Responsive parenting with autism: a book review - The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears (Lawrence J. Cohen)
author By Emilie Leeks,

reading Em

I got partway through (as I often often do!!) writing this post, so it's really interesting to look back now and see where we were a while back. It is wonderful to see how things have progressed for us in our family - the techniques and theories described in this book as we have been using them, alongside our Hand in Hand tools are really working for us!! This book was seminal for me in shifting my understanding and expectation of where our autistic son was at - and we are now seeing more tears (a great way to release emotions), much less aggression, and an increased ability to hold back when needed (i.e. reduced impulsivity). Anyway, I shan't give any more away! Read the review - and then I would definitely recommend that you read Cohen's book!!

trampoline dragon

In his fantastic book, The Opposite of Worry, Lawrence Cohen introduces us to what anxiety in children looks like, and what we can do to help. He covers a great deal of current theory, but in a clear, accessible and practical way, linking it to ideas you can get on and use straight away. He also touches on what we can do to lessen our own anxieties, and therefore to support our children better.

Our oldest son is autistic, and along with some other challenges, he has anxiety alongside this. I hadn't really pegged his way of being as anxiety based for a good while (or at least no more or less than any other person!), but the more I read of this book, the more it became clear to me about some of the whys and whats that we experience in our interactions with him. One really helpful idea for me, was that because fear underlies a lot of off-track behaviours, even if the child doesn't seem anxious (e.g. they might go straight to aggression, without looking fearful at all), anxiety is worth considering. So if you have explored other avenues, and things aren't moving forward for a child with regard to a particular behaviour, it is worth considering whether anxiety might be playing a part.

In terms of accessibility, this book was a great read - detailed, yet not so in depth that it lost you, it employed really functional analogies, and real-life stories, to engage the reader and aid understanding. But there were hard parts in reading this book: it really makes you look at your own issues, as well as those of your child, and although Cohen very much does not say that 'anxious parent = anxious child', he does point out that in order for our anxious children to back down from a high alert state, they need to see that we adults are not worried in any given situation. Gulp. He has a point, I'm sure of that! But that can be hard to take - I pride myself on being calm, but actually with most of my children's upsets I'm thinking ahead and trying to figure out 'what can be done'. When in reality, in almost every case, there is absolutely no urgency, nothing needs to be done or achieved, and all our son really needs from me is the confidence that when he looks into my eyes, he sees that 'this is ok'. There's some work still for me to do there, but with my increased understanding from this book, being the 'calm second chicken' (as Cohen calls it) feels much more achievable!

I was also very interested in the parts on 'flooding' - this is the idea that a child can get so overwhelmed by their fears, that any emotion they are showing is not contributing to a helpful release of the stuck feelings, and instead the child is just in survival mode. Cohen discusses ways to support a child with reaching the 'sweet spot' of 'face and feel' (the fear), rather than them tipping over into being completely flooded and overwhelmed by the emotion. This was something that resonated a lot with me, having sometimes found that Staylistening appeared to get my son stuck (he is rather like a cornered wild animal at those times), rather than aiding a useful emotional release. What made so much sense to me was realising that in those moments, my son has actually passed the point of the 'sweet spot', and needs help to get back to that, which is something that hadn't really clicked for me before. [In fact, this is exactly what Hand in Hand advise, but that hadn't really fallen into place with me at the point of reading! Retrospectively, this was my own lack of experience in using Staylistening, but I think is worth noting for those on a similar path to us.] Some slight, subtle adaptations of Staylistening might be used, for example, for children who have 'tipped over' into flooding - for example you might need to physically back off, but increase the flow of verbal reassurance (generally we wouldn't want to be talking too much in Staylistening, as it can bring our children back into their 'thinking' brain, and out of emotional release). It's also really worth noting as you go through this process with your own child, what it is you do with them, and how the child is afterwards - what is working, and what needs tweaking? Not being afraid to try something and have it fall a little flat has been key for us in moving forwards in our family!

There was so much useful information in this book, both in terms of the theoretical explanations (I had many 'aha' moments during my reading of this), and in terms of the practical ideas, that it's hard to pick my favourite bits! The flooding idea, and the calm second chicken, are definitely two important points that have stuck with me - the idea of reassuring your child with what essentially amounts to 'I'm not worried', rather than our culture's favourite of 'You shouldn't be worried' (i.e. it's no big deal), is definitely something that resonates strongly with me!

I do feel like this book came at just the right time for me (well, these things normally do I suppose!), and it complements the Hand in Hand approach beautifully. For me, on reading this book I just felt a few more pieces click into place - while there is more delving to be done for our family I'm sure, the concepts fit well with what I already know, and sit well with my current thinking on approaching our autistic child with Staylistening. And the more I learn, the more I see that Hand in Hand is also promoting these ideas of what is a useful emotional release, and how to pitch your Staylistening to get there, but at the point of reading I just hadn't quite made that leap! The Opposite of Worry is a great book, and I would highly recommend it to any parent.

Read this book if:
- You have, or work with, a child who appears anxious
- Things aren't moving forward for a child with regard to a particular issue (e.g. aggression) - even if the child doesn't seem anxious
- You want to better understand where anxiety comes from and what it can look like
- You want creative ideas of how to tackle anxiety in everyday life and through games and playfulness
- You have, or think you have, anxiety yourself!

Cuddles dragon


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!
- Responsive parenting and autism: turning things around with a pillow fight

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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