Anxiety… How Does Your Child Cope?

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Anxiety… How Does Your Child Cope?

Navigating the world can be chaotic and unpredictable. For individuals on the spectrum not being able to understand the unwritten rules of conduct, the perspectives of others, or the context of situations makes the world overwhelming, producing extraordinarily high anxiety.

Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Two Common Coping Mechanisms May Result:

1). Does your child seek concrete expectations or rules to provide boundaries as well as a mental map of how to act?

These children welcome rules and follow them rigidly as they make the world predictable for them. It is also important to them that others follow these rules as well so their world can be more predictable and does not collapse.

2.) Does your child fear following the lead of others and resist these boundaries as a result of the threat of uncertainty?

Opposition comes hand and hand with rules, and “NO” is their favorite word. Fear and avoidance are typical reactions as they feel a need to control everything and not allow themselves to be vulnerable by following the lead of someone else. Consequently, they will often make their own rules and strictly adhere to them, making these children the most oppositional.

Coping mechanisms are proportional to one’s level of neurologic organization.

Think of it as supply and demand.  High demands require higher levels of organization.  Lower demand requires lower levels of organization.

In turn, if organization is low, and demands are high it will activate a stress response.  As the stress response increases it is not uncommon to see behavioral opposition for some, or the need to have an environment controlled for others.

Both coping styles are the byproduct of poor neurologic organization, how the brain receives and processes input.  Living in a continuous neurologically stressed state is the basis of anxiety.

Reducing anxiety can occur in a three tier approach:

  1. Improve neurologic organization through movement
  2. Identify and address demands and overload
  3. Appreciate your child’s view of the world
    1. Those that are in need of controlling their environment are doing their best to reduce their perceived demands creating the balance and homeostasis that works best for them.
    2. Deviation from their perceived environmental “set up” will be opposed as it triggers higher levels of processing and cognitive resources to manage their world around them.

It is important to recognize the different ways that children on the spectrum deal with their fear or uncertainty. While some children desire clear, concrete rules to make the world more predictable, others are so anxious and in fight or flight that they need to keep their world in lock down to navigate day by day.

Join us on Facebook Live Wednesday May 17th at 10:30AM PST where I will unravel the neurologic basis behind these two common coping mechanism and what parents can do.

Overload and the Freeze Response

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Overload and the Freeze Response

Has your child ever given you the “look”?

For many children, when they become overloaded, they will exhibit a “freeze response” that may present in the form of a glazed look, zoning out, or looking away. They may also engage in stimming, close their eyes, put their head down, or cover their ears. This is the tell-tale sign that your child has become overwhelmed. Their brain’s are not able to process the information that it is receiving because it may be too fast or too much to process. To avoid overload, the brain will try to shutdown or block out the stimulus. When this occurs it is typically best to “back off” demands, decrease the stimulus, and allow the child to rebound. You should be respectful of this sign as the child is trying to keep themselves together by getting away from the stimulus that may be causing overwhelm.

The Incorrect Approach

It is easy to incorrectly view this unresponsive behavior as noncompliance or resistance, so we may increase prompting in an attempt to get the child to respond. This is only added to the problem as the load will be further increased. The child will not be able to keep it together and rebound. The initially temporary freeze response will turn to “fight or flight”, a panic response. At this stage, the brain essentially “freaks out” or panics and will act out even more in an effort to either fight or flee the situation. This could result in the child being labeled as disruptive, aggressive, or even violent!

How to React

Now when you see this “freeze” response, change your own response: (1) Acknowledge that the child has been overwhelmed (2) Decrease all demands and lower your own voice (3) Reassure them that everything is okay and they are safe and accepted. (4) Give them time to rebound. To prevent further overloading the child, minimize your interaction and allow them to escape to rebound. It is important that you help them to feel safe at this vulnerable time. Oftentimes the child is able to rebound by decreasing the demands and stimulation.

Future Implications

It is important to attempt to analyze and understand why this particular even overwhelmed your child. Were the demands too hard? Or were they coming too fast? It may even be that the child was getting exhausted. Other possibilities include overwhelm due to activity or noise that is around them, panic from an unexpected situation, or even performance anxiety. After the child has successfully rebounded, remain aware that their nervous system is still drained and could be easily overwhelmed again. Decrease the demands by breaking them down into easier steps, continue at a slower pace, and provided additional support to help the child. By respecting these cues and decreasing demands, many children can rebound quickly and continue the activity at hand. However, others may need to get away to a safe area to regroup and rebound.

By respecting this “freeze” response and supporting your child, he/she will trust and follow your lead.