What I know about Complex and Challenging Kids.

…What I have learned from working with them and their parents…and things I have read and researched.

So who are complex kids? Who do I mean?

Here I’m talking about those who struggle to engage in or out of school, with friends, with family, who are delayed in launching, taking action, responsibility…

  • Those who may have something going on in their mental health landscape, and / or actually diagnosed, or potential neurodiversity…
  • Kids who stubbornly withdraw and disengage from relationship with parents, teachers and get stuck going their own way…or not knowing what way they are going and stuck…whilst parents look on in fear and wonder how they will get into / get on with school and/or launch in life…

This article is going to look at what I have learned from many years of supporting children and families in difficulty over the long term.  How we as parents can show up around neurodiversity and complex needs, and also how we can look at presenting behaviours that look like potential neurodiversity.

A caveat…I am NOT writing as a clinician, psychologist, psychiatrist or neurodiversity specialist. And the advice given here should not be taken as a replacement from seeking out an assessment or getting specialist help.

I AM, however, writing as a very experienced educator, with 6 years as Deputy Head, and Safeguard lead, as the sharp end of pastoral matters, and beyond that with either line management or governance responsibility for the same, embracing detailed work with school counsellors, school-based educational psychologists, supervision work with Safeguarding teams.

In parallel to this has been the deep dive support I have given to individuals as a school-based performance coach and over the past 6 years in my work as a coach supporting parents and families where there are complex needs and extended challenges in relationship dynamics, and function.

One element of this work I dearly love, is that when I am supporting parents who have a child struggling with ADHD, an Autism diagnosis, gender and identity issues, anxiety, or other mental health situations in the mix – or a cocktail of all of these with a side-order of addictive behaviour eg screens, social media and gaming on the side… not only do I get to know them, and their relationship with their kiddo really deeply, I also get license to explore that world. Read the books, attend the conferences where leaders in their field share ideas about what works, and what doesn’t. I do all this and consolidate it into my training, speaking, and outreach writing via this newsletter. If you know of a fellow parent in the trenches of this, you might like to share this article, and encourage sign up to my newsletters: http://eepurl.com/gORacn

You’ll see my hit list of interesting people and books you may like to check out at the end of this piece.

This article, then comes off the back of this sort of work that I am privileged enough to do. It is dedicated to the hugely inspirational parents I have been honoured to have worked with over the years, their strength, courage, creativity, resourcefulness in the face of vulnerability…And the many amazing practitioners I have learned from working alongside over the years.

Current context:

