What we know is that children need help - especially children who struggle with social, emotional, and learning differences. So why is it that some children refuse to ask for help or receive help when they need it the most? This article will break down the many processes involved in asking for help. When you can identify where your child struggles, you will become empowered with the insight you need to support them to ask for help and receive the support they need to do well.
Children with social, emotional, and learning differences are vulnerable to negative outcomes
We all have thoughts and feelings that come up for us beyond our conscious control - some are positive and some are negative. These involuntary internal processes can either enhance or diminish our sense of self; they can encourage or discourage us from persisting toward our goals when things get tough.
Children with social, emotional, and learning differences experience many negative outcomes throughout a day - they tend to receive a lot of negative feedback from others and develop a sense of frustration within themselves. When children start believing that they can't do something, they stop trying - and they will come to associate their lack of success with their incapacity or inability to do well. Over time, these children can become trapped in a self-defeating cycle, exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. We may begin to see poor outcomes in their sleep, mood, irritability, relationships, fatigue, concentration, productivity, and overall health.
Children who are overwhelmed by their negative thoughts and/or feelings about their capacity or ability to do well face big risks. If this is the path your child is on, the good news is that you can intervene, provide support, and help them to do well.
Children's brains are changing all the time as they experience new things, learn, and grow. This means that you can provide your child with new experiences that promote their self-understanding, regulation, and advocacy. You can teach and support your child to problem-solve and grow toward increased resilience, independence, and success.
The brain - how we receive and respond to information in and around us
The downstairs brain is our primitive, survival brain. When we perceive or sense something within and around us, information travels to the downstairs brain first. If it senses an imminent threat or danger, it will immediately activate us into fight, flight, or freeze mode. As our bodies go into survival mode, we become flooded with negative thoughts and feelings - toward ourselves, others, the world, and our future. We are not consciously aware of these automatic processes and, when overwhelmed, can get stuck in these involuntary reactions (e.g., yelling, hitting, running away, hiding, withdrawing, dissociating).
The upstairs brain is our brain’s control center. When our downstairs brain is calm, information travels to our upstairs brain where we become aware of what is happening within and around us. This is where we consciously process information and make sense of what is happening, regulate our excitement or frustration, remember our goals, ask for help, organize and plan toward the future, reflect and problem-solve. When our downstairs brain is regulated/ calm, our upstairs brain allows us to utilize our capacity to thoughtfully respond to challenges, balance our negative thoughts and feelings with more realistic ones, practice cognitive flexibility, and persist toward our larger goals.
At our optimal state, our downstairs and upstairs brain are openly communicating with one another. Children who struggle with big emotions, on the other hand, are often trapped in the reactive state of their downstairs brain - unable to reflect, express themselves, problem-solve, ask for help, or effectively respond and adapt to their struggles. What we tend to see is hyperactivity/ impulsivity - whether children are acting out, running and hiding, or shutting down in silence. This is where you can help.
Children who are dysregulated need calm and supportive adults to help them regulate their bodies, thoughts, and feelings. This may involve a parent holding them, rocking them, guiding them to breathe or move, turning on music, giving them a coloring sheet, distracting them with humor, supporting them to name their feelings and make sense of their experiences, giving them space to calm on their own - and more! What will not work, and often makes things worse, is when parents raise their voice, hand out punishments, try to correct their child's behavior, or start long-winded lectures. Remember that when your child is dystegulated, you are talking to their downstairs brain. They cannot make sense of your words in a meaningful way and you are adding to their overwhelment. In these moments, remember that the goal is to help regulate and calm your child's downstairs brain so that they can effectively access their upstairs brain.
Strategies to support your child’s capacity for self-awareness, monitoring, and regulation
Help your child recognize when they need help by being direct - say, “it looks like you could use help with this; let's figure out what you need together; what's happening?" Normalize your child's struggles and make collaborative problem-solving a positive experience.
Help your child identify their “inner critic” (negative self-talk) and help them develop a counter “inner coach” (positive self-talk). The goal is not to get rid of your child's critic, but to recognize when it appears and know how to respond to it and manage it when it shows up. For example, when your child thinks “I can’t do this” you can help them respond with “I can try my best, I have strategies in mind, and I will see how it goes.” This engages your child's upstairs brain and helps them tolerate their big feelings (i.e., respond), as opposed to being trapped in their downstairs brain and not being able to recover from upset (i.e., react).
Help your child see that there is a past, present, and future. The downstairs brain is trapped in “right now” survival mode. When your child recognizes there is a timeline, they are engaging their upstairs brain to help regulate. Support your child to recognize that they have overcome obstacles in the past, are capable of trying, have your support, and have strategies to try. For example, “I learned how to ride a bike last year, that wasn’t easy, my mom/ dad helped me, I did it, I am capable, I can handle this challenge, I will try, I can ask for help, I will feel relieved when I get through this.” Learning is all about having the willingness to try something without the guarantee of immediate success.
Help your child track their efforts, intentions, learning, and progress. Visuals and charts are great for this, such as drawing a ladder or a tall tower - labeling each rung of the ladder or floor of the building with progressive steps. The bottom can represent where your child is now/ their struggle and the top can represent where they want to be/ their goal. Make sure the steps are small and manageable, to set your child up for success. Track your child's successes on their visual diagram so they can see their growth. Celebrate their successes with them as these are big moments worth acknowledging. And if your child needs some extra motivation to persist toward their goal, a reward system can be very effective.
