather than responding with your own quick “no,” you start with a “yes.”

I know what you’re thinking. Aren’t I being permissive? Shouldn’t I just tell them, “too bad, you’re doing it anyway?” Don’t they have to get used to also hearing “no”? Not quite!

By engaging with your child’s "no” you’re continuing to build trust in your relationship. You are also showing your child that they can trust in themselves. You know that feeling when you sense that something is a little “off” and your gut is hinting that you should probably say, “no thanks”? That is you trusting in you. It’s based on experience. You want your child to have that same sense of trust.

In essence, the goal isn't to eliminate the "no." The goal is to understand it and work with it, creating a supportive environment where your child feels listened to and valued.

A new approach to writing for Autistic and ADHD students

Organizing ideas is a major challenge for Autistic and ADHD kids. 

The skill of writing down your thoughts is connected to how you narrate play scenes and retell stories. Schools give a topic and then parents are faced with the struggle of figuring out the “how to” for written homework. 

Static strategies in the forms of graphs and charts are linear, ineffective in forming the executive function skills needed to handle challenging assignments. We want to foster dynamic thinking that allows students to creatively approach a problem and learn to manage complexity.

The struggle of dynamic thinking: A neurodivergent child's hurdle.

When I first begin working with an Autistic or ADHD child, I am assessing their ways of thinking.  I’m looking for how they initiate ideas, connect pieces of information together, and use their resources to problem solve. Many neurodivergent children gravitate toward patterns with predictable beginnings and endings. 

Anything that veers off slightly is felt as an overwhelm because of its novelty and complexity. What results can be a shutdown state, like hiding, or explosive comments like, “You’re cheating!” and “That’s not fair!” The struggle isn’t a behavior, it is the brain’s perception of the unexpected. 

In these situations I let parents know that, even though what I’m asking seems simple, their child hasn’t had the opportunity to be guided through a dynamic process. 

How do we show neurodivergent kids that ideas can be bent, molded, and varied? 

We change the “how.”

How post-its can revolutionize learning in ND kids.

Let’s talk about the concept of writing. Written expression is one of the most challenging executive function tasks as it requires multiple areas of knowledge. For a neurodivergent child, being given a blank piece of paper, or one with a couple of boxes and told to “write a sentence and give details” is equivalent to asking them to explain Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. (Hint: You should have started with E=MC2). 

In comes the post-it note. 

That tiny, versatile stationary that’s been in your drawer. With an array of colors and sizes, post-its serve as visual anchors. When we first come up with ideas for a play scene or a narrative, one post-it is placed in the center of a space. (I say a space because it could be on a wall, the floor, or that blank piece of paper). 

Then comes the epic task of “Tell me what you know about [insert topic here].” In the beginning, most of the writing falls on me. Why? Because it’s hard enough to generate related ideas. Each idea is on a separate note and forms a circle around the main topic. As kids begin to notice how much they actually know, they become even more intrigued and internally motivated. 

I’m wondering how we can put these 2 ideas together” is now more tangible. There is a relief from having to keep all of those thoughts in your mind (as manipulating information in our heads is a working memory challenge). I had an ADHD 2nd grader take a look at how his idea map emerged, take a literal step back, and say, “Oh! It’s all connected!

Breaking down barriers with small squares.

Consider the executive function required to write a story or organize thoughts coherently. For a neurodivergent child, this can be daunting, especially when you ask, “So, how do we start?” Let’s take a treehouse example. Not only are we separating parts of a whole (yep, another concept), we are encouraging kids to use creative terms to identify the parts. 

Remember, it’s not about what word works for you and your adult mind, it’s what works for your child. Each object either gets a separate name and post-it, or is grouped into a category like “tools” or “roof materials.” 

Now it's your turn.

Start by letting go of static strategies and worksheets. Remember that sitting doesn’t equal learning. Instead of “first homework, then iPad,” tap into your playful creativity.

Consider how much effort it takes to complete a task that appears impossible. Move away from “preferred vs. non-preferred” and toward engaging your Autistic and ADHD kids in their own learning process. Think about how amazing it would be to contribute ideas without fear of making mistakes or being corrected for a wrong answer. 

