Ep. 28 / Slow Processing? Try Slow Parenting!

We all know there are approximately one million and fourteen different parenting approaches out there, which can make it intimidating to sort through them and find the ones that work for you and your family.

In my family, we all struggle with intermittent slow processing speed, which leads us to be more overwhelmed by social events, to do lists, and housework, and even keeping up with basic needs like eating, than the average family. Luckily, after much trial and error, I found a parenting approach that supports our slower processing speeds: slow parenting.

Today, I'm talking about what slow processing speed is, how it’s related to sensory processing disorder (SPD), and how the slow parenting method can support a child who needs some extra time to work through the input she’s receiving. So, let’s dive in!


🎧 Want to listen? This post is based off of Episode 28 of the Neurodiverging Podcast! Listen on Apple Podcasts Google Podcasts | Spotify


Show Notes:


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Transcript for Ep 28: Slow Processing? Try Slow Parenting!

Hi friends, welcome back to Neurodiverging! Thanks so much for being here with me today. If you’re new to the podcast, I’m Danielle Sullivan and I’m your host. 

Introduction

We all know there are approximately one million and fourteen different parenting approaches out there, which can make it intimidating to sort through them and find the ones that work for you and your family. 

In my family, we all struggle with intermittent slow processing speed, which leads us to be more overwhelmed by social events, to do lists, and housework, and even keeping up with basic needs like eating, than the average family. Luckily, after much trial and error, I found a parenting approach that supports our slower processing speeds: slow parenting

Because I’ve talked with so many parents and autistic adults who struggle with processing speed, and its best friend, sensory processing disorder, I want to focus today on what slow processing speed is, how it’s related to SPD, and how the slow parenting method can support a child who needs some extra time to work through the input she’s receiving. So, let’s dive in!

Processing Speeds

First, what is slow processing speed? Slow processing speed refers, at its most basic, to having a slower than average work pace. There are many predictors of slow processing speed, like traumatic injuries, neurotypes like autism and ADHD, or executive function struggles. However, it can also be grounded in everyday factors such as not getting enough sleep for your body’s needs, not eating well, feelings of stress, anxiety, and/or depression. Or, you know, going through the entire year of 2020!

In my household, most of our slow processing speed is directly related to our ADHD and autistic brains, but a poor night’s sleep can cause it, too. You should have seen me when my kids were babies and I was breastfeeding around the clock – I was slow as molasses. Inconsistent processing speed has been something I’ve struggled with at various points throughout my life; it’s only relatively recently that I’ve been able to have a good understanding of what’s going on. When I met my partner, I realized that his processing speed was also inconsistent, so it’s something we’ve both learned to support in each other over time.

For me, the worst part of inconsistent processing speed is not having a choice about what my brain is doing on a given day. Sure, things like exercising, eating well, taking my meds, hydrating, and going to bed on time will give me a better chance of having a good brain day. But, sometimes, I do everything right and I still wake up and can’t figure out simple issues for no good reason. And – let’s be real – sometimes I can’t do everything right. I have an ill-advised third cup of coffee, I stay up way too late reading  my favorite book, my kid has a nightmare and wakes me up in the middle of the night, I don’t drink enough water or get my evening walk in…and the next day I can’t think for beans.

How fast I can think or handle information on a given day is not something I can control, and it’s not something my partner or my kids can control either, which means that any issues that stem from processing speed need to be met with some grace and an attitude of support, not shame.

Processing Speeds and SPD

I said before that processing speed and sensory processing are best friends, so let’s talk about that for a minute. Let’s review how your sensory systems take in and organize information.

As MamaOT says: “the human body takes in sensory input from several different sensory systems, organizes it in the brain for functional use, and then sends out signals to the rest of the body to activate the appropriate motor, behavioral, or emotional responses, known as adaptive response.” 

When you have sensory processing disorder – sometimes known as sensory integration disorder – your brain can’t organize the information it receives into useful, actionable information, and the correct signals are not sent out to the rest of your body. You become “disorganized.” Sensory processing issues that cause disorganization can directly lead to slower mental processing. You get so overwhelmed by sensory input that you can’t think, basically. So, you may be physically slow to react to inputs, like taking an extra minute to figure out what someone said to you; or you may feel like you’re thinking more slowly than you usually do. Having trouble with sensory processing is another potential cause of slow processing, or can exacerbate processing issues that were already there, or both.

