As a pediatric psychologist, I work with children, teens, and young adults to help them better understand their brain, emotions, thoughts, behaviors, and interpersonal relationships. As a parent coach, I help parents better understand their kids and teens so that they can respond differently and maybe even break a few unhealthy generational cycles along the way.
One area I find fascinating and helpful to understand is executive functioning. Executive functioning are those skills that live in your child’s pre-frontal cortex (frontal lobe), which is located in their brain behind their forehead.
What is Executive Functioning?
Executive functioning is responsible for so many things like: planning, decision-making, judgment, impulse control, working memory, task initiation, task persistence, organization, processing speed, flexibility, time management, and emotional regulation.
If an individual struggles with executive functioning skills, they might find it very difficult to do any number of things like: keeping their room clean, remembering to turn in an assignment, showing up on time, finding the motivation to start or finish a task, or remembering to take out the trash.
Because their brains process things differently, it’s important to parent them from a unique perspective as well. Keep in mind executive functions are skills, so they can be learned.
5 Tips for Effective Parenting
Here are five things that are important to keep in mind when parenting children with executive functioning challenges.
- Identify whether an actual executive function condition or diagnosis exists. Although kids don’t need labels, sometimes identifying the challenge going on within and around the child sets them up for success in all the environments they occupy. Speaking to your child’s pediatrician and possibly getting an evaluation with a developmental pediatrician, child psychologist or neuropsychologist can help rule out and identify exactly what’s going on. Overall, trust your gut if you sense your child isn’t functioning or developing based on their chronological age.
- Learn more about your child’s condition or diagnosis. I am a huge advocate in educating and learning about why we do, think, feel, and behave the way we do. When you come from a place of understanding, then you can better understand why your child responds to things the way they do and why they resist. The behavior or attitude you see may not be about disobedience. Rather, it may be that their brain is processing and reacting differently than you expected.
- Educate your child on executive functioning. Now that you’re equipped, then educate and equip your child too. Name their challenge, condition, diagnosis, or personality style. Help them understand their strengths and superpowers. Talk to them about what makes things worse and what makes it better. Ask them what they have noticed and where they need more support. Make this collaborative, listen to what they have to say, empathize with their worries and concerns, and express your support.
- Communicate expectations in various ways. Now that you understand their brain better and so do they, the way you communicate your expectations needs to align with this understanding. If you have certain expectations about chores, homework, screens, or bedtime, then discuss these things based on various learning and processing styles. This might look like a short list (visual), speaking it out loud (verbal), or practicing the steps (kinesthetic) to name a few. Most importantly, find out what works best for your child. What helps them remember? What gets in the way of meeting the expectation? Is the expectation developmentally appropriate?
- Have clear routines and be flexible. Kids tend to thrive when they know what to expect. Their brain doesn’t have to work as hard to figure things out or fill in the gaps. However, sticking to a rigid schedule or routine isn’t good for a brain that tends to get “sticky”. If they get too stuck on a particular cereal brand, certain movie theater, or morning routine, then it can be hard for them to go with the flow when things change. So, have a routine and introduce small changes in the routine as well. Even if they have a “preferred” thing, their brain will begin to learn they can also do things differently too.
How to Move Forward
Parenting children with executive functioning challenges can be very challenging. It may not be the parenting life you planned or expected. You might feel pressure from others to “just enjoy the process” or ‘remember they grow up fast”. It may not feel fun. You might even see others parenting differently and not understanding why you can’t seem to get the same results or the same fulfillment. These are all common thoughts and challenges for many parents. Be patient with yourself. Give grace to your kids. Find ways to calm your nervous system and take care of yourself. Reach out for support when needed. A parent coach who has experience working with executive functioning challenges and disorders and their parents is a great place to start.