Learn to recognize and respond to stress signals

In the intricate landscape of childhood development, understanding and addressing stress and dysregulation are paramount, especially for families navigating neurodiversity.

I've witnessed firsthand the profound impact that stress can have on children's well-being and behavior. More specifically, the way constant stressors derail executive functioning for ND kids.

Let me give you a brief guide from my latest Masterclass: Learn to recognize and respond to stress signals.

Understanding the stress response.

Have you ever noticed how your child's mood can shift in the blink of an eye? It's all part of how stress impacts us, especially when your developing nervous system is figuring out how to manage the world.

Sometimes, stress is a catalyst for growth as children explore novelties and handle uncertainty in a supportive setting.

Unfortunately, environments can also be chaotic and overwhelming without a sense of repair and stability.

For a neurodivergent child, the pressures lead to frustration and frequent outbursts. By tuning into your child’s cues, you’re guiding them through discomfort and responding to stress signals from a different perspective.

Learning to reframe misbehavior.

Traditional approaches to misbehavior often focus on blame and punishment; meanwhile, a trauma-informed lens encourages empathy and compassion. Reframing common phrases like "he needs to learn to control himself" or "she keeps giving me a hard time" shifts the narrative away from judgment and allows you to let go of preconceived notions.

Providing emotional safety.

Creating an environment in which Autistic and ADHD kids can show up as their authentic selves is essential for establishing social-emotional well-being. A regulated adult is needed the most as challenges arise.

That’s one of the main reasons neurodivergent children crave a safe space where they can fall apart, let out their worries, and know that expectations are off the table.

A relationship-based approach is how trust is built as ND kids learn to gain trust in their environment, trust in the people who are part of that environment, and trust in themselves. 

As you start to understand a stress response, reframe misbehavior, and promote relational safety, you will gain confidence in your own knowledge. Your felt empowerment adds value to your relationship so you can gracefully raise your neurodivergent kids.

The truth about tantrums and discipline in parenting

Behavior-based discipline will tell you that in order to stop a tantrum, you must ignore it, take something away, or, even worse, withdraw yourself. What the brain will tell you though is quite different because your child is responding in exactly the way their brain is wired to.

I am crushed and disheartened by them. They also leave me in disbelief that parents are still being told to ignore a painful experience.

That information is then being given to other parents, which fuels the cycle of mistrust the child is already feeling.

What about those massive meltdowns?

The ones where no matter how much you attempt to talk your neurodivergent child out of, there is no getting through to them? The truth is that you’re right.

There is no way you can make a child calm, especially with empty threats. When the brain is afraid, it’s irrational. And you will never be able to rationalize your way out of it.

Before I give you some insight into what really works, consider where that irrational fear comes from:

✓ the unexpected
✓ the unknown
✓ state of rejection
✓ lack of skills in regulation
✓ difficulty with change
✓ a sudden feeling of overwhelm
✓ anything that disrupts the nervous system

Those unexpected situations are moments when change comes at us quickly and we don’t have enough skills, yet, to pull back, recognize other options, sort through the options, and make an intentional decision based on the evidence gathered.

That’s the reason you see the kicking, yelling, hitting, biting, cursing…and then some! That’s the reason that phrases like “make a good choice right now” or “you should know better” have no bearing here.

Behaviors are your clues.

Instead of punishing and only responding when “appropriate,” learn how to recognize safety needs, gain insight into your child’s thoughts and feelings, and show up for your child in ways that are effective.

✓ Focus on the situation itself – not on what your child is doing right or wrong.
✓ Consider how intense the experience must be.
✓ Let go of your adult opinion of what’s nice or not nice.
✓ Check in with your own nervous system.
✓ Ride the wave by being fully present and intentional.

Forgo punitive methods that don’t work and align with relationship-based ones that do. Change the way that you connect with your neurodivergent child.

Why transitions lead to breakdowns and the need for closure

“I did a hard thing today.” – Insightful 7-year-old 

One of the most challenging aspects for Autistic and ADHD kids is leaving an idea “unfinished.”

