Connection-Focused Parenting is a parenting style that focuses on establishing a mutually trusting, respectful and reciprocal relationship with your teen. The upside of this approach is your teenager is more likely to let down their guard around you and see you as an ally.
This is important for all teen-parent relationships. However, even more so for our neurodiverse and LGBTQ+ teens as they may feel ‘othered’ by peers and society. Our neurodivergent teens are more likely to be affected by conditions such as RSD (rejection-sensitive dysphoria), PDA (pervasive drive for autonomy) and sensory overwhelm which can put their nervous systems into defence mode. Our neurodiverse and LGBTQ+ teens need a safe place to land with us as a vital protection factor.
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Connection-Focused Parenting for Neurodiverse and LGBTQ+ Teenagers Prioritises Four Things:
- Secure attachment with a significant adult.
- Accepting and affirming your teen’s Neurodivergent and LGBTQ+ identities.
- Connection before correction.
- Adapting your parenting approach to your teen’s needs, strengths and difficulties.
Many parents understand what connection-focused parenting is in theory. However, parents struggle to know how to be a connection-focused parent in practice. That is why I have created this blog series for you. Please make sure to go back and read the other blogs in this series. You can do this HERE.
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Connection-Focused Parenting – Principle Two: Everyone Is ‘Good Inside‘
My work as a parenting coach is inspired by and based on the research and wisdom of many amazing professionals in the fields of attachment, responsive parenting, polyvagal theory, emotional intelligence and non-violent communication. Last year when I was listening to the We Can Do Hard Things podcast I discovered Dr Becky Kennedy and her words just resonated with me. Dr Becky’s work is based on the idea that everyone is ‘good inside’.
Connection-focused parenting is based on the assumption that we are all fundamentally ‘good inside’. In other words, you are a good person and your teen is a good kid.
This might sound deceptively simple. Of course, our kids, and we as parents are good inside. But stay with me here. It is easy to hold onto our idea of goodness when everything is going right. When we are calm and regulated. When our teens are behaving as we believe that they should.
However, when our teen has just had a meltdown. We argued with our partner about how we handled a parenting situation. Or we are exhausted, overwhelmed and ‘over it’ it is very easy to see the worst in ourselves, our partner or our teen. It is very easy to believe that we are ‘bad inside’.
Why Is Believing We Are ‘Bad Inside’ So Easy?
Well first of all we are hardwired for this. Our brains and nervous systems are wired for survival and that means that our brains are wired to look out for threats – AKA seeing everything with a negative bias. That is why it is so easy to think the worst about the intentions of the people we love.
Messaging In Our Culture
Our culture also plays a huge part in our mindset about parenting. I invite you to stop here and think about some of the negative, and damaging, messaging we traditionally hear about our children (even tiny babies).
What are some of the common messages you have heard or read in your culture about children in the following stages of childhood?
- Young children
Chances are you have heard that babies are manipulating you, toddlers are ‘terrible’ and teenagers are ‘difficult’ and ‘moody’ more than once. The common way that we are taught to deal with the ‘badness’ in our children is to ignore, isolate and punish them. No wonder it is so easy for us to see them as ‘bad inside‘.
Differing Neurotypes And Communication Styles
Our family is made up of differing neurotypes. That means that our brains all work differently.
Different neurotypes communicate differently. Research has shown that neurodivergent people communicate better with other neurodivergent people and neurotypical people communicate better with other neurotypical people. Neither way of communicating is right nor wrong, they are just different and this can cause confusion and misunderstandings. This is especially true when we lack awareness or understanding and don’t make accommodations for this in our relationships.
Here is an example to illustrate my point (I would like to acknowledge that we are all different and this may not be true for everyone).
Sarah is neurotypical and the mum of 14-year-old Sophie who is autistic and recently diagnosed. Mum does not understand Sophie’s need for clear instructions when doing a task that is new to her.
She expects Sophie to use her ‘common sense’ a vague concept that is difficult for Sophie to understand. Sophie gets overwhelmed and has a meltdown because of her executive dysfunction – the information is coming through to her faster than she can deal with it. This frustrates Sarah who sees Sophie’s behaviour as disrespectful and manipulative. She yells at Sophie, which only makes the situation worse.
This is a common scenario, and if you identified with this situation please take heart Sarah and you are not bad parents. Remember you are both good inside.
