Teaching our children to drive the car of their behaviour
An exclusive extract from ‘Developing Differently: A Guide for Parents of Young Children with Global Developmental Delay, Intellectual Disability, or Autism’, by Joshua Muggleton.
25 July 2022
One of our most important jobs as parents is to raise children who go on to become responsible adults. This is just as true for children developing diﬀerently as children developing typically. However, this can be harder for some children developing diﬀerently, and for some children we might need to adjust what we think of as ‘responsible’. For me, the core of what makes a responsible adult is about being responsible for your own behaviour. What a lot of people think of as ‘responsible’ (things like managing money, chores, looking after others) is important too. However, you can’t get to these more complex, more abstract parts of responsibility if you can’t be responsible for your own behaviour.
This is where the right response comes in. This is about how we react to a child’s behaviour. It might be a positive behaviour we want to encourage, a negative one we want to reduce, or helping them manage their own difficult emotions in a responsible way.
I often tell parents that, while you might be able to control a 3 year old’s behaviour simply by picking them up and taking them somewhere else, the day will come (and sooner than you think) when you cannot physically control their behaviour. What then? It’s a bit like driving a car with your child at the wheel. We can talk to them all we like, but ultimately, they are in the driving seat of their behaviour. That means our job then is to train them how to drive the car – that’s a big job so we’d best start now!
If we teach our kids to drive their car early, and we teach them well, we can for the most part sit back and be chauﬀeur driven while sipping bubbly in the back seat. However, if we don’t teach our children how to drive, if we teach them how to drive badly, or if we are bad at teaching them to drive, then we’ll be a bit like my dad when I ﬁrst drove him after I passed my driving test: strapped in tight, clinging with both hands to the handle above the door, with a look of terror on his face screaming ‘Hit the brakes! THE BRAKES!’
This section, then, is about teaching our children to drive the car of their behaviour.
We need to approach this with caution. As parents, we have a huge amount of power over our child, and even more so for a child developing diﬀerently. There are absolutely behaviours that are not ok – such as those that cause themselves or others harm, distress, or to be put at risk, or that might mean your child is excluded from activities they enjoy. Part of our job as parents is to help our child live in a society which has rules, so we need to teach those rules. If we don’t, we are setting them up to fail – we’re asking them to sit their driving test without ever having a lesson. However, our child might also have behaviours which are unusual or idiosyncratic, but are just part of who they are! So what if Andrea enjoys singing and ﬂapping her hands in the supermarket? It might be uncomfortable for us going around with them with everyone looking, but they aren’t hurting anyone. So what if Michael doesn’t like making eye contact or going to parties? As long as he is happy with his social relationships, then it isn’t a problem for him, and it needn’t be a problem for us.
Your child’s idea of fun, of play, of expressing themselves may be diﬀerent to ours, and we need to respect them for who they are. We can’t train them to be like every other child, or to be less ‘diﬀerent’, but we do need to teach them how to be a part of an increasingly diverse society. To overstretch a metaphor, we absolutely need to teach our child the rules of the road, but we don’t get to choose what kind of car they drive.
- We can’t control our children’s behaviour (at least, not for long). All we can do is influence it - teach them how to manage their behaviour.
- We need to help your child learn how to be part of society, and there are some behaviours which are not ok, such as those that cause themselves or others harm, distress or to be put at risk. However, we also need to respect who they are, what they do and don’t enjoy, and how they express themselves.
Emotions are scary things, particularly if you are a child. Emotions make us do crazy things. They make us shout and scream, run in fear, call up that ex at two in the morning, or get carried away and take things too far. They can feel like getting swept away, like you’re out of control, and incredibly uncomfortable. Of course, emotions can be wonderful too – without excitement, joy, contentment, elation, and others, life would be pretty dull. We cannot have happiness without sadness – you’ve got to have one to have the other.
Emotions can also be protective. Fear keeps us from doing stupid things (at least, some of the time). Sadness tries to tell us not to do something again, or to change the situation. Anger tells us to ﬁght to defend ourselves. However, while emotions are a useful and essential part of being human, they are also a part we need to know how to manage.
A large part of how we learn how to manage our emotions comes from our attachment relationships. For example, a newborn baby knows nothing about managing emotions. Its emotions tell it to feed and to be held, and it relies on us to manage these emotions for them, to make them ok. Sometimes we manage these emotions by meeting that need (holding them or feeding them), but other times, babies don’t know why they are upset, and we have to try and make it all ok despite there being nothing we can change about the situation. With our actions, our tone of voice, and by holding our child, we try to soothe them. We try to make those emotions ok to experience, and in doing so, we provide them with containment.
