Responsive parenting and autism: how Staylistening helps with separation anxiety
author By Emilie Leeks,

We often get asked variations on the question: 'I want to be a peaceful parent - but can it be done with autistic children?'. Our oldest child (8) is autistic, and we have been trying our best to parent in a responsive, peaceful way since he was born - but it hasn't always been easy.

When we discovered Hand in Hand Parenting, he was 5 years old, and we were seeing a lot of aggressive meltdowns and really struggling with knowing how to handle this. We have been successfully applying the Hand in Hand principles and tools with our whole family (one autistic child, two neurotypical children) since then, and life is a whole lot better now, on so many fronts!

trampoline Azz Dzz

As I spend some time pulling together information for a more in-depth look at responsive parenting with autistic children, I will be sharing practical stories about parents using the Hand in Hand tools with their autistic children - here is a beautiful one from a wonderfully thoughtful mother who used Staylistening to effectively counter her son's separation anxiety.


I was dropping my 2 Autistic sons (7 and almost 4) at Granny's so my husband and I could go on a very rare morning out together.

They both love Granny and love going to her house but my little one has been going through a tough patch and wanting me - no one else will do.

My 7yo ran into Granny's house and went to find the toys - normally my 3yo would too, but he knew I wasn't staying and clung to me like a limpet saying 'Mummy don't go'.

I knew I could just scrape him off, say goodbye and he'd be ok, having cuddles with Granny in a few minutes. But I know that we can do better than just 'ok'. Plus he's due to start school in September so I saw this as an opportunity to help him work through his separation anxiety.

I sat down on the doorstep with him and we had a lovely cuddle. When he'd relaxed a little, I set a limit 'You stay here with J and Granny - Daddy and Mummy are coming back later'. Of course this prompted lots of crying and more limpet action, but rather than telling him to be brave, or distracting him with toys or biscuits, I Staylistened. I held him close and just let him cry, allowing his emotions to do their job. When the sobbing started to subside, I gently held the limit - 'Are you ready for me to go yet?' More crying and lovely cuddles.

Cuddles Em Azz

After about 3 minutes the tide started to turn - he looked into the house and said 'I want to go to Granny's house - Mummy you come too - Bye bye Daddy. Come on Mummy!'

'No my love, I need to go but not until you're ready. Are you ready for me to go?'

'Noooooo!!!!' More crying. But the crying is always that lovely deep cathartic crying, not that desperate wailing you get when a kid is trying with all his might to stop something happening. This feels healthy, lovely. I welcome all feelings but especially these big cries which clear the air like a good thunderstorm.

After a minute or 2 more, I ask again 'Are you ready for me to go?' he hops up, walks slowly and contentedly into the house, followed by a stunned and frankly relieved Granny and they both wave goodbye and blow 'candle kisses'.

When we return later, he is lying on the floor, focussing intently on a colossal jigsaw puzzle and hops up for another cuddle, this time all smiles. Granny tells me what a wonderful morning they've all had and we all have lunch together.

I know that if I'd forced him, he would put up twice as much resistance next time, and I would probably put off going to Granny's again for as long as possible. But I know that he'll either go happily next time, or I'll get another opportunity to Staylisten. And either is fine with me.


heart hands Dzz

Further information

The following is a list of posts on our own personal experience of parenting responsively with our son - I have divided them under the Hand in Hand tools where appropriate, so that if you are working on a particular tool you can find resources quickly and easily:

     - What an autism diagnosis means for us
Listening Partnerships
     - Facing up to a possible autism diagnosis
     - Talking less - to feel more
     - Using group support to work through strong feelings around my son's birth

Special Time
     - Special Time allows me to really enjoy my son's personality

     - Staylistening helps our son get past his feelings about change
     - A nearly-spoiled day out saved by Staylistening
     - Listening helps with resolving a conflict

Setting Limits
     - Setting a limit allows my son to work through frustrations - working through frustrations can be a big challenge and sometimes we need to set a limit to allow the big feelings out, before a child can think clearly. On this occasion, my feeling was that our son needed to 'come back' from the edge rather than release, in order to be able to move forwards

     - Playlistening helps the evening routine
     - Playlistening helps us relax about name calling!

And these were written before my Hand in Hand days, but may help to give a picture of where we were at:
     - Needing a hug - all about things getting tough for me one day, and how our oldest responded
     - The thanks you get - hearing my son accepting my apology for not being the calmest mummy!
     - Evening routine brainstorm! - taking time out to plan for predictably difficult times
     - Staying Calm!! - how avoiding blame and recrimination helped our son realise a mistake
     - Blood, apologies, and compassion - again, how compassion comes out of staying calm

A word or two about Journeys in Parenting; a responsive parenting community

Emilie is a Hand in Hand Parenting instructor, and was a paediatric speech and language therapist in her former life. She provides support and coaching for parents via the Journeys in Parenting community. Emilie lives in Berkshire in the UK with her husband and 3 children.

Journeys in Parenting is a community group for parents, carers and parents-to-be, who want to find out more about parenting in a responsive and peaceful way. The community offers information, advice and emotional support for this hard work we do as parents. The vision of the group is to be a safe space, where parents are supported in guiding their families in ways which: are respectful to children; meet the parents' needs; and lead to a more peaceful planet for all.

To work one-to-one with Emilie , request a free 15-minute trial call here or visit the website for more details

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