Difficult or different? Understanding neurodiversity in children

Author and parenting coach, Elaine Halligan, shares her experiences of parenting a child who did not neatly fit in at school. After years of feeling labelled and judged she offers advice to those who feel challenged and worry about the future for their child.

Elaine & Sam Halligan - credit John Nguyen

What was the trigger that led you to write your best-selling book ‘My Child’s Different’?

I am the parent of a child who is neuro diverse and his educational differences have meant that he has been difficult to parent. His temperament is sensitive, intense and impulsive and these traits have meant that both at home and at school behaviour has been problematic. So problematic that by the age of seven he has been asked to leave his third school in so many years. Society quickly judges those who present differently. If our children behave inappropriately, we parents often feel criticised and believe their behaviour is a reflection on our parenting.

Over the years, my husband and I developed awareness of how to parent more positively and found good educational environments. Our son finished school on a high as Head Boy, completed a University degree with a reader and a scribe and is now a budding entrepreneur travelling the globe with his classic car business. So, I decided to write the story of how we managed to unlock Sam’s potential in order to support other parents who may be catastrophising about what the future holds and who need hope and optimism that their children will be ok.


When did you realise something was different about Sam?

He got into lots of trouble at nursery and everyday it seemed he had a daily report card listing all his inadequacies ranging from, “he’s not listening”, to “he doesn’t share”, to “he’s pushing the other children and he can’t stand in line”, and very soon our sweet Sam soon became labelled as ‘the naughty one’. Few people would listen to me and just dismissed my concerns with “He’s just a boy” and “He’ll grow out of it. Don’t worry!” My instinct told me otherwise.

Our son’s needs were varied and complex and although we now know he is severely dyslexic, he was diagnosed with so many three letter acronyms he became known as the Alphabet kid. First it was Autistic Spectrum condition(ASC), then Aspergers, then Attention Deficit Disorder ( ADD). The professionals then threw in a bit of Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) for good measure and when we finally were told that our son had Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) I came home and cried.


Do you think parents’ instincts are usually right?

Parents’ observations of their children are usually very astute and in my parent coaching work I often tell my clients “you are the expert on your child.” It may be that you don’t know what the problem is or how to fix it, nor how to help and support your child, but your child is tricky to handle and you just sense something is not quite right. Your child may not have diagnosed specific learning needs, but is often misunderstood and perhaps judged by others around him due to difficult behaviour. I advise parents to always be curious about behaviour.

We knew our son was a good and capable boy with a strong moral compass. On many occasions he just could not help what he did. When we asked him why he had thrown my prized Jo Malone candle on the floor, he said “I don’t know. I just could not help myself.” Now with greater understanding I realise he was telling us the absolute truth. He was incredibly impulsive and lacked self-control but that did not make him a bad person. Our children are born with a temperament that provides their default position for interaction with the world, but we can use positive parenting skills to support them to understand themselves and help them to succeed.


What support did you get to help you parent Sam?

My husband and I took positive parenting classes – my now business partner at The Parent Practice, Melissa Hood, was one of our coaches. I started to retrain as a positive parenting coach. As I learned about psychology and child development, behaviour and motivation, our son who had been like a mud-covered stone, started to emerge as a brilliant, sparkling diamond – a young man who has kindness, resilience and clarity of vision, as well as an inner strength and confidence that belied his past experiences.


So what steps do you recommend parents take to support a ‘difficult’ child?


1. Understand and accept their temperament - this allows you to respond more effectively to their needs. We can’t change temperament but we can help our children develop better responses to their world.


2. Build strong self-esteem - children behave better, take more responsibility, try new things and are more resilient when they have good self-esteem. So approve and affirm them by noticing and commenting on what they are doing right rather than giving most of your attention to difficult behaviour. Criticism is de-motivating and lowers self-esteem.

3. Be your child’s emotion coach - how your child feels influences how he behaves. We need to help our children name their emotions in order to tame them. This means acknowledging and accepting their feelings (even anger and jealousy) and letting them know we understand how they feel. It doesn’t mean you permit the behaviour. Take steps to teach your child how to behave when calm.

4. Realise that all behaviour has a cause - when we understand what is causing the behaviour we can stay calm and help children learn so they take responsibility. It can be very simple – they’re tired, bored, hungry or unwell, or it could be more complex. Reasons for poor behaviour include the immaturity of their brains with resultant low emotional regulation or impulse control, they have a different agenda from ours, we are inconsistent or perhaps we are doing some poor modelling.

5. Don’t punish – punishment makes a child feel bad about himself and can result in rebellion or submission. No learning can take place when a child is afraid or feeling resentful. Problem-solve with your child and use teaching consequences. Try take two’s for minor misbehaviours. When a child whines, instead of criticising and scolding you say: “It’s hard for me to hear you like that. Please use your strong voice and that way I can listen!”


Is there a final message you can give to parents worried about their child?

Parents play a vital role in unlocking their children’s potential and no matter what needs your child has, with the right positive parenting input -a balance of being positive and empathetic with firmness and consistency - and the right educational environment , there is always hope.

Parent the child you have, and not the child you want them to be.


Elaine Halligan is London director of The Parent Practice, an organisation that enables parents to bring out the best in their children. She is the author of “My Child’s Different” published in 2018 by Crown House Publishers.


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Watch Elaine's recent TEDx talk: Neurodiversity is a super power, not a problem