As a child becomes older and better able to walk and talk, containment might change too. The terrible twos are full of children facing the dual challenge of knowing what they want to say but struggling to communicate it, or realising that they have some control over their own destiny (they are realising they are at the controls of that metaphorical car), but that they can’t always get what they want (you can yank control of the car back… for now). Now, when we provide containment, we might start to use more language. Along with our hugs, body language, and other actions, we might say how we think they are feeling, and show we know why the situation is so hard for them.
As children grow up, they slowly learn how to contain and manage their own emotions, and they’ll rely on these skills a lot. Remember how, when I introduced attachment in step 2, we talked about how we internalised some of what our parents did to help us manage our emotions – things like hugging ourselves, telling ourselves it will be ok, just as our parents did? That is us trying to contain our emotions, the same way our parents tried to contain our emotions.
So what exactly is containment? Containment makes emotions ‘safe’. It does not get rid of them, or stop them happening. However, it makes the emotions less scary. A child experiencing containment may still be upset at the loss of a prized toy, but being contained means they are not scared of the feeling of sadness. They feel that being sad is ok, it is manageable, and they feel comforted and empathised with. We are not trying to stop the child expressing their emotions, quite the opposite, we are trying to create a safe space for them to express and work through their emotions without feeling out of control. We do this through reciprocity – that dance of interaction between us and the child where we act and react with our child, keeping them and their emotions in mind, and sharing experiences – in this case, difficult emotions.
The way I think about containment is like this: a child hands over a ball of big, scary, un-comprehendible, and unmanageable emotions to a parent. In my imagination, it looks like a big tangled ball of multi-coloured string, constantly writhing and casting shadows all around it. The parent then holds that ball of emotions either for or with the child. The parent shines a light on that ball of emotions to remove the shadows, labels it, and slowly starts to untangle it. As they do so, the big ball of string slows down, and becomes smaller, with colours more evenly sorted and less tangled. Eventually, it is small and slow enough that the child is able to take it back and manage it by themselves.
How can we achieve this? The most important ﬁrst step is reciprocity – ‘being with’ your child. To experience their pain, fear, or sorrow with them. To empathise rather than sympathise. When we do this, we start to hold part of that big ball of emotions. That doesn’t mean we should be bursting into balls of tears ourselves. Remember, we want to show these emotions are manageable, and that we are not overwhelmed by them. But we can still show some emotion. It is completely appropriate to cry with your child at the loss of a grandparent, provided you are able to manage your emotions as well as theirs. It is ﬁne to be disappointed with your child that their favourite ride at Alton Towers is closed after they had been looking forward to it for months, and show your disappointment in your face, tone, and body language, as well as your words. When we do this, we show we are ‘in sync’ with our child, sharing the same emotional space.
Once we’ve got that shared emotional space, we can start to manage this big ball of emotions. Remember, the objective here isn’t to make the emotions go away (that is a fool’s errand – you cannot stop emotions), just to make them manageable. Part of that might be providing physical comfort in the form of hugs, soothing words, stroking, being a shoulder to cry on, etc. We might tell them that it is going to be ok, and that it is going to be all right. Importantly, we stay calm and contained ourselves – we show we can manage this ball of emotions of theirs.
We might start to shine a light on the emotions by labelling them, and how we think they came about. This serves two purposes. First, it shows that we are trying to understand what they are feeling and why, and gives a child a chance to correct us if we’re out – we ensure we are as synced as we think we are. Second, it starts to make these emotions more understandable. We can help a child see the reason for their emotions, and teach them ways to communicate their emotions by giving them a language to do this. It also helps us to normalise emotions: simply by labelling, empathising, and understanding how emotions came about, it will help our kids to understand that how they are feeling is normal, and that other people feel the way they do. Sometimes, it can be tempting to jump in and try and ‘ﬁx’ an emotion. There are occasions where this is completely appropriate. For example, if a child is crying because they dropped their toy, it isn’t a big deal to go get it. However, there are times when a child isn’t looking for you to ﬁx an emotion, or ﬁxing an emotion isn’t possible. Instead they are looking for you to give them some comfort and containment. For example, maybe Sarah is being mean to Zoey at school. Yes, you might want to have a word with the teacher, but in that moment, the chances are Zoey is looking for containment, rather than a plan of what you’re going to do tomorrow.
It is also important that we are not asking our children to contain our emotions. If we have a lot of our own stuﬀ to deal with, it can be easy to accidently start to pass some of these emotions onto them. We start talking about how ‘Sarah is being mean, just like your Auntie Anne is being to mummy’, or ‘yes I know you’re really stressed Andy, but so am I!’ Here, we aren’t really empathising with our child’s emotions and experiences; rather, we’re adding our own emotions and worries for your child to take on. The result is we have a child trying to deal with not just their own emotions, but some big grown-up worries that they cannot manage.
