Navigating disappointment: Support your child through struggles

When kids face disappointment, your instinct is to fix things or quickly make it better by offering other options. The truth is, your child isn’t looking for you to “fix” anything. They are expressing a desire to connect about that disappointment and to know that you sense their angst.

Understanding their perspective.

Imagine your child at a crowded mall, nearing the end of a long day. They’ve walked through multiple stores, waited in lines, handled many (and I mean many) transitions, and now they see the entrance to a bowling alley. All of a sudden, they tell you that they want to go bowling. You check and all of the time slots are taken. Your child is exhausted and the overwhelming feeling of disappointment strikes resulting in a tantrum that you were not prepared for. While this situation may not seem like a “big deal” to you as an adult, it is all-consuming for your child. Your go-to methods of rationalizing, explaining the reason you can’t go bowling today, or offering other places to visit simply aren’t working. So, what’s the solution?

The language of validation.

Remember that all roads lead to regulation. When a nervous system is drained, there is no way that rational thought can occur. During these moments, what you say (and actually don’t say) is incredibly valuable. Being at a loss for words is completely okay because your silence and presence are all that’s needed. Communicating in a way that validates while holding a boundary is also helpful because it supportively shows your child that you are in tune with their discomfort. You are not going to prove your parental authority. You are making a decision for them since moments of dysregulation are not the time to teach or explain how choice works.

Here are some phrases you might find useful:

✓ "I see the bowling place too."
✓ "It does look fun."
✓ "I know you want to go in and today it's full."
✓ “I get it, we’ve had a very long day.”

Notice the absence of "no," "can't," or "but." You are acknowledging your child’s view, respecting their vulnerability, and working through the discomfort with them.

Be there, physically and emotionally.

Going back to presence, it is the most powerful support you can offer. Your nervous system will soothe the dysregulation of your child because, as the adult, you have the skill to welcome the catastrophic emotions and take them on - relieving the stress of “dealing with it” from your child. This is not to say that your role is to quickly make it better. The goal is for you to handle what your child can’t right now, showing them that they can get past this intense disappointment. The challenge for you as the parent is to remain regulated yourself and not take what your child says personally, especially when you hear that “you’re the worst ever” and “we never do anything I want to do.”

Language you can use.

Kids are very hard to reach with words during instances of despair. Wait for an opening and use it as a strategic opportunity with simple, direct language:

These statements emphasize that you understand what unfairness is like, create a shared experience, and move away from correcting misbehavior or instructing your child to “make a better choice.”

Final thoughts.

By shifting how you show up, you change your language, and changing your language means that you are connecting in a valuable way. The value comes with guiding kids to handle disappointment without looking for external reinforcement or a distraction that will prevent them from feeling discomfort. The goal isn’t to prevent our children from ever becoming dysregulated. The goal is to ensure they know, deep in their core, they are supported during their own despair, and can begin to successfully manage unfavorable situations.

Beyond the "if": Communicate intentions without ultimatums

For parents of Autistic and ADHD kids, everyday tasks that require following instructions can sometimes become challenging episodes. Neurodivergent children often perceive and process information differently, which can lead to misunderstandings. Communication that’s misaligned with your child’s linguistic, social-emotional, and cognitive skills then causes disarray. Rather than working on compliance or making children “listen,” we are going to address their comprehension needs, gathering clues about their perspective. Remember, we are not manipulating behavior. We are connecting certain events/situations and successes to deepen our understanding of the child’s experience.

Understanding the challenge with conditional language.

Conditional language, especially the use of "if," can be problematic for neurodivergent kids. To them, it sounds like an ultimatum or a threat, triggering anxiety or putting them into a frozen state of compliance. What may appear as listening on the outside as the child (finally) stands still is an absolute fear response on the inside. It depletes resources and your child is processing very little or really no information at all because the brain’s survival mode has kicked in.

For example, saying "If you don't finish your homework, you can't play outside," or “First you have to finish your homework, and then you can play outside,” might be intended as a motivational strategy. In reality, no matter how you dress it up, it’s still an ultimatum, and a sense of overwhelm floods the nervous system. The message you’re sending is that “homework,” or whatever the task is at the moment, is this painful occurrence and what comes after is what you “earn” following completion. Seemingly harmless, it leads your child to always expecting a reward. A 6-year-old recently said to me after a particularly challenging session, “I worked so hard and it was all for nothing!”