I have sensory processing disorder, just like both of my kids, so we are all prone to disorganization, more than average, just by the nature of our neurotypes. When one of us loses the thread, it seems like it leaks disorganization into anyone else around who isn’t 100% organized themselves. I was somewhat used to my own SPD-related disorganization, and was managing with my older child, but the challenges really ramped up to a whole new level with the addition of my second child. From when my daughter was about fifteen months old to about a little over three years old, she was incredibly disorganized, and it wasn’t a kind of disorganization I was at all prepared for. 

I think I’ve talked in previous episodes about how, initially, I was a pretty cruddy parent to my second child – my daughter, who is ADHD combined type, in large part because her SPD was dramatically disorganizing. It was absolutely not her fault – it was directly connected to her ADHD and slow processing speed. But before we started occupational therapy for her, she was disorganized probably 80% of the time, and of course emotionally unhappy and frustrated as well. Her situation plus the rest of our family’s SPD and processing issues combined to create a seemingly unending vortex of chaos which resulted in all of us sleeping badly, eating badly, and not getting enough exercise. A normal thing like grocery shopping or cooking dinner – which would have substantially improved a couple of those problems – were suddenly impossible tasks. Unfortunately, this infinity loop of disorganization made everyone’s lives so much harder – especially for my daughter. 

A lot of children are so constantly overwhelmed – those with sensory differences, like my daughter, especially – that many of the behaviors parents or professionals see as negative are products of an anxious child who is constantly pushed past their natural boundaries. For instance, what look like tantrums and what tends to get labeled “oppositional defiance” are almost always symptoms of overwhelm and anxiety.  I have to say that I seriously dislike the word “defiant,” and I don’t find it at all useful. In my opinion, it’s a junk name and unhelpful for parents and children. If you have a child who is constantly pushing back against you – I have been there and it is HARD – their behavior is not your child trying to be difficult or “defiant,” but an expression of how completely overwhelmed they feel. It turned out that my child who had been labeled as “oppositional defiant” was struggling to process everything in her world, and wasn’t able to do so. The disorganization I talked about earlier was the result of her constantly trying to process more than she could handle. 

How did we get in front of this slow-motion wrecking ball when my daughter was three? How did we slowly reign in the chaos and create a better household environment for all of us? 1) Occupational therapy. 2) Slow parenting. Let me tell you about what slow parenting is now.

Slow Parenting

At its most basic, slow parenting is a style of parenting where you are prioritizing your child’s exploration of the world, and therefore, your child’s personal processing speed of the world, over anything else that is not essential to your existence. 

I’d like to share a quote from Sharon Brandwein’s article “Why Slow Parenting Is Right for My Family”, which I’ll link below. She writes, “in our family, we practice slow parenting, a parenting style where parents consciously choose to take the pressure off their children and let them explore the world on their own terms. It allows for everyone to be present and focus on family time without a calendar full of scheduled activities.” 

The idea with slow parenting is to try to create more space and more time in the day for your child to process the world at their own pace, and to decrease the number of other things they have to do that will take away from their focus on processing. We just talked about how many of our children are overwhelmed, without enough time or space to think. Slow parenting creates this time and space for them.

Now, there are some common arguments I hear against slow parenting when I recommend it to a family I’m working with. Many parents worry that it’s impossible given the number of medical appointments, recreational commitments, and school schedules for their kids, not to mention the parents’ own work. It’s true, as parents of kids with differing neurotypes, we have so many things on the calendar. And it can be tricky to figure out what is genuinely necessary (such as therapy, school, and work) and what can be removed from the list of things to do. 

My counter argument here is that, in my experience, many parents of autistic kids over-therapy their children. There are therapies that are absolutely necessary to support kids, teaching them neurotypical life skills and essential ways to live in this world that is geared for neurotypical folks. As I said before, my family would not be half as functional as we are now if not for occupational therapy. However, in addition to the therapies that are critical to a child’s support, some parents can feel pressured by well-meaning friends or professionals to also enroll their children in more therapies, social skills groups, team sports, and the like. I wonder, though, if these children wouldn’t benefit more from simply having more space and time to process the world. So many of the “symptoms” that parents are trying to treat can be traced back to overwhelm that I worry that well-meaning, loving parents may be exacerbating the root problem, rather than addressing it.