  • There has been and continues to be a massive surge in requests for assessment for ADHD and Autism (ASD) in the wake of the pandemic. GPs are the starting point for this process (via CAMHS) and although some situations are very clear cut, others are less so, in terms of the young person’s ‘presenting behaviours’. The threshold for a CAMHS assessment is fairly high, and the timing of the assessment will be triaged so that those with the most severe and urgent needs are seen first. Wait lists will vary from NHS trust to trust.
  • Seeking a private assessment needs considerable due diligence to ensure the psychiatrist involved has the relevant experience and expertise. This means that they are a child and adolescent psychiatrist, and that they have a depth of experience working with these neurodiversities. Be aware that this isn’t always a given. Remember it’s not just the diagnosis, it’s the quality of the advice and support surrounding it that’s going to make the actual difference. Some schools may be able to point you in the right direction, because they know of specialists who have worked with a number of other students. So the school Special Needs coordinator (SENCO), or Neurodiversity specialist may be able to help. An up to date assessment of needs is essential in order for schools to secure special arrangements for public exams.
  • Many specialists believe that one key to reducing / testing / regulating the symptoms of neurodiversity is to make a concerted effort to strategically and systematically reduce stressors in home-life and family routines and develop a safe harbour in the home that allows for more effective recovery. (Kim John Payne, Clinical Psychologist, and founder of Simplicity Parenting.) Here he is talking about Simple Changes to Reduce Anxiety, Depression, and ADHD in Kids & Teens with Kim John Payne, M.Ed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rk1wHicrLrI Reducing stressors, and attending to the pace and tone of activities in family life, and your child’s schedule is not a bad place to begin, given that even with the private route, you are set to wait a while.
  • There’s a potential chicken and egg situation…are there chronic stressors, life experiences, lifestyle and/or problematic relationship dynamics (including the young person’s relationship to themselves) that are combining to be expressed through behaviours that closely resemble neurodiversity…OR are the struggles that they are having BECAUSE of neurodiversity issues which take a massive toll on their day to day function, and when undiagnosed and unsupported can cause several ‘comorbidities’ like depression, severe depression, suicidal ideation, self-harm, trauma symptoms, mood and anxiety disorders. (Richard Silver, author of ‘Neurospicy’, speaking at the ImpactParents ‘Back on Track’ conference about supporting young adults with complex needs). Here he was referencing the co-morbidities for ASD and ADHD as listed in the US DSM-5.  https://impactparents.securechkout.com/BackOnTrackEncoreExtended
  • Despite great surges in our understanding of neurodiversity, and in particular a greater recognition of neurodiversity in women and girls, there still remains a great deal of stigma around diagnoses of ADHD, and ASD. Of course both ‘D’s bear a heavy weight – deficit in the former, and disorder in the latter.
  • Though many school SENCOs have now a far more specialised range and focus on neurodiversity, there are still lagging skills in the educational world about how to show up in more helpful ways to increase access to learning for complex kids. Much training focuses on what is ASD, what is ADHD, what is dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, how do we spot it…What is anxiety (in all its many forms), what is depression…how do we spot it…Supporting all these differences and challenges feels overwhelming when you look at the demographics of a typical classroom and all those ‘special needs’ in their different silos. So although teachers are often skilled at differentiation in task structuring and lesson planning, they are having to cater to the group and the group situation too. Training in schools may well be starting to look at how to work with groups through the lens of understanding the nervous system, and to think about practices that make the classroom less stressful – from the world of being ‘trauma informed’, and also from the work of Steven Porges, Polyvagal theory. My belief is that an emphasis on the teacher as being a leader who is skilled at co-regulation is going to establish and maintain ‘rest and digest’ states that will be beneficial to all – complex kids, vulnerable kids, neurotypical kids…
  • Views differ wildly on medication. Some families are very prompt to move onto that potential way forward, many families and young people are resistant and even anti medication. The pathway to seeking medication is an important consideration. It can only be via a psychiatrist. The medication for ADHD is powerful stuff. It takes time and patience. It’s not as simple as dosing by age, weight height. It’s how sensitive the body is to that particular medicine and that will vary from person to person. It genuinely takes commitment to exploration and potential discomfort in finding out what sort of solution may emerge as a result. Otherwise, the meds become yet another thing in the long list of failures in that young person’s life.
  • There’s a difficulty if you’re of average or above average IQ and you are on the Autism spectrum. You’re less able to access help because of the conundrum of having somewhat advanced skills and abilities in some areas, but lagging skills in other areas. SO children and young adults in this bracket are often misunderstood by neurotypical people in their orbit, and subject to multiple ‘Why can’t you justs….’ fill in the blanks…If they CAN do X, Y and Z so well, their ‘can’t do’s’ get confused with ‘won’t do’s’…That can be a nightmare…especially in an education system that has the latent expectation that you’ll be good at all the things you’re taught about if you learn well enough and are taught well enough…The human race has been going for 300,000 years, and we’ve just got started on this thing called ‘universal education’ in the UK in the 1870 Education Act…so um, errr, it’s all rather new…And maybe, just maybe, we’ve not got it entirely right – especially when we look at the data for mental health concerns where the NHS data from 2023 reckons on 20% of 8-16 year olds, 23% of 17-19 year olds and 22% of 20-24 year olds have a probable mental health disorder.
  • https://www.england.nhs.uk/2023/11/one-in-five-children-and-young-people-had-a-probable-mental-disorder-in-2023/#:~:text=The%20Mental%20Health%20of%20Children,%2Dolds%20it%20was%2021.7%25.