Sarah did not understand Sophie’s need for clear instructions which lead to Sophie and Sarah becoming dysregulated. If Sarah had been aware of Sophie’s differing communication needs and had the tools to modify her own communication style this situation could have gone very differently.
Needs, Emotions, Behaviours
In direct opposition to the control-focused parenting model of modifying behaviours (the key focus of control-focused parenting), connection-focused parenting views behaviours as a window to our normal and very human needs.
As previously explained, connection-focused parents work from the assumption that their teens are good kids. They separate their child’s identity from their behaviour.
“many parents see behavior as the measure of who our kids are, rather than using behavior as a clue to what our kids might need.”Dr Becky Kennedy
Now let’s be clear, this does not mean that we become permissive parents or excuse bad behaviour. However, when we remember that behind the behaviour is a good kid, it allows us the space to get curious as to why the behaviour is happening in the first place.
We can choose to see our teen as a good kid who is struggling with something that is causing the behaviour (as in my example above).
We can reframe our thinking from our teen giving us a hard time to our teen having a hard time.
After all, behaviour is just a symptom of an underlying need. Emotions are powerful information about our needs.
Realistically, as human beings, we are not going to get our needs met all of the time and neither are our teens, that would be impossible. However, when we try to understand (and help our teens to understand) the needs behind the behaviour we get to the root cause of why the behaviour happened in the first place. This leads to calmer, more regulated nervous systems (in both teens and parents), reduced anxiety and perceived ‘acting out’. This thinking is equally true when considering our own self-care needs as parents too.
Becoming A Needs Detective
Overall, when we focus on needs instead of behaviour this helps us to honour our children and ourselves in a holistic, empowering way. When we destigmatise needs and hold onto our inherent goodness, this makes it possible for us to experience a deeper connection with ourselves and with others.
So you may have read this blog and be saying to yourself, “Okay I get it. I understand the importance of needs, but how do I find out what my teen’s needs are? I haven’t got a clue!”
That is where the role of the Needs Detective comes in. Each of us as parents has the ability to look at the clues of our teen’s behaviour and to detect what the most probable needs of our children may be.
Here are some questions to get you started:
- What is going on for my teen right now?
- What is a similar thing that has happened in my life to what is happening for my teen? What are some of the things that I struggle with or have struggled with in this parallel situation?
- What is my teen likely to be feeling?
- What is my teen feeling that I don’t understand about them?
- If I remember that my teen is a good kid who is struggling, what might they be struggling with?
- What might be some of the deeper needs for my teen behind this behaviour based on my answers to these questions?
Important Note: Neurodivergent teens have a lower tolerance to stress and change which can easily cause distress and overwhelm. For parents of autistic teens, or those with ADHD, understanding the sensory needs of your child and supporting them by reducing ‘bad’ sensory inputs and helping them seek out ‘good’ sensory inputs can have a dramatic impact on helping them to regulate their nervous systems. Awareness of when a neurodivergent teen is overstimulated and needs to retreat with no demands placed on them is vital to their well-being.
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Good Inside For Parents
Parenting has singularly been the most rewarding and hardest job I have ever done. It is so complex! I know firsthand, that when things are hard it can make you believe that you are doing it wrong, or that you are a bad parent. This can be intensified if you as a person, have lived most of your life as an undiagnosed neurodivergent person with maladaptive coping strategies. It can really make you feel that you are a bad person – that you are ‘bad inside’.
Sometimes we have unrealistic expectations of what parenting should be like or what our job really is. We can believe that being a good parent means that I must know everything and never make a mistake.
Or that we have to provide our children with a ‘perfect’ life and if we ‘failed’ to do this it means that we are bad parents.
For parents of neurodivergent children (especially when your kids are undiagnosed) these feelings of ‘not enoughness’ are often intensified by the implied and often explicit cultural judgements that your teen’s struggles are due to ‘bad parenting’.
We may see it as our job to ‘fix’ everything for our children so that they never experience challenges or uncomfortable emotions. If we can’t achieve this easily or our children struggle we can see this as a reflection of how well we are doing at parenting. When we compare ourselves to some of these common beliefs about what it means to be a good parent we may fail to live up to our expectations.
Mind Those Expectations
When my children were little I read a meme on Facebook.
My goal as a mother: Raise children who don’t have to recover from their childhood.