Among the families I’ve talked to, I have noticed a trend that especially neurotypical parents can’t tell what is helpful for their autistic or ADHD child, and what is not. As a parent, you want to feel like you’re making the best choices for your child’s needs, and that can be really hard when it comes to figuring out what therapies, social activities, and recreational activities are going to be most beneficial. You won’t always get it right because no one is perfect, and you might need to try several combinations or strategies before you find what works. But, in my experience, families with slower processing speeds overall will do better with a lighter schedule.

Want some ideas on how to create a schedule that works for everybody? Check out episode 12!

Lighten the Load

In case you haven’t already figured it out, there’s a lot I like about the slow parenting approach! One reason in particular is that, unlike some other interventions, you can start off with a blank slate, drop everything from the schedule for a month or two, give your child a schedule break, and see how they do. With this time, your kid can explore the world at their own pace. 

For children who have been overwhelmed day in and day out, taking away all of their commitments and clearing everything from their schedules will give them a chance to breathe, to decompress, and process. And then, that processing will start to happen a bit faster. They may not ever reach an “average” processing speed (whatever that is!), but they will be able to process better, and moderate themselves a little better, if they have less to handle in a day. If you can remove the overwhelm for them, not only will this give them more space and time to process, but it can also help you help them create more strategies for when things like therapies, social interactions, and other potentially overwhelming situations are reintroduced to their lives. Kids do better overall when they’re not overscheduled and are not constantly entertained. 

As parents, you know just how stressed we can feel at having to go from one thing to the next to the next, all day every day, and not having any one-on-one time with your child. Implementing the slow parenting approach, clearing your calendar for everyone in the family, will reduce anxiety for you as a parent as well as for your children. Everyone will have space to think, decompress, breathe, and process what’s going on. In other words, slow parenting can support whole families! 

Just in case you think I’m ignoring the elephant in the room, yes, we as parents need time off too! It’s likely you don’t get enough of it, either. On the other hand, we need to make sure you and your child are getting enough one-on-one time to connect with each other, and for you to be a parent for your children. The best way to do that is to create the time for that to happen. I’m not saying you have to have Family Hour and make it all Serious – not everyone does well with structured family time, it can feel forced and inauthentic. In my experience I’ve found that if you can create more space for everything overall, you have room for more authentic, smaller connections throughout the day. 

Day by day and week by week, these little interactions build into a stronger relationship between you and your child. That means you’ll end up with children who talk to you when they have problems, who are more willing to come to you with an issue, and who you’ll be in a better position to help with those issues and problems. If you give your child more space to not only process but talk about their feelings, together you can come up with strategies to reduce their anxiety, to ask for your help when they need it, and maybe even moderate their anxieties on their own to some extent.  

Committing to the pace of  slow parenting might not be something you’re willing to do for the full length of your parenting life, and I get that and that’s fine. But try it for a couple of weeks. Try it for a month. Take a summer and try to reduce the number of activities you commit to for a period of time. Many slow parenting advocates go to the extreme and have no scheduled activities, no therapies, no social sports, they may homeschool;  some people take it to a huge extreme. You can choose to do that if you want to, but obviously not everyone can homeschool, not everyone can drop therapies or even reduce therapies; not everybody can just drop social sports. People have to work outside the home. 

I understand that there are limits to what you can do, so I’m saying, in your circumstance, think about “are there things I could drop? Are there things I could be doing once a month instead of once a week? Are there things that I can give to somebody else to do, or trade off with a friend so that I’m not having to do the thing all the time so that I can free more time for myself and my kid?” And again, if you can commit for a couple of weeks or a month, you should be able to notice a difference in your feelings about your parenting and your and your child’s relationship with each other. That is one of the reasons I love slow parenting so much.

Now, I understand that slow parenting can be a commitment, it can feel like a big change, and any kind of parenting intervention can always feel really scary, and can always feel like a challenge, and I don’t mean to overlook that at all. Any kind of change in your parenting can really bring up some fear around your quality as a parent, your ability as a parent. You are a good parent; if you’re listening to this I know you care about your kid. And, there’s no right and wrong parenting intervention for every single person, but there are some things that tend to help kids with certain issues. So if you have a kid with slow processing, with sensory processing disorder, maybe with ADHD or autism, who maybe is defiant or labelled “defiant,” slow parenting might be a good solution for you, or might be a good thing to consider.  