What parents need to know and how they can help…

The nutshell…8 core principles

  • The nutshell…8 core principles
  • Choose a possibility vs a deficit mindset
  • Regulate the nervous system – help them get into their ‘green zone’ – rest & digest, safe & social.
  • Forge connection, belonging
  • Connect with and encourage strengths and interests.
  • Identify and support challenges.
  • Experiment and repeat – learn and grow – do the ‘me-search’ test and learn what works…
  • Advocate for good-fit learning – at school, education and training pathways, skills…
  • Notice and build on small gains – a culture of continuous improvement – less of what doesn’t work, build success on success no matter how small.
  • Source – look out the work of Debbie Steiner Kunz, her work on ‘Twice Exceptional’ children in her company ‘Bright and Quirky’.. see and her membership plans, conferences and resources: https://brightandquirky.com/

The detail…

Quite often as a young person is into their teens, and has served a long stretch in school, they may well present themselves to parents as being complacent, not caring, or stubborn and disengaged when it comes to ‘doing the business’ – their job of being a student – and together with that, not accepting the need for help, not getting help or engaging with help in a way that will enable them to take action on their struggles. At the same time, especially when we get to Year 10+, there’s an urgency, a deadline…the GCSEs…and suddenly the woods are on fire.

The fact is – especially if there’s ADHD or ASD in play, their day at school is likely to have been like driving a car on an ice-rink…they’ll have been whiteknuckling through a chicane of challenges:

  • Sensory overload
  • Hit-and miss-attempts to be on task and stay on task
  • Anxiety to somehow come up with some sort of respectable goods when they are asked a question, publicly by their teacher, but only really followed a part of the material…

There’s a HUGE emotional and cognitive, and sensory toll to that masking. So when they come home, they truly are likely to be quite depleted and want to/need to zone out in order to recover…

By the mid to late teens, there is likely to be less compliance, and more of a power-struggle in the dynamic, where the parent feels helpless, but is trying to push their teen into action. This is where the combination of natural developmental separation from closeness with parents can harden into more tricky dynamics of disconnection. This is where the ‘Why can’t you justs’ come out…

Why can’t you just…

  • Stop wasting time on your screens /gaming
  • Do your homework.
  • Tidy your room
  • Do some exercise
  • Stop watching TV
  • Do something productive…

By the stage that certain milestones are approaching – exams, transitions to sixth form, university etc…then parent are – with some good reason – on high alert. After all this is the one chance they have to do Year 10, 11, 12, 13 etc…

We know that they will feel awful if they are disappointed…if they throw away their shot. This is the point where for every understandable reason, parents go into fix-it mode…and become what Diane Dempster and Elaine Taylor-Klaus called so elegantly ‘pouncing parents’ in their conversation with Sharon Sommer, the Director of Learning and Development at the College Internship Programme for young adults with Autism: https://cipworldwide.org/about-cip/cip-at-a-glance/

So if you want to know why your struggling kid won’t emerge from their bedroom, why they shut you down when you try to help them, why they are off and away into an online bubble, DO just ask yourself the question of whether you’ve become a ‘pouncing parent’ in the relationship dynamic…

What this might look like:

Constantly checking in (the close twin of checking up) on:

  • Whether they’ve done their homework
  • How they got on in their test
  • How much revision they’ve done
  • Whether they remembered something
  • What they’ve got to do tonight
  • How they are going to do it
  • When they are going to do it…

Bursting with a banked up agenda dam…We need to talk about…

  • Your future
  • Your diagnosis
  • Your gaming habit
  • Your lifestyle
  • Your diet and how it’s not helping
  • What you want and the gap between what you say you want, and what you are doing with your life…

Hmmm…wow…Now in all truth, that pretty much represents the stream of consciousness of many or most of us at some point in our lives as bystanders to our teen’s journey thorough life, school, hobbies and friendships and into themselves.

It can be – and often is – AGONY!

Because we’ve got the answers. We’re often SO SO right in our intuition. We have the fully formed pre-frontal cortex, and the ability to time-travel into the future. We know just how hard it can be out there…Yes we do…

But – what’s in it for them? When we are simply just waiting to speak, to jump in and press our point home we are not respecting their agency, giving them acknowledgment, and the attention we are giving them is of a very driven sort.

As a coach working with parents it’s very much the case of how…HOW can I get my child to do the right thing? To do what I say. To want what I want.

Imagine going to your place of work, expecting to run the gauntlet of endless questions, and people ready to pounce, to measure your pace, to remind you what you haven’t done yet. How inviting would that feel?

