When “No!” Means “I’m Scared or Overwhelmed!”

When "No!" Means "I'm Scared or Overwhelmed!"In The Many Meanings of “No”, you learned that “No!” doesn’t always mean No. Sometimes “No!” means I’m scared or overwhelmed! How can you help a child who is so emotionally overloaded that he or she is unable to do as you requested?

“I’m overwhelmed, and can’t do anything right now.”

Have you ever gotten bad news just before someone asked you to do something? When you are processing something that evokes strong emotions, your limbic system (where you process those emotions) kicks into overdrive, blocking communication between different areas of the brain, especially those used in remembering and doing. When you are feeling strong emotions, it’s very difficult to do anything other than get through the most intense moments.

Trying to get your child to do anything when she is upset is useless; you must wait until she calms down before expecting any action. There are many strategies you can use to help your child feel understood, and to help her calm down; I list a few of them below.

  • Use empathy. Let your child know that you understand what he is going through. Instead of repeating, “It’s time to get out of the bathtub now!”, say something like, “I can understand why you don’t want to get out of your bath — we are having so much fun playing together!”
  • Give him something to look forward to. “If you get out now we can have a snack and read a story before going to bed.”
  • Communicate nonverbally. Some kids have more trouble processing words when they are overwhelmed. For these kids, show them that you love them and will help them through this. Communicating with actions (a sympathetic gaze or a gentle squeeze of the hand) or just by calmly sitting nearby can help a child who is feeling out of control to calm down.
  • Remove all demands. Some kids get so overwhelmed that they just need to be alone until they have control over themselves again. For these kids, you can gently say something like, “I see you are really struggling. I’m going to go into the other room until you feel calmer.”

“I’m scared!”

I remember once being stuck on the side of a mountain while hiking. I was not wearing the appropriate shoes, and I thought that if I moved, I’d go tumbling down the side of the mountain. It took me 45 minutes to figure out how to safely get off the rock face and back on the dirt path that led me the rest of the way up the mountain. If I had been forced to move faster, I might well have lost my footing and fallen down the cliff. Making me go faster would not have had a happy ending.

Sometimes when a child refuses to do something, it is because they are terrified.

Here are some strategies that can work for a child who is scared:

  • Use empathy. Sometimes just knowing that someone else knows you are struggling, and is rooting for your success is all a child needs to muster up the courage to forge ahead. In our Raising Your Challenging Child class, Dr. Shapiro and I devote one of our sessions entirely to empathy because it’s such a powerful technique.
  • Help your child know what to expect. Some kids get anxious because they don’t know what to expect. I had a friend who put it really well – she said, about her parents’ divorce, “It was just one of the many things adults do that made no sense to me as a child.” Think about it from your kid’s point of view – they are expected to just do as we say, without understanding why, and without having any control over their own world. I’m a big fan of visual schedules (pdf) for kids like this. For situations where kids may need explicit instruction in what is expected, Carol Gray’s Social Stories are terrific, as are her comic-book conversations.
  • Anticipate the unexpected. Thinking through how to handle more than one outcome can be empowering. Two strategies that can help your child learn to do this are SOCCSS and Goal-Plan-Do-Check.
  • Meditation. Just this week, my son came downstairs the day of his science fair and told me he was panicking. I asked him if he would do a meditation on anxiety with me, and he said he would give it a try. We use the app Stop, Breathe, Think, and had purchased the “anxiety pack” for $1.99. After a 6 minute meditation, my son said he felt calm, and his teachers reported that he did an amazing job, and didn’t seem at all anxious. Wow!
  • Identify thinking errors. Sometimes kids get anxious because they think things like, “This will take forever!”, or “I can’t do ___”, even though there is no evidence that this is true. Learning about common thinking errors, and thinking of more realistic replacement thoughts (“This will take 15 minutes,” or “I need more information before I can do ____”) can help your child feel less anxious.
  • Help your kid label emotions; brainstorm coping strategies. Some kids are completely unaware that they are starting to get dysregulated until they completely lose it. Kari Dunn Buron’s Incredible 5-Point Scale provides a method for helping kids to identify their emotions before they reach the critical point.

Anxious and overwhelmed kids can’t do anything until they calm down. Helping them anticipate what will happen, and teaching them coping strategies will help them take on new challenges, even when you have asked them to do something hard. Teaching them to self-advocate and to consider other ways to accomplish their goals will serve them well when they hit barriers in less forgiving environments. 

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2 thoughts on “When “No!” Means “I’m Scared or Overwhelmed!”

  1. This is so very important for parents of kids with special needs, like ADHD and autism. Most parents do not know this information — that behavior is communication. It’s not a common approach but totally should be. “Behavior is communication” needs to be our mantra in the neurodevelopmental special needs communities!

    Penny Williams
    Author of “What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting ADHD” and “Boy Without Instructions: Surviving the Learning Curve of Parenting a Child with ADHD”
    ParentingADHDChildren.com

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  2. These are great strategies also because they are consistent with what we know about the mind/brain’s executive function and its development and therefore limited availability in the child. To compensate for that – as Dr. Wayland suggests – one can use an external working memory (cf. visual schedules), automate procedures (by creating predictable and frequently practiced rituals such as offering alone time out), and by making goals, means, and success criteria explicit (cf. the go-do-plan-check approach). Since anxiety and stress hijacks a child’s and caregiver’s limited executive function resources, methods for reducing emotional reactivity, such as mindfulness, are valuable as well (cf. Meditation). Since caregivers’ executive function resources and time can be in short supply as well when having to cope with stresses, it would be great if the advice from the books and websites were translated to short online videos that model the various strategies one at a time and that apply cognitive learning techniques for making the varegiver’s learning transfer and stick.

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