 

Something for Everyone

Finally, I’ve touched on this a little bit, but I want to bring into focus the idea that slow parenting is not just for your kid, it’s for the entire family and it’s for you as a parent. It supports you as a parent. First it lets you focus on your child. We have so many things vying for our attention, and obviously your child cannot be your number one priority at every minute of every day. Unfortunately, a lot of us would feel a lot better about our parenting ability, I’m sure, if we felt like we could put more effort or more concerted thought into what we’re doing as parents. A lot of us are very thoughtful parents anyway, but if you could create more time for you and your kid to just hang out together, play a card game, watch an episode of something together, wouldn’t you feel more connected with what your kid needs? Wouldn’t you feel better as a parent? 

If you could create more time for yourself, would you be able to bring in some more self-care? Would you be able to read a book? Would you be able to take a bath? Would you be able to hide in the bathroom away from your children for five more minutes out of the day, if you weren’t driving back and forth all the time to therapy appointments? I don’t know, it’s up to you, circumstances vary. But think about the goal being that when you slow parent, you’re slowing everything down. You're prioritizing your child and their interaction with the world, but that should ideally create more space for you too.  

And the other thing is that over time as your child has more space in their life to regulate, to learn interventions for themselves, to become more aware of their emotions, and maybe more able to talk about their feelings and their goals and their needs, they’re going to get ahead, they’re going to take on some of the workload that you as the parent have been shouldering for however long you’ve been shouldering it. 

Let me tell you about my experience with this. When my daughter was three, we were still in that phase of constant emotional upheaval from her disorganization, her anxiety, her “defiance.”  As a parent, I was tearing my hair out, crying every day, completely unable to function. I felt like “What have I done? I’m the worst parent in the world? Why did I have these two kids if I can’t even take care of them?” I couldn’t get my daughter to eat, I couldn’t get her to get dressed, I couldn’t get her to take a bath – this will be familiar to lots of you for better or worse, and I’m sorry. 

In the two and a half years since we really started slowing down as much as we can, focusing hard on the SPD and what we could do to help especially my daughter organize herself better, the amount of emotional regulation that she’s now able to do on her own is staggering. It’s way past what I would have considered possible, certainly at that time, but even compared to one year ago. 

Now, I can trust that if she can’t handle something emotionally, she will come and ask for help. Like, 85% of the time, which is huge, HUGE because we were at like negative percentages before. She will mostly feed herself, mostly dress herself, can self-identify when a noise or the lights or another stimulus is bothering her, and help me determine the best way to address the issue.

I am not saying everything’s perfect now, but by moving to slow parenting, continuing OT, and reframing everything to encourage us to take our time, we are giving my daughter the processing space she needs. We still drop as much as we possibly can to focus on this child and her brother and what they need first

Doing that has created so much more space for me as a parent because it forces me to prioritize what’s really important and what can be dropped. It allows me to be more present in my day, in my life, and again in my decisions about what I’m doing and why. I get to do one thing at a time, which for many of us neurodivergent folks is really important. And I have gotten better as a parent in becoming mindful of my own stuff. 

When my child was so disorganized that she was, like I said, leaking disorganization into everybody, I was a hot mess, my partner was a hot mess, her brother was a hot mess, we were all hot messes together. We were all like just pools of goop on the floor. When we adopted slow parenting, I quickly realized that the more things we dropped, the better we were able to focus on the kids and on ourselves, and the more the piles of goop started to build up into real people again. And now, I would say, like, am I a perfect, mindful parent? No, no, not at all. Am I a person who can notice when I’m getting dysregulated? Yes! Before I was dysregulated so much of the time, that I couldn’t even tell that I was dysregulated because it was like 100% of my life. Now, dysregulation is rarer enough that I notice that it’s happening to me, which is like, it’s like magic. I can’t even overstate, it’s magic.  

I understand that not every family will have this incredible positive reaction to the slow parenting intervention, but if you have ever thought about it, if you feel like you’re stuck in your parenting and you’re hitting some of these blocks, and you do not know what to do, especially if your kiddo is dealing with slow processing, sensory processing issues, or any kind of “defiance” behavior: slow down. Drop everything else, focus in on their needs, and create space for them to process.

 

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