Now think about what it means to be neurodivergent. How probably from the get-go of starting school, there will have been struggles. How hard it has been to manage transitions, challenges, people…

It’s really hard to step outside this dynamic and move into something more functional and less like groundhog day. It’s really easy to chase our kids around and down the drain and our relationships get depleted and disconnected. In my coaching, it’s often about enabling parents to look at the situation with less blame, shame, fear, and unpack what the music is underneath the lyrics of ‘Why don’t you just…’ ‘Shut up Mum / Dad’…’I told you so…’.

There are choices to be made, and what’s right for one family and one unique set of challenges with one unique set of parents, with their unique child, may be totally different to another. There’s no set template.

What follows is a checklist of guiding principles that will fall into place in a different order with different emphasis depending on the intensity of the circumstances. Here I’m fusing my coaching experiences, and my experience of working alongside families in stuck situations over 2 decades – with the latest thinking I’ve been picking up from thought leaders in this area.

Start with Strengths.

No matter what the struggles are, and how bad things may seem in your relationship with your child, or the reports coming home from school, start with their strengths. Revisiting their peak moments, their signature character strengths that cluster around the 6 virtues of Wisdom, Humanity, Courage, Justice, Temperance, Transcendence. https://positivepsychology.com/classification-character-strengths-virtues/

Identify these strengths, collage them with images from your photo albums of your child as they’ve grown and shown these attributes. Recall resonant stories you can recount to them of their strengths in action. Get into strength spotting. Helping them link to their good parts…to see them more clearly instead of being drowned out by their hyper awareness of all the things they are not yet…even if they don’t show it. This is vital to help turn around the deficit dynamics and for you to build connection afresh. Collect them, re-collect them – greeting them warmly, with welcome – gather them to you by seeking to practice appreciation. As Dr Thomas E Brown says in his talks and books (Smart but Stuck), their solutions will be found in their strengths and successes.

Source: https://positivepsychology.com/classification-character-strengths-virtues/

Practice some self-management.

Reduce, and stop FRAPPING – Fixing, Rescuing, Analysing, Projecting… (Neil Peterson of the Edge Foundation (ADHD Student coaching) in conversation with Elaine Taylor Klaus and Diane Dempster in the ImpactParents conference ‘Back on Track’)…

This means stop writing yourself into their story, keep the accountability on them for writing their own story, and try to avoid adding stress and drama by catastrophising about the future, or confusing what would be your distress with their actual distress points (which unless they are talking to you about their inner life, you’re likely to be more ignorant of).

“You have to allow yourself let go of the reins for them to pick them up and direct their journey. They can’t do it if you’re clinging on too tight…” Dr Rick Silver – Author of Neurospicy, Adult and Adolescent Psychiatrist and founder of Thrive Emerge (see link below).

Bear in mind, that when young people genuinely do drop out and find difficulty launching independently at university, or in the world of work, one intervention that does work to help get them out of their darkened bedrooms, is for them to attend residential programmes like Sharona Sommer’s College Internship Programme in the US which helps people with developmental delays break old patterns of blame, shame, isolation and withdrawal, and start afresh, building self-esteem and developing confidence in transitional programmes that help ‘fail upwards’ and learn. https://cipworldwide.org/staff/sharona-sommer/

Remain hopeful

Benchmark even tiny steps of progress, take care of yourself, and let go of the expectations that you have built up over the years.

Concentrate on your relationship and building up the bank of goodwill and trust in your relationships. Which involves dropping your agenda, really listening to them and staying curious and open, meeting them where they are at, making sure they feel safer and more seen, rewarded relationally, for coming to you…so that they will feel like coming back and talking more…

Keep conversations bite sized.

As Brendan Mahan would say – be very aware to the cognitive and emotional load of communicating across the neurodiversity divide. Think of it as more like a game of catch – get their attention first, body presence, name, eye contact, attention, feedback… One thing at a time: get it, got it, good.

Don’t have important or difficult conversation when you are revved up. We process things emotionally and cognitively. Conflict arises when one or both parties are processing emotionally – this is when we are stuck in criticism / defensiveness cycles…

If this is where you have been living for some time, problem solving, cooperation are going to feel and be quite distant. Build up muscles of communication about the mundane, help them feel seen, heard, and connected and build from there. Maybe you’ve been spending a lot of time managing them rather than enabling them to be and feel heard.  