Internal motivation and a growth mindset comes from viewing a “hard thing” as interesting. Looking at a problem, failing, and retracing your steps to determine what worked, what didn’t, and what adjustments can be made to attempt once more. We don’t want to teach our kids that success is only equivalent with rewards, gold stars, or bribes. We do want to embrace the fact that overcoming something difficult builds grit and gritty kids take on obstacles because they choose to.

Strategies for clear communication.

Using words that acknowledge: Replace conditional phrases by staying in the moment. For instance, instead of “If you clean your room, we can go to the park,” use “I know you’re thinking about the park, right now we are putting your toys/books/ideas back in their spots.” This phrasing acknowledges your child’s thought and desire to go to the park while bringing them back to what you’re asking - without promises or threats.

Clarifying comments and/or questions: Instead of correcting behavior, embody a state of wonder. Depending on your child’s language skills, you can start with a comment that tunes them into what you’re observing, “I notice a mountain of toys. Looks like it’s hard to get started.” Clean-up is a big executive functioning task and telling a child to simply “clean up” doesn’t take into consideration all of the steps required to do so, such as:

✓ know where to start
✓ understand how to organize in piles or based on categories
✓ forgo other distractions (internal and external)
✓ stay with this boring task until completion
✓ remember where all of the items belong

Additionally, asking a child whether they understand the reason a change is needed can empower them to consider their actions and remind them of certain rules and boundaries. Questions like, “Do you know how come I’m standing in front of you?" can help the child reflect on the current situation in the context of the guidance you’re providing.

Staying in the moment: What about redirecting as a managing behavior technique? Let that one go too! The reason is that a “redirect” to something else completely misses your child’s intention. It also focuses solely on the adult’s desired outcome. It doesn’t mean that you follow every single idea the second it comes up. It does mean that you notice what your child has in mind and figure out the reason they are leading you in a particular direction. Is what you’re asking of them too much? Are they at capacity? Is telling them they “have to” finish really worth it right now?

Cultivating a supportive environment.

Creating a supportive environment that respects your neurodivergent child's unique way of processing information can make following directives less stressful for everyone. This involves consistency and understanding that the process itself is more powerful than simply wanting an outcome. By adjusting our approach and how we communicate, we empower ourselves and our kids to succeed.

Final thoughts.

By moving away from conditional language and ultimatums, parents create a space that adheres to safety needs and still holds a supportive boundary. Instead of focusing on compliance or a reward/consequence system, step into a process that confirms your unwavering presence and strengthens your parent-child relationship.

Understanding dysregulation: A parent's guide

As parents, watching your Autistic or ADHD child with frustration and dysregulation can be heart-wrenching. You want to help, to soothe, to calm - and yet, despite your best efforts, nothing works. It's like they're caught in a storm you can't quiet.

The nature of the storm.

It’s important to understand that, when children become highly agitated, they cannot access any tools or strategies for regulating on their own. The reaction isn’t a conscious choice. It’s a manifestation of overwhelm that they cannot control - at least not yet. This means the primary responsibility for maintaining a regulated state falls on the adults in their lives who will show up no matter what.

Presence over problem solving.

When your child is using harsh language or yelling that you’re “the worst” parent, your instinct might be to defend yourself. Unfortunately, when your brain switches to defense mode, frustrations escalate because connection is missing. What’s needed most in that moment are not solutions - those are easy. The challenge is remaining present and regulated with the following underlying offer: I am here for you and our relationship will not falter.

Practical steps to take:

Stay physically present: Show your child that you are with them through your body language, facial expressions, and non-verbal communicative gestures (like a nod). Make sure you're signaling safety, not defense or anxiety.

Listen and acknowledge: When there is a break in their outburst, let them know you hear them by saying, "I hear everything you’re saying." This acknowledgment can be incredibly powerful.

Offer reassurance: Follow up with your offer, "I’m here to give you what you need," which provides them with a sense of security. It also lets your child know that, as the parent, you are still in your role of providing basic needs (safety and security).

Language you can use.

When your child is in a state of dysregulation and demands something like a phone or game as a condition for “calming down,” interpret it as an expression of an unmet need rather than a manipulation.