This is not to say that our children should only ever see us being happy and smiley. That isn’t realistic, and will give them an unrealistic view of adult life. However, we want them to see us experiencing these emotions in a safe, contained way – that we can manage them. It is the diﬀerence between ‘Daddy is f**king mad Xander, because his idiot boss gave Harry bloody Harper another f**king promotion over me’, and ‘Daddy is feeling really angry at the moment Xander, but I’ll be ok soon. Can you give me ﬁve minutes and then we can go and play?’ Of course, this is far easier said than done in the heat of the moment, however the point stands. In the ﬁrst example, while dad’s anger is directed at someone else, Xander is feeling the full force of that raw emotion. In the second, dad is still angry, but he is modelling for Xander that a) emotions pass, b) emotions aren’t scary and things will be ok, and c) a self-management strategy – getting ﬁve minutes to yourself.
Other times, while we might know our child is upset and needs our containment, if we’ve got so much going on, it is hard to carve out the headspace to keep our child’s thoughts and feelings in mind – to get that reciprocity that we need for containment. A child might come to us and overtly say ‘Dad I’m upset’, but if we’ve not got that headspace, it is very easy for us to respond and say ‘oh, what’s wrong?’ ‘that’s awful, but it will be ok Alice, things will get better’, without any kind of thinking – we’re almost on automatic pilot. We’re not in tune with our dance partner here, and it is unlikely to help your child feel better.
If we get containment right, we will help our children be more aware of their emotions, and better able to learn strategies to manage these as they grow up. In doing so, we’ll have shown them how empathy works, and how to comfort someone in need. These characteristics will stand them in good stead for making good decisions about their own behaviour in the future rather than being swept away by their emotions, and for treating others well.
Of course, children developing diﬀerently can ﬁnd this harder. We know many neurodevelopmental disorders put children at higher risk of anxiety, low mood, and anger management difficulties. This why containment is so important; however, we may need to modify our approach slightly.
For children without much language, we may need to use only a little or no language, containing them mostly with our actions, and possibly some visual supports. It might be that your child has much greater difficulty understanding and identifying their own emotions, so might deny feeling happy, sad, or angry when to outsiders that seems quite clearly how they are feeling. Finally, some children tend to be more distant, and do not like interacting as much, or ﬁnd physical touch difficult.
We can handle this by modifying our approach to containment to your child’s needs, as we have for other parts of their development. For example, we might consider how much (if any) language we use with our child, how complex that language is, and put greater weight on non-verbal communication. We might have to consider developmentally what our child is ready for, and we may ﬁnd that the main thing we can do for them right now is help them identify their emotions, rather than trying to explain how they came about. We might also need to think about how what your child may ﬁnd containing and comforting may diﬀer from our expectations. For example, how close they want you to be, how much eye contact to make, what touch (if any) they will ﬁnd comforting, or if a particular object might help them feel contained.
The main exception to this is when a child has a meltdown. A meltdown isn’t a tantrum. In a tantrum, the child is (mostly) in control, although this might descend into less contained sadness and crying. In a meltdown, a child has (as the parents I work with tend to say) ‘completely lost it’. They are completely uncontained, overwhelmed by their emotions, and completely controlled by them. We’ll cover meltdowns in more depth later, but the key message is that prevention is better than cure. In a meltdown, your child will struggle to be contained, and we may end up inadvertently throwing fuel on the ﬁre. It is better either to catch it before it gets to a meltdown when you can provide containment, or provide some containment once the meltdown is ﬁnished – a period often of tiredness and tearfulness. In the middle of a meltdown, the priority needs to be keeping everyone safe, and giving a child space to work through it.
- Containment is when we help your child feel 'safe' with their emotions. This is not trying to change or get rid of emotions, but making them manageable and understandable – making it ok to feel a certain way.
- For containment, we need to have reciprocity with our child – to hold their emotional state, thoughts, and feelings in mind.
- We can provide containment for your child by empathising, labelling their emotions, describing how the emotions came about, and offering comfort.
- We can model containing and managing our own emotions, but we need to make sure we are not putting our emotions on your child for them to manage.
- We need to adapt how we contain your child based on their language ability, emotional understanding, and what they find comforting and containing.
- Meltdowns are when a child has become overwhelmed by their emotions. A child in a meltdown is unlikely to be able to be 'contained', and you need to focus on keeping you and your child safe.
About the author
Dr Joshua Muggleton is a Clinical Psychologist. He is also autistic, and from a neurodiverse family. From an early age he was interested in how and why he and other young people saw the world differently. Combining this personal interest with academia, he gained undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Psychology, including a doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Edinburgh. Since qualifying, Josh has been working exclusively with children and young people developing differently, many of whom have developmental delays, physical health issues, or neurodevelopmental conditions such as Intellectual Disability, Autism, or ADHD.
Developing Differently: A Guide for Parents of Young Children with Global Developmental Delay, Intellectual Disability, or Autism is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.