A CONVERSATION WITH ELAINE TAYLOR-KLAUS
‘NEURODIVERSITY …’ That big word might be new to you, but don’t be put off. It’s a modern term that has to do with brain-science – how our brains are wired and how that effects our behaviour. It’s found its way into the vocab of psychologists and parenting experts because researchers are discovering that human brains aren’t all the same. There’s more variety and diversity in our grey-matter than we realised. Which helps explain why some people – some kids and some grown-ups– process the world differently and think ‘outside-the-box’.
That’s all very well, of course. But raising kids who are ‘different’ or ‘complex’ can be a real headache for parents. Resources, sadly, are few … help is scarce … and the lack of workable solutions is only adding to the mental health crisis here in Aotearoa.
However, some good news: there are people who know and understand the complexity of life with these kids. And we managed to chat with one of the best: parenting coach, author, and co-founder of IMPACT PARENTS – Elaine Taylor-Klaus.
Elaine has raised her own ‘complex kids’, and she now coaches mums and dads all over the world, helping them to better navigate life with kids who don’t fit the ‘norm’ – as well as those who do.
GRAPEVINE: Your latest book is called The Essential Guide to Raising Complex Kids … What do you mean by ‘complex kids’?
ELAINE TAYLOR-KLAUS: Complex kids are kids who struggle with aspects of life, or learning, or both. Things can get very complicated for these kids – and for their parents, because of the difficulties the kids are having.
Maybe they’ve been diagnosed with ANXIETY … or ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder – with or without hyperactivity) … or ASD (autism spectrum disorder) … or some TRAUMA (that’s affecting how they cope with things). But, even without a diagnosis, there’s something that’s complicating the progress you’d ideally see in their development.
My goal in writing The Essential Guide was to create a typical parenting book for kids who aren’t so typical.
I wanted to give parents who have kids ‘outside the box’ some strategies they can use, no matter what the circumstance. Because, more often than not, traditional parenting stuff just doesn’t work with these kids.
GRAPEVINE:Is your advice applicable to ALL parents? Or just parents of complex kids?
ELAINE: Oh, absolutely – all parents! It’s really about tackling any kind of challenging behaviour. The Essential Guide takes a coaching approach to raising kids – any kids.
We start with the assumption that “there’s nothing broken that needs to be fixed.” We look at where the kids are at … where they want to go … what it’s going to take to get them there. And we give you a framework for making everything a co-operative, collaborative process – not just when you hit an obstacle.
It’s for all parents! In fact, we’ve had feedback that this works with both neurodiverse kids and typical kids – as well as with spouses and co-workers!
GRAPEVINE: It can be tricky for parents, to decide if their child is typical or not. Sometimes it’s easier to believe that they’re just ‘quirky’ or ‘their own person’ – but things can get to a point where that’s no longer helpful, right?
ELAINE: If you don’t help kids understand what’s going on with them, you actually prevent them from taking ownership, self-regulating and managing themselves appropriately.
LAZY, CRAZY OR STUPID?
I don’t believe that every kid needs a diagnosis. But I do believe that kids who are struggling and frustrated need an explanation for what’s causing their difficulties. Otherwise, they end up believing that they’re lazy, crazy or stupid.
The point of a diagnosis is not to use it as an excuse – but to help you figure out how to work around their challenges and accommodate them. The clearer we can be about the difficulties we’re trying to address, the more effective the solutions will be and the easier they’ll come. So a diagnosis can be really empowering.
From a parent’s perspective, a diagnosis helps us understand what’s going on for our kids – and be more compassionate. When there’s an explanation, it changes our perspective and our ability to support our kids. It helps us get onto the same playing field.
Really, if you have to ask if your child is a complex kid – they are! And it makes sense to acknowledge that and equip yourself with information, so you can help them develop the skills they’re struggling to master.
GRAPEVINE: When it comes to kids’ behaviour, you talk about ‘mindset shifts’ – and you encourage parents to ask, “Is it naughty or neurological?” How does this work?
ELAINE:Well, it’s a really important question when kids are exhibiting behaviours that we’d like them not to exhibit: “Is it naughty – or is it neurological?” If we assume that they’re being naughty, we tend to treat it like it’s a problem to be solved using discipline. But, with complex kids, nine times out of 10, something else is going on. Maybe they’re afraid, or worried, or stressed …
I remember when one of my kids was having trouble getting schoolwork handed in. And she finally said to me, “Don’t you see? If I haven’t done it, then I haven’t done it WRONG!”
If I had treated the issue as a behaviour problem, I might’ve decided that she didn’t care about school or wasn’t trying. And I could’ve missed the chance to understand that what she was really struggling with was perfectionism …
Asking that question – “Is it naughty or neurological?” – allows us as parents to better support our kids.
GRAPEVINE: Parents with complex kids are often urged to take a parenting class. Is this helpful?
ELAINE: Typical parenting classes do have some value, of course … but the techniques aren’t always applicable to complex kids.