It’s a struggle that leads to complete breakdowns during transitions, whether at home, school, or therapy.

Consider what the expectations are for a child to transition and how many times they’re expected to during the day.

It’s much more than “just” moving from one activity to another. 

Bringing it back to where “I did a hard thing today,” came from. 

Part of therapy is being open to a challenge and how we slowly build resilience through discomfort.

Let me be clear that this isn’t purposeful discomfort. It sometimes arises when skills are lacking.

It sometimes shows up when you’re pulling from resources to build awareness and integrate concepts. 

Discomfort is what brings about change.

During these struggles, when ideas are incomplete and thoughts are stuck, we want to gift ND kids our regulation and ease.

Even more so when they’re feeling uneasy. I say that you are gifting because, when you are regulated, your nervous system passes that on to your child.

We want to make sure that there is ample time to process and come to terms with the fact that something is ending. Kids need closure.

We give closure through our presence and the words we carefully choose.

Sometimes it sounds like this: “what I’m asking is a different idea…you’re thinking we should…and I’m wondering something else.”

Rather than going into an explanation of why we don’t have time or quickly wanting kids to think of something better that’s coming up so they “let go,” we bring them back to the present moment: “I hear you really wanting those magnet blocks…we’re going to save that idea…today we have…”

Remember to connect successes. 

Here’s an example: “Remember how hard it was to leave your chalkboard drawing unfinished…you did that! You figured out how. Today, we are also letting go.” 

There was a pause followed by: “I did a hard thing today.”

We mirror this insightfulness with: “Yes, you did do a hard thing today.”

Less is more!

Why “you can be angry, but” doesn’t work

“Why don’t you just say, ‘hi,’ nicely?”

“Okay be a good boy and listen.”

“Are you being shy? Don’t be shy.”

Telling kids who they are and how they feel prevents them from figuring it out for themselves.

It also locks them into certain states, like being angry, sad, or shy.

They carry those words with them and begin to embody anger, sadness, shyness, and the like when responding to you:

I got mad and punched him.

Sad is bad and happy is good.

Well, I’m shy so I don’t want to play.

Traditional parenting advice may miss neurodivergent children's intentions.

You are falsely told to point out what you won’t allow and reinstate rules and regulations when your child cannot hear them.

Those are the pitfalls that start with, “You can be angry, but…” and right away you’re letting your child know that their hardship doesn’t work for you.

Focus on the situation itself. Discuss what’s happening that you can observe and notice.

Think about the comments being a bit more subtle:

It looks like the plan didn’t work out.

That toy did fly across the room.

We can get it back and move it over to the side.

This place is new for me also, let’s stay close to each other.

The words you choose will land in a specific way and have an impact on your child.

Letting them know that you’re figuring out the circumstance will allow your child to lower their defenses.

They will be able to hear you and feel the difference in your tone and overall approach. 

Stay with the script. One that focuses on the situation and the experience.

I know you want your child to “be okay,” faster. 

Emotional regulation just doesn’t work that way because all our nervous systems function uniquely.

Make room for discomfort so that you can support your child through it.

A guide to handling unsolicited advice during holiday gatherings

“She’s so spoiled. You let her do whatever she wants.”

“He has to learn what a consequence is or else he’s always going to have these tantrums.” 

“You need to discipline her by taking things away.”

The holiday season usually comes with family gatherings, big and small.

For neurodivergent families, these get-togethers also include an array of side commentary, sprinkles of whispers, and apparent golden nuggets of unsolicited advice.

Parents ask me all the time, “How do I tell my family to just back off?

They are guilted into feeling inadequate when their kids “misbehave” because the expectations of that environment are too much for the nervous system to handle.

What do you do when a grandparent calls your child “spoiled” or you’re openly told to “get him under control”?

You know your child best.

The fact that they need the extra support during moments of despair, that is what you provide.

For a neurodivergent child, changes in the environment, no matter how small, can put the brain on the defense.

When your defenses are on alert, your body will respond accordingly and, for a child, that could look like hitting, yelling, running away, or saying how everything is unfair.

What looks like defiance is a feeling of being at a loss and lacking any sense of control over oneself.

