How Do You Get Through To A Child Who Doesn’t Think Logically?

We used to think that carrying a piece of drywall around with us so we could bang our head into it every time we had to re-explain something to our kid, or try to reason with him, was the ticket. And then, we discovered a better way to connect.

woman slapping hand on head to say duh made mistake

A friend and I were recently talking about our kids when he said something I totally identified with- “Mike, he just doesn’t think. It’s like there’s no ability to think logically. I tell him to not do something and he does it anyway, even though he knows he’ll be in trouble!” I nodded and repeatedly said, “Yep, I know. Right there with you.” If I had a dollar for every time I was in this position…..retirement come early!

We went on to talk about the reality of FASDs (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders) which both of our sons suffer from. The fact is, logic, self-control, reasoning, impulse control, and emotional regulation are all aspects that are non-existent, or in limited supply, with kiddos who have these disorders (more on why in a minute). To try and relate to your child with logic can often be futile. They just may not be able to think logically (insert need to carry around a piece of drywall…or a flask of Jim Beam…here!). Perhaps you identify with this. You may be nodding your head as well, as you read this because you’re in the same boat. Maybe you’ve tried and tried and tried (unsuccessfully) to get through to your child but their inability to think through things logically has made it difficult.

It’s not working. At all. We totally understand. We spent many a year communicating with our son from our own logic and understanding of how the world works. After all, that’s how we were raised and, being two smart, productive human beings, that’s how we function. We could have been talking to a brick wall and received better results. It just didn’t work.

So, the question then becomes, “What do we do if we cannot get through to a child who has an inability to think through things logically?” Here are 4 valuable keys that have served as game-changers for us…

  1. Understand what’s missing. I’m not a doctor, I’m a writer. But I’ve been in this trench with my child for the past 13 years, and I’ve come to understand a few things about trauma. Trauma changes the brain and brain chemistry. Particularly trauma that results from drug and alcohol exposure in-utero. It’s permanent brain damage. Specifically, the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for executive functioning, which is responsible for abilities to differentiate between conflicting thoughts, determining good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social control. Whew…that was a mouthful. All of this is severely damaged, missing, or sporadic with kids who have experienced trauma, especially those who have experienced drug and alcohol exposure in-utero. This is your beginning framework for re-relating to your child…
  2. Adjust your expectations. Once you understand what’s missing, it’s time to adjust your expectations. You can’t expect a person who is missing the part of their brain, responsible for reasoning, logic, self-control, impulse control, etc. to think through things logically. Your expectations need to be adjusted. You wouldn’t look at a person bound to a wheelchair and say “What’s your problem? Why won’t you just get up and walk? I’m doing it and it’s easy. You should too!” would you? Probably not because that would be offensive to the billionth degree. Plus, they simply can’t because a valuable part of their body, responsible for helping them walk, is missing. Thus, a valuable part of our child’s brain is missing or low functioning. You and I must adjust our expectations. You must expect that they are not going to think through things logically, or take much longer than a normal functioning child to do so. This does not mean they do not face consequences for their actions, nor is it a permission slip to treat you, or your household, disrespectfully (more on that in a minute). What it means is that you interact with them differently and you expect that you will spend more time showing as opposed to explaining.
  3. Stay calm, remain firm. So, once your expectations are adjusted what do you do? Does this mean they don’t have to follow the same house rules as everyone else? Nope! Does this mean they can get away with disrespectful talk because their brain doesn’t function like other children? Absolutely not! Your position with your child must be one of complete calmness and unshakable firmness. In other words, no matter what the situation, or the emotional state of your child, you take on a position of calm and you remain firm with expectations.Case in point- your child is trashing the house, throwing things all over the place, and basically holding the household hostage (I may or may not be using an actual experience…:-)). What do you do? First and foremost, YOU (yes, you, in all caps!) keep your emotions in check. You, as the adult, are responsible for the emotional thermostat in the room. As my good friend, Dr. Ira Chasnoff says it- “Control the environment!” So you stay calm but, at the same time, gently remind him that he will be responsible for cleaning the mess up when his tantrum is finished. And, (calmly…deep breaths) “We will not be going to the pool, or the park, or the store (or whatever the thing was that you were going to do, or he was going to get) until the mess is cleaned up.” Calm and firm…calm and firm. This has been one of the single most game-changers for us in interacting with our oldest son, who has FASD.
  4. Repeat, repeat, repeat. You may have to take your child by the hand (figuratively if not literally) and repeat yourself over and over again. Let me say that differently- You WILL have to take your child by the hand and repeat yourself over and over again. Picture your circumstances like the movie Groundhog Day, where everything is a repeat of the day before. Remember, your child may not be able to remember the expectations, guidelines, or boundaries from one day to the next. Print them out on a posterboard, hang them in a very visible place, then calmly and firmly show your child the poster board and walk through the guidelines again, even though you already did this. I know it’s frustrating…I know it’s exhausting…but so is expecting an understanding that may or may not come naturally without your assistance.

If you’re a frequent reader of Confessions, then you’ve probably come across our top recommendations for resources. Our go-to book for re-relating to your child, who has experienced trauma, is the book, Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control by Heather T. Forbes. When Kristin read it, and later shared it with me, it was as if a ray of light beamed down from the heavens. It helped us adjust our expectations and re-invent our approach. We can’t recommend it enough.

One last thing, if you have been in that position of wanting to bang your head against drywall as you try to get your child to understand his or her actions. You are not alone in this my friend. Just know that and take that to heart. We are there with you and we are cheering for you. That’s the reason this blog and this post exists. Every day is a new day and a chance to start over. So, you may have royally screwed this up yesterday. That’s okay. We all have. Today is where you are now. And today is a brand new start for you and your child!

Question: Have you struggled to relate to your child who won’t think logically? Share your story with us in the comment section below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Earleen Smith

    We have 2 year old twins both FASD and one that was severely beaten in the head by bio mom. He has a skull fracture and multiple subdural hemotomas and excessive fluid on the brain which required a crainiotomy at 4 months