I often share a story about going to a series of talks by this parenting guru. I’d been dutifully trying to apply what she was teaching. Some of it was helpful – but a lot of it made me feel even more like a failure. (A common experience for parents of complex kids!) I’d tried to follow the advice, but it didn’t work.
She was talking about accountability, and I asked her, “But what if you have a special-needs child?” She replied, “Then this doesn’t apply to you …” Basically, she went on to explain: if you have a kid who operates differently, you’ve got to deal with them differently.
That was a life-changing moment for me! It was the first time anyone had ever given me permission to not do everything the parenting books said … to not just keep trying to use more structure, or hold my kid more accountable, and all the rest of it! Instead, I should pay attention to what my kid needed from me as her parent – and trust my instincts!
It was a profound shift for me. It gave me permission to meet my kids where they were and not try to hold them to expectations they weren’t ready for.
The goal of parenting is ultimately to raise independent human beings. And the earlier we introduce them to the process of problem-solving, the more effective they’ll be at operating independently. A lot of complex kids struggle with issues like organisation and time management – which means they need even more practice at using those skills.
If we’re not helping them play a part in creating the solutions, they’re not going to take ownership or learn how to create solutions for themselves. We must bring them through the process of thinking critically … instead of just telling them what to do and how to do it.
GRAPEVINE: You’re very open, in the book, about your own parenting struggles. For example: “I did it all for a dozen years or more. Like a pinball, I bounced from one specialist to another, screaming for help into a void. I was so afraid. I put my child in every therapy imaginable, trying to fix anything I could. I froze. I picked up the slack. I enabled. I missed multiple chances to help my child learn, because I was doing everything possible to fix my kid.”
This crazy pinballing between ‘solutions’ is familiar to parents of complex kids. Give us some hope, please? Where did you go from there – and what actually helped?
ELAINE: You name it, we tried it – specialist after specialist! And everything helped a little bit. But nothing addressed the big picture. Then one day, a nutritionist suggested that we take gluten out of my kid’s diet. Honestly, I’d cancelled the nutritionist appointment a few years before. I knew they’d tell me to take something out of the diet, and at the time I was just so overwhelmed I couldn’t cope with that.
But when I got this list of diagnoses, I had no idea where to start. So our nutritionist advised me to “start with the metabolic” – because, when there’s so much going on, you have to look at the body.
For us, that dietary change really did shift a lot of things. In a matter of two weeks, we saw drastic changes with regulating emotions, for instance – and this was confirmed by testing. Removing gluten didn’t eliminate all the problems, but it reduced the load and made it possible to start addressing other challenges that were going on.
It’s not a one-size-fits-all cure by any means, but I do think that if you’ve got a complex kid with lots of issues, it makes sense to think about what you’re putting into the body.
Then something else happened. I had several children with issues, but my eldest was definitely my most challenging at this point. A friend put me onto a coach, and that made a huge difference. In part, it was because my coach helped me regulate myself and set reasonable expectations. But there was more to it …
I was given permission to trust myself as a parent. I was finally able to be with the child I had – rather than the child everybody expected me to have! At long last, I was able to rely on my own intuition. I finally realised that nobody knew my kids better than I did.
My coach was able to coach ME into figuring things out – to gain the insights that I needed so I could problem-solve and empower and support my kids to become who they were capable of being.
GRAPEVINE: Can we talk about GUILT for a minute? It’s easy for parents of complicated kids to feel guilty. After all, most of them receive more than their fair share of well-meaning advice and judgment while trying to deal with these kids who don’t fit the ‘norm’ …
ELAINE: Absolutely. Guilt and shame are really common experiences for parents of complex kids. When my kids were diagnosed, I realised that there was no way my husband was responsible for all this neurodiversity! So, in my early 40s, I had myself evaluated – and I ended up being diagnosed with both learning and attention issues.
Suddenly, my whole life made sense!
I realised that adults who are navigating these issues need to stop beating themselves up for what they didn’t know and what they couldn’t have done differently. I’m a big advocate of ‘putting down the stick’ and giving ourselves some grace. I want people learning from me to have a “bring it on!” attitude … to have the confidence that they can handle whatever life throws at them.
Developing an ‘up until now’ perspective helps a lot with that process – understanding that “up until now, I did the best I could with what I had. I made the best decisions I could based on what I knew. And now that I know better, I can DO better”.
When we start parenting from a place of inspiration, rather than desperation – our kids will feel that. They’ll feel inspired, hopeful, and positive. And so will we.
GRAPEVINE: When mum and dad are struggling with their complex kids and feeling desperate, it’s easy for them to not enjoy each other’s company. How can parents get back on track and spend positive time together?
ELAINE: That’s so huge! Relationship is at the core of everything. It allows trust, which in turn improves communication and collaboration. It’s like a pyramid towards independence.
As our children grow, it’s about treating each other with respect – not demanding respect but earning it. It’s about inviting them to making decisions about themselves and their lives.