Help your child clarify their expectations. We all compare ourselves to other people and to ourselves (what we expect to be able to do). Help your child develop realistic expectations of themselves considering their developmental age and capacities. When your child meets their expectations, they will experience a positive view of self. If your child holds unrealistically high expectations of themselves, they will persistently experience themselves as failures - with the risk of detrimental outcomes.
Help your child learn how to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. Knowing how to tolerate feelings of distress (regulated downstairs brain) is key to being able to think flexibly, problem-solve, and adapt to challenges as they arise (resilient upstairs brain). When your child wants to give up, acts out, or says “I don’t care” when they are frustrated - meet them with curiosity, patience, and compassion to help them get out of their downstairs reactive brain. When you can understand your child's struggle through their eyes, you can tailor intervention strategies that meet their needs. For example, does “I don’t care” mean… it’s boring, I don’t see the point of this, this makes me uncomfortable, I don’t know how to do this, I don’t want to do this, there’s no time to finish this now, I’m distracted, I need help, I’m tired or hungry, I’m not in the mood, I’m scared to make a mistake, or something else? As you can see, the nature of your child's struggle will determine how you can best support them to manage and face it.
Help your child develop the courage to take risks. First, help your child identify meaningful goal(s) - "what do you want and why is this important to you?" Then, explore with your child their past successes, the effort they are willing to exert to reach their goal, what strategies they already have, and some new strategies they can try. Help your child identify manageable steps that they can handle to move toward their goal. Help them be willing to try without knowing the outcome of their effort. Be there to problem-solve with them when things don't work out. The idea behind courage is not to get rid of fear, but to ensure that your child's desire for their goal is bigger than their fear of what it will take for them to get there.
Help your child share their successes, become a leader, and help others. This will reinforce to them that they are capable, have made progress, and have something to offer. It will give them a sense of empowerment to help people who are struggling as they once did.
Steps and skills involved in asking for help
When it comes to asking for help, there are many inner processes happening within your child. When you can identify where your child is struggling, you can appropriately intervene with effective support. Here are some of the critical steps and skills involved in asking for help:
Self-regulation - read the content above to understand how to support your child to calm their downstairs brain and engage their upstairs brain.
Awareness of self in the situation/ interpret - help your child recognize why and when they don’t understand what they are learning or what they are supposed to be doing. You can ask your child what their brain makes easy, ok, and hard for them to learn. You can help your child clarify the nature of what is getting in their way - is it their ability, personality, thoughts, feelings, other people, the task, and/ or the situation?
Problem-solve the situation/ respond - help your child identify whether they can solve the problem on their own (and how) or whether they need the assistance of someone else (and who). Help them recognize whether they need help with some, most, or all of the task at hand.
Social attention/ interpret - help your child recognize when to ask for help, who to ask for help from, and how to ask for help. For example, a child in a classroom can ask for help during a lesson, from a teacher, by raising their hand, and by making eye contact.
Social communication/ respond - help your child explain or show to someone what their struggle is and ask for the help they need. For example, does your child need a brain or movement break to rest and rejuvenate, help breaking down a larger task into more manageable tasks, help with time management or planning, help with regulating when emotionally overwhelmed or upset, help with abstract/ interpretive or factual/ literal learning, or something else! You could create cue cards with visuals or statements to help your child express their needs. Or, you could try developing hand signals with them to allow them to ask for help more comfortably.
Social understanding/ interpret - help your child focus on, understand, and interpret the help that is being offered. This leads back to the first point - if your child finds that the help being offered is not making sense to them, help them seek clarification. Encourage your child to persist when they are stuck!
Social expectations/ respond - help your child learn how to extend gratitude to their helper with a simple smile, gesture, and/ or “thank you.” There is power to be had in showing appreciation and the goal is to empower your child to ask for help and take control of their outcomes.
When your child is struggling, they need your help. Understanding your child’s struggle from their perspective is critical. Take this example. Some children refuse to ask for help, but are open to asking for clarification. A slight change in language or perspective can be all it takes to get your child on board to advocate for themselves.
Your child needs you to listen, hear, validate, and understand their struggle when they are upset. They need you to help them regulate their downstairs brain (reactiveness) to allow them to access their upstairs brain (responsiveness). If you jump in too quickly, offering advice or directing your child before understating what’s happening for them, you run the risk of escalating their reactivity and making things worse.
Children who persistently struggle to do well tend to feel embarrassed, ashamed, humiliated, incapable, and alone. When you take the time to patiently understand your child from their viewpoint, you will develop the connection, compassion, and insight you need to mobilize appropriate and effective interventions that support your child's unique challenges and needs. Remember that it is vulnerable for anyone to admit that they don’t know something, have limitations, and need help - even adults. Be calm, warm, accepting, and understanding of your child’s struggle so they can learn how to extend the same compassion toward themselves.
Show your child that you believe they are capable and are here to support them throughout their entire journey - all the ups and downs. As your child keeps trying and persisting, help them acknowledge their goals, struggles, best intentions, and honest efforts. Celebrate their moments of fulfillment, satisfaction, accomplishment, and pride with them. All children need the unconditional love, acceptance, and support of their parents and significant caregivers as they continue to learn and grow. When your child knows that you believe in them, they can find the strength and courage to persist when they doubt themselves. With you on their side, your child can and will prevail.
- Written by Cynthia Yoo, Registered Psychologist -
Books on regulation and parenting:
The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired - By Daniel Siegel & Tina Bryson
Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive - by Daniel Siegel & Mary Hartzell