That’s scary to experience! Rather than acknowledging that fright, in come the demands and ridiculous expectations.

The more you push, the more your child pushes back and comes off as being harsh and abrasive.

Now everyone is in a downward spiral!

At this point, there is no “thinking” about consequences because it’s impossible to do.

That thinking part of the brain has been seized.

I’ve had a parent recently say to me, “I had to take an actual step back, collect myself, and go ‘okay, what would Polina do’?” 

It’s important NOT to follow your resonating comments with “but you have to…” because this moment is about attuning to your relationship.

It is NOT about proving that you’re still in charge. You’re the parent, you’re already the authority figure.

Again, choose words that will land in a way your child needs to hear them. 

We can stay here [different room/outside/on the floor] together.

You got it, no more talking.

Let’s just hang back. We can come up with a different idea.

Take these scripts with you to your next family gathering and serve them with a side of confidence in how you’re raising your neurodivergent child.

Why saying “yes” instead of “no” to your child is a game changer

“Waiting is not easy!” – Mo Willems.

You’re standing in line waiting for your morning coffee. There is one employee at the register and one barista. The line behind you is also growing.

You notice that the person placing the order is now asking to see all the ingredients of the milk being used. You just want your coffee!

Oh wait, that was me…and I had to hold myself together and text a friend about the ridiculousness of people.

Now, I have the resources to wait in line, especially because I’ve chosen this particular coffee shop.

Your child doesn’t always have those resources.

I had a conversation with a parent recently about her 4-year-old sitting in his stroller and kicking the stroller of someone in front of him in line.

They were waiting to place a food order. The immediate reaction was, “We don’t do that! You shouldn’t kick someone.

Followed by all the ways that this person, who only has 4 years of experience, is wrong.

That’s a lot of “nos” and “don’ts” all at once.

Imagine being constantly bombarded with everything you’re doing that you’re not supposed to do all day, every day…especially in school!
Behavior plans anyone?

That simply cannot leave you with a feeling of being good enough.

It also wires your brain into a “no” state, meaning that it becomes fixated, rigid, and less capable of decision-making, problem-solving, reflecting, considering the needs of others, and achieving higher levels of learning.

All those skills are dampened with a NO.

They simply cannot see beyond the moment, react to feeling wronged, and take fewer chances when presented with a challenge.

They only see one solution, and if that solution doesn’t work out, they give up, express that they’re a failure, and never attempt again.

Now, the flip side is that your brain, and your child’s brain, is being wired and rewired all the time.

So, there’s hope! And it starts with you bringing more “yeses” to your repertoire of words.

You can alter brain signals and transform your child so that they view the world with a “yes” brain.

A brain that takes on a challenge because solving a problem is fun and can take a step back to analyze what the situation brings.

What a difference a slight shift in your language and your perception will make.

It will let your child know that you get what it’s like being 4, needing to move, not being able to, and wanting to just throw yourself on the ground.

Practice it and see how going from “no” to “yes” makes a HUGE difference.

Why saying "it's okay we all make mistakes" is NOT what your child wants to hear

"He's failing at failing" is something that will stay with me forever.

It was a comment that gave me chills when I heard it from a parent of a preschooler.

How can he already feel like a failure? He's so terrified of making a mistake and of something going wrong - like having a magnatile out of place - that he falls apart and refuses to consider any other options.

What's a parent to do when the child's fear overwhelms everyone?

The fear comes from being emotionally tied to those mistakes and sensing that they are a reflection of who we are.

Being told "not to worry" or that "everyone makes mistakes," is actually NOT helpful.

Notice how you're making the struggle just a bit easier without falling into the habit of "but it'll be okay."

Your child is clearly NOT okay, so telling them that they are will set those alarms off even more. Instead, you remain regulated in your own body.

You then relate to your child's experience. Then, and only then, can you slowly move them into considering another rational solution.

I can't tell you how long it will take for your child to move from feeling regulated to understanding another approach.

I CAN tell you that it is the ONLY way for you to show your child that they're felt, thought of, and heard by you.

Practice it and see how much farther attunement will take you. Share with someone who needs this too!