I was recently coaching the mother of a 13-year-old boy who was resisting a school change he had to make. My homework for the mum was to not talk about that stuff for the next two weeks – just concentrate on their relationship – do things together, play videogames, go for walks or whatever – just connect. And then, I told her, when she does have that conversation, she should let her son know that she wants his input. Not that it’s his decision to make, but that she wants to know what’s important to him around the decision.
Whether your kids are six or 12 or 17, they need to know that you hear them … you see them … and you value their opinion (even if you disagree with it)! That goes a long way toward building relationship. It also helps if parents show an interest in the things that interest their kids …
It’s easy to dismiss their YouTube fixation, or Minecraft crazes, or whatever … but, in the process, we often miss an opportunity to know our children better and connect about something meaningful to them.
If we can resist the temptation to judge our kids’ interests as ‘uninteresting’, it sets the foundation for trust.
I learned another key truth about building relationship from my middle kid. She came back from participating in a programme (Outward Bound, or something similar). She shared that one of the things she’d learned from the experience was to distinguish between task and relationship.
When we as parents are only about the tasks – when we’re so focused on “Did you do this?” and “Did you remember that?” – our kids begin to feel the lack of connection. So we want to make sure we’re having that relationship first, before we get to the tasks – because feeling connected is what our kid wants from us most of all.
And that’s true for kids of all ages, right through to adulthood!
GRAPEVINE: At the core of your coaching approach is the six-step IMPACT model … and the first of these steps is ‘Take Aim’. So what exactly are we aiming at?!
ELAINE: Taking Aim is probably the most liberating thing we teach. As parents of complex kids, we have about a million things we want our kids to do each day – and it’s exhausting for them and for us! So, instead, we try to help them take aim – take greater ownership – of one thing at a time. And then give them the chance to do that thing for themselves.
The key is: don’t heap too many goals on at once!
During one year with my kids, for example, we took aim first at turning off their screens when asked. And THEN we took aim at turning off their screens respectfully when asked! Breaking it down into bite-sized goals gave them the space they needed to practise managing their time and handling the emotion. It made it possible to achieve the end result – of putting away their devices – without them making a fuss or throwing a fit.
GRAPEVINE: Another idea you talk about is having a ‘disability perspective’. But how does this help us parent our complex kids? After all, labelling or putting your child into a box is something many parents would avoid at all costs!
ELAINE: It goes back to what we were saying earlier – it shifts our perspective and gives us more compassion towards our kid’s challenges. It’s like moving from the mindset that says “our child can’t do that” to “our child can’t do that YET”.
The idea behind a ‘disability perspective’ is that it explains what’s going on (when our child’s not just being wilfully disobedient or naughty) – reminding us that they’re struggling with something, and we need to figure out how to help them.
I also talk about ‘the 3-5 challenge’, which basically says: allow a delay of up to five years when considering what your child ‘should’ be capable of handling.
EASING THE PRESSURE:
Most complex kids have about a 30% developmental delay. So, if your kid is consistently not performing in a way you’d expect a child of their age to perform, take three to five years off their chronological age and ask yourself what you’d expect now.
Meeting your child where they’re at developmentally and not chronologically helps you support them better. Trying to teach kids things they’re not ready to learn just leads to frustration all round. It’s better to shelve those ideas and approach them again when your child is developmentally ready to tackle the challenge.
GRAPEVINE: One final thing from your book is this: “After thousands of conversations, I’ve learned that all parents of complex kids, whether newbies or veterans, want the same two things: solutions and peace. They generally assume that the former will lead to the latter. But, actually, it’s the other way around …” How does this work?
ELAINE: If we start by focusing on peace … on calming things down … on connecting and building relationship … we can have more collaborative conversations that are less reactive, less triggering, and less stressful for the whole family. When we start with solutions, we often don’t end up addressing the root of the problem. So if we can clarify what the problem is (by Taking Aim), we can come to a well-tailored, workable solution to address that problem. And we do that much better if we’re coming from a place of peace.
We as parents get to set the tone of our home. But often we allow that to be highjacked by our kids or by our own emotional reactions – and then we all get sucked into this energetic chaos-storm! We don’t get anybody’s best when we’re all constantly triggered – because we end up operating from our primitive brain (not the logical, problem-solving part of our brain).
Most people think that kids who have challenges need help. But the counter-intuitive truth is that when kids have challenges, the change you wish for them starts with YOU as a parent (or as a teacher). If you can really learn how to be with them differently – approaching their challenges with a new perspective, and empowering them to take ownership of themselves without shame or judgment – that’ll set the stage for long-term success.
That will prove far more rewarding than yet another tutor … yet another specialist … or yet another programme.
We can drag them along, kicking and screaming. Or we can enrol them in the process of problem-solving for their success. And if we want to engage our kids in the process, that change starts with us.
THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE FOR COMPLEX KIDS IS AVAILABLE AT ALL GOOD BOOKSELLERS. IF YOU’D LIKE TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT ELAINE’S WORK, VISIT IMPACTPARENTS.COM