These responses show that you understand their distress while also staying with them through the discomfort. You’re further avoiding explanations that will cause power struggles and increasing agitation. What you can offer is one option at a time that you know is particularly soothing. An important piece to note here is that your child can continue to reject all of your suggestions - it doesn’t mean that they are rejecting you. Here’s how you can frame your suggestion:

“I’m thinking your stuffie could help.” OR “I’m thinking turning down the lights could help.”
*you’re adjusting the immediate environment*

“I’m going to bring my idea with me.”
*you’re telling them that you’ll be right back also giving yourself time to regain composure*
*make sure that you come back with a stuffie, or 2 water bottles so you are modeling with your actions rather than your words*

“I’ll move back to give your body space.”
*instead of - I won’t let you hit me*

After the storm.

Once everyone is regulated, you can slowly start to relate to your child’s emotional state. Remember that, on the outside, the crisis has passed. On the inside, the nervous system has not yet regained its neutral state. Depending on your child’s language skills, you can reflect on the experience with, “I wonder what that was like for you.” Posing a statement helps to initiate the process of self-awareness. You’re also aligning yourself with your child and opening up an intimate conversation. Depending on your child’s response, you will mirror it back to them with, “It sounds like for you it was…[scary, hard, sad].” Give them a moment to take the reflection in and follow it up with the same word/phrase for you, “It was…[scary, hard, sad] for me too.” WOW! Now your child knows you really get it.

All roads lead to regulation.

Navigating your child's emotional challenges isn't about fixing their struggles for them. It’s about supporting them through their toughest moments. A parent asked recently how they could tell what’s dysregulation and what’s “bad behavior.” My response was, “let go of the notion that it’s bad behavior and always come back to regulation.”

Final thoughts.

I want to leave you with a quote from Dr. Ross Greene’s The Explosive Child, “Solving problems is much easier if a person has the ability to think through solutions.”

Navigating choices with ADHD: Simplify decision-making for your child

Children with ADHD are characterized by impulsive actions and inconsistencies in performance. Parents often ask, “How can he complete this task one day, but not the next?” ADHD kids also struggle navigating their thoughts and the intensities of their emotional capacities. This dynamic makes decision making quite difficult, filled with stress and frustration.

Understanding the challenge behind "too many choices."

Many children with ADHD experience what can be described as “decision overload.” When faced with multiple options, they often resort to saying, “I don't care,” or “yeah,” which lets me know that the child hasn’t processed all of the information given. First clue: the information is too much to sort through in their mind and they cannot foresee their future selves doing “that” option. Additionally, when kids respond with “But it’s my choice!” the phrase may seem defiant or dismissive of your intentions. In actuality, these are coping mechanisms that reveal overwhelm.

Having too many choices (yes, even deciding between two) doesn't represent freedom or what you may have heard as a need for control. The choice paralysis is also not about a lack of care or refusal to make a decision. It is about the difficulty in processing multiple streams of information simultaneously. Clinically, it is a verbal working memory challenge, which is in the executive function skills realm.

Simplifying choices to empower.

Here’s a short example. During a session that included a more complex play scene, one ADHD 5-year-old quickly became overwhelmed when the elements didn't fit together or when suggestions for change were made. His immediate response was, “I don't care,” signaling that the task felt too challenging. Recognizing this as a moment for us to reflect, I took on the cognitive load for him and adjusted my position. Instead of offering multiple suggestions or pressing for a solution, I presented a single, manageable option that was within his individualized skillset. This adjustment allowed him to immediately reduce the feeling of overwhelm. He considered the idea from my perspective and replied with the following comment, "Oh that does work."

Strategic choice reduction.

Reducing the number of choices available doesn't mean removing autonomy or control. It's about structuring the decision-making environment so that it becomes more accessible and less daunting. Consider the language being used because when you praise with, “you made a good choice,” the underlying meaning is that the other option was a “bad choice.” Also, the language is going to vary based on each child’s capacity to process all the words. It’s the message and your intention that stay the same.

Final thoughts.

Understanding the unique challenges faced by children with ADHD in decision-making scenarios allows parents and caregivers to better support their needs. By simplifying choices and taking on the “heavy lifting,” as I call it, we can help ADHD kids navigate the complexities of information processing with more confidence. This perspective reduces the stress load by slowly forming problem solving skills while creating successful experiences. The goal is to then connect successes, bring them to your child’s awareness, and provide them with increased opportunities to practice being successful!