I read this quote and thought to myself; “Yes!!! I will be this mother for my children!”. And I went on to try my best to do things ‘perfectly.’
Despite my best efforts my children struggled socially and were bullied at school by other children. My children developed anxiety, had panic attacks and experienced depression.
My own teen experience with poor mental health and being unable to make friendships with others really shaped my thinking about accessing help from mental health professionals. As a teen, therapy was framed to me in the context of ‘punishment’ for bad behaviour. When I came to the realisation that my children needed help for their mental health I viewed this as – ‘I did something wrong. I am a bad mother’. I unconsciously internalised this as – ‘I couldn’t protect my children. I/they are being punished’.
My shame intensified when I found out that my children were autistic at 17 and 18 years of age. Not because they are autistic but because I had no idea that they were autistic for their entire childhoods under my care. You see, I had this belief that everyone should see me as capable, confident and ‘put together’ – all-knowing. The glaring reality that I needed help, to me, meant that I failed.
I felt such immense shame.
And because I felt shame, I delayed getting help for my children. I was certain that I would be judged as an unfit mother. I was petrified! This (I have since learned) is something that a lot of parents struggle with and is one of the main reasons why parents don’t ask for help. We easily can fall into the trap of parenting from our fear and shame.
You Are Good Inside
If no one has told you lately, You are good inside, my friend! You are a good parent and your children are lucky to have you!
Even if you said the wrong thing, lost your sh#t or made mistakes – You are a good parent!
If you didn’t know, delayed getting your child help or struggle to ask for help – You are a good parent!
Even if your teen is struggling, has anxiety or depression and is finding life hard – You are a good parent!
One thing that I found to be super helpful in shifting my thinking from self-criticism to self-compassion is the notion of multiplicity. Multiplicity means that we make space for ‘two things being true’ at the same time.
Examples of this:
- I can be a parent who has made mistakes and is doing their best at the same time.
- I can make a bad decision and be a good parent at the same time.
- I can be a parent who is struggling to keep her cool and love my kid and want the best for them.
The Positive Impact Of Multiplicity
As with our teens, the belief that we are good inside does not excuse us from our behaviour when unacceptable. Nor does it absolve us from our responsibility to make repairs with our teen for our behaviour. However, when we can remember that ‘two things are true’ our behaviour does not define who we are as a person. We can change our mindset from ‘I am a bad parent’ to ‘I am a good parent who made a mistake.’
Shame hardly ever leads to a good outcome. Multiplicity thinking reduces shame and gives us the option to hold onto our inherent goodness while we make more empowered decisions free from the anxiety and panic that stems from a dysregulated nervous system. ‘Two things are true’ is also an amazing tool to have in your parenting toolbox as well as your relationships with others.
“Understanding that we’re all good inside is what allows you to distinguish a person (your child) from a behavior (rudeness, hitting, saying, “I hate you”). Differentiating who someone is from what they do is key to creating interventions that preserve your relationship while also leading to impactful change.”Dr Becky Kennedy
Do you resonate with Connection-Focused Parenting as a parenting approach? Find out more about the Seen Heard Accepted Group Parenting Program.
Over To You
Here are some further questions for reflection:
- How can you see the ‘good inside’ yourself and your teen?
- How is shame or believing that you are ‘bad inside’ showing up in your parenting decisions?
- How can you use ‘two things are true’ as a parenting tool?
Enjoyed this blog and want to read more in this series?
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Would you like to learn how to use Neuro and LGBTQ+ Affirming Connection-Focused Parenting with your teen? Find out more about the Seen Heard Accepted Parenting Program. CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE.
Meet The Person Who Wrote This Blog
Tanya Valentin is a Parenting Coach, Author, Podcaster and Allyship Advocate for Families of Neurodiverse and LGBTQ+ Teens.
As a Neurodivergent person herself and a proud Mama of 3 Neurodivergent and LGBTQ+ teens, she works to support, educate and spread awareness and acceptance.
Tanya lives with her family in beautiful Northland, New Zealand. She has authored several books and blogs. She is committed to making a difference in the world by equipping parents and families of Neurodivergent and LGBTQ+teens and young people with the tools they need to connect with and empower their children to feel safe being who they are so that they can take up the space they were born to fill.
Need personalised support for yourself and your family? Book your FREE 30-minute call with Tanya