The bigger picture – strategy and focus.

Of course they still do need to reduce screen time, disentangle from addictive avoidant activities like gaming. And yes -they do need to crack on with their homework.

But first things first. Build relationship, and from that self-motivation – remembering the three planks of self-determination: capability, agency, relationship. They need to know there is hope, they are not broken, there are things they really can do and can do well.

They need to know that they are the ones to do it – to take charge – they have sovereignty, autonomy. And that determines what they are sovereign of…more – or less. That’s a choice they will be making on an ongoing basis, and they will also be expanded or limited by the quality of that choice. And relationship – connection- vital for them being able to navigate their journey and to be able to see themselves and their possibilities. This is a core driver and igniter of motivation.

IF you improve your relationship, you will find your ability to influence will follow from there. This isn’t about being permissive or without boundaries – shirking parental responsibility and being chummy, colluding with denial, magical thinking, and avoidance– but it is about having more traction with your child.

There is painful material at the core of the ADHD / ASC picture. There is painful material at the core of mental health struggles. There needs to be a sense of safety, and trust to be able to open up, allow, and acknowledge that vulnerability, let alone accept it and act on it.

Taking action

You may well need to – or even have to – take some drastic action. Especially where safety and wellbeing is at stake. This may involve taking charge in some way – seeing a doctor, getting a referral to a specialist. It may involve intervening to minimise the threat of addictive patterns – whether that’s drink, substance abuse, screens, risk-taking behaviour.

That may be part of the work – to take a stand, impose, and hold boundaries in such a way that life becomes unpleasant for a while all round.

It may be about making material consequences very clear – eg not funding a lifestyle where they are sheltered from reality… ‘Showing them the money’…if they aren’t going to do their job of work at school / college / university, then they will need to work and earn in order to have the things they want. But – that needs to be done in a framework of love, compassion, clearsighted values and purpose and alongside strengthening the family system so that it’s not about ‘fixing them’ but about strengthening the family around them and with them in order to get them to where they need to go.

This means being ready and receptive to change yourself, and in doing so, change the relationship dynamic. (Dr Rick Silver ).

Get informed – neuro-aware

Get informed about typical challenges involved in neurodiversity – ASC /ADHD. Dr Thomas E Brown’s framework for Executive Function Challenge is very helpful – remembering that this isn’t a template. These are typical issues that are part of the ADHD profile, which each individuals will have with differing combinations and intensities. In fact at times in our lives we all will struggle with to an extent – but people who are neurodivergent as opposed to neurotypical are more likely to experience and with more frequency and intensity. 6 strands of executive function challenge to bear in mind are as follows:

  1. Activation – getting organised and getting started
  2. Focus – being able to filter and select priorities accurately – being able to be responsive to what is important.
  3. Regulating alertness – being able to sleep when you need to sleep and be awake and sustain effort when you need to. Processing speed is tricky – getting detail down on a page when you’ve identified the outline.
  4. Managing frustrations and modulating emotions. Over-focusing on irritants, easily becoming dysregulated and unable to interact in a nuanced / sensitive / attuned way. Rejection sensitivity.
  5. Working memory challenges – this is not long-term recall but short term working memory. Being able manage the traffic in our brain in order to remember what we need when we need it.
  6. Being able to monitor and self-regulate action – not purely physical hyperactivity, not being able to read the room eg misreading social situations.

T.E. Brown (2008) Executive Functions. Describing six aspects of a Complex Syndrome. Attention Magazine.

Apply to your child – areas of strength, areas of struggle.

Work on developing your clarity on which of these areas are a larger or lesser part of your child’s profile – recognising that where neurodiversity is involved, these are a big part of the teen process and struggle – but on steroids! It’s teendom +++.

So recognising them and being strategic about how the dynamic between you might be exacerbating the action or contributing to inaction…We do need to understand our kids.

We may have little sense of their situation if we are neurotypical ourselves. Being neuroinformed and being curious about their experience is going to boost your parent superpower…Maybe after the additional toll on their nervous system that the day has on them with their unique set of challenges – they maybe DO need recovery time. Maybe they do need a nap. Some strategies, routines and frameworks to manage energy and recovery.

