“Laughter Is NOT the Best Medicine, But It Sure Does Help”
Every day is an opportunity for life to test your child’s executive function skills. And, chances are, your patience will be strained along the way. Chiding or chastising your child accomplishes nothing. So why not laugh?
My daughter: “Good morning, Mom! I have a party in Spanish class and need to make some Spanish food.”
Me: “OK, great. When is your party?”
My daughter: “Today at 10am.”
Me: [deep, shaking breath] “How about I come to your class and dance salsa with your instructor instead?”
In so many small moments like this every single day of our lives, we have a choice: scream or laugh. Chastise our kids, or encourage them to not be so tough on themselves. Fixate on the mistake, or focus on the child.
The answer may seem obvious. But when you’re a parent of a child with executive functioning (EF) challenges, each day is a minefield overrun with dozens of opportunities for executive functioning success (or failure). Cumulatively, the mistakes breed frustration, which breeds anger. Each individual mistake may not have big implications, but repeated day in and day out they cause a parent’s patience to be chipped away slowly and seemingly methodically. “My son/daughter must be doing this on purpose. I remind them every day to ______. Why can’t they remember? They are trying to push my buttons!”
EF skills, located in the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, help direct and control other brain functions and movements that lead to academic and personal success. Research has shown that the human brain continues to develop well past the age of 18, and the pre-frontal cortex may not fully mature until we reach our 20s. So it makes sense that many of our children struggle with organization, planning, prioritizing, etc. But that doesn’t make it any easier.
EF skills are to the brain what a conductor is to her orchestra; they help the brain work smoothly and efficiently. According to LD Online, EF is “a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation.”
Generally speaking, EF skills comprise:
- inhibition — the ability to self-regulate when presented with distractions such as YouTube, video games, etc.)
- shift — ability to be mentally flexible in unpredictable situations)
- emotional control
- initiation — getting started and not procrastinating
- working memory
- self-monitoring — similar to self-awareness
As a parent, I am strong in some areas and weak in others. For example, my brain is excellent at shifting and planning/organization, but weaker when it comes to inhibition (I always want to watch one more Netflix episode). I find that most of my parenting struggles happen when my daughter is weak in an area where I am strong. For example, when I can easily find my purse, keys and phone before we leave the house and my daughter has trouble finding her shoes… the ones worn the day before!
When the brain strengths of a parent and his or her child are mismatched, it can lead to a confusing (and sometimes frustrating) relationship. On a daily basis, you have to remember to make doctor appointments, pay bills, pack lunches, etc. So it understandably difficult sometimes to understand why your child can’t remember to turn in his homework or submit the permission slip you signed the night before.
In these times, remember that your child did not choose the brain he or she was born with. In moments of frustration, I feel like saying “Why can’t you remember this? Why can’t you do this?” But I don’t say it because I know this frustrates my daughter even more because she doesn’t know why her brain can’t do what she wants it to do. As Marydee Sklar, creator of Seeing My Time, says “Sometimes you can’t do what you can’t do.”
So what is a parent to do? Two things: intentionally work on building and strengthening our kids’ executive functioning skills; and laugh when you feel like yelling.
Next time your child doesn’t turn in their permission slip, create a story together about what the permission slip is doing at home while she is away at school. Maybe the permission slip is throwing a party, or hanging out with the other flyers and papers she left behind, or filming a stop-motion movie starring paperclips. The more wild and whimsical your imagination, the better.
I don’t see a sense of humor as a choice. It is a survival skill for parents of children with EF challenges. It is a necessary skill if parents want to maintain their sanity and lower their stress level on a daily basis. Having a sense of humor doesn’t cost anything and takes very little of your time. In many ways, it is a form of parent self-care — and I think all parents could use more laughter in their lives.