There’s often more anxiety, and nervous system activation going on in the lives of ASD and ADHD children. It’s difficult for them to scan their internal emotional environment in the midst of sensory overload and the challenge of trying to manage the thought trains and organisation of data to perform in the structures of their day and in multiple scenarios where there are so many executive function challenges.

Building skills to do with interoception – self awareness, being able to manage the mind-body connection, rather than be driven by its fight-flight tailspins – is a big challenge. And is why they really won’t have much of an answer to the questions we ask, like how they are feeling. Helping them slow down, identify, name, express feelings and act on them rather than act them out, is slow, difficult, but essential work. Well regulated, adaptive emotions are critical resources for all of us.

My lovely nephew, now 21, after a lot of life learning through a non-neuro-affirming non-neuroinformed and troubled education experience speaks so enthusiastically about the need to learn how to manage your nervous system as being something transformative.

This is – of course – down the line of the neurodiverse journey where difficulty, denial and avoidance can start to give way to acceptance, engagement, accessing help, taking productive action…The first three steps, sadly are where many young people get very stuck and can suffer greatly in terms of their mental health and maladaptive coping strategies like self-harm and addiction.

Key catalysts for change:

Your relationship with your child, relationships with other young people further down the neurodiversity journey in a setting that is moderated by professionals…(eg school-supervised peer support groups), strengthening their relationship with themselves – most crucial of all!

Dealing with a diagnosis…

Once you get a diagnosis – if that’s the path you’ve gone down, try to avoid ‘kitchen sinking it’ – throwing everything at it all at once.

Therapy, executive coaching, meds, you CEO-ing them at home…Or getting the diagnosis and doing nothing about it apart from getting extra time in exams…

It’s combined, strengthening and building action, done patiently, over time, that will help shift the developmental profile that has been stuck and struggled due to neurodiversity.

And to be careful, open-minded and informed about the possibilities of Medication – which may – or may not – enable this uphill journey to be undertaken with a lighter load…As I heard Dr Rick Silver say most memorably… Chills, pills, skills…

But above all, it is strengthening the family system around the child or teen that means they can be received in their struggles, with compassion, and understanding, and be in secure attachment with their caregivers about their feelings of vulnerability.

Quite rightly most help, most interventions focus on the child. Finding parent groups, parent support, or engaging with people like me, whose work complements the work with the child – to support one or both parents and help empower them – can be extremely helpful.

So how does this resonate? Whatever age or stage your child is at, we are all better off when we have a bit more information. Executive functions challenges come to all children and especially teens. Some more than others. How we show up around these challenges is crucial. Sometimes when we think we are helping, we are driven by fear and the desire to fix…and despite our best intentions, that can lead to disconnection and hurt.

If you know someone who might be helped by reading this, please do share and recommend. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, do get in touch. And if any part of this is helpful in shining some light on difficult and stuck situations, or helping give you some hope and courage around taking possible action, that is my dearest hope.

Further reading and resources below.

With love and gratitude,

Emma.

Resources:

Lots of free resources, coaching and training via Parent coaches Elaine Taylor-Klaus and Diane Dempster – both parents of complex children and certified coaches. https://impactparents.com/

Paid access to their parent conference ‘Back on Track’ Supporting young adults with complex needs: https://impactparents.securechkout.com/BackOnTrackEncoreExtended

Bright and Quirky: https://brightandquirky.com/ Membership plans, resources and conferences – headed by Debbie Steinberg-Kunz

In the UK – Elaine Halligan – author of My Child’s Different, a speaker, trainer, and coach like me who specialises in parenting and specifically parenting neurodiverse children: https://www.elainehalligan.com/

Other great people to look into:

Richard Silver – Author of ‘Neurospicy’ – more can be found in his website – Thrive Emerge. https://www.thriveemerge.com/welcome

Dr Thomas E Brown – clinician and author of ‘Smart but Stuck’.

Brendan Mahan – on all things ADHD  https://www.adhdessentials.com/podcasts/

Danny Henderson – Thriving with ADHD for Women, ADHD Workbook for Kids. Dr William Stixrud – The Self-Driven Child – and his consultancy practice https://www.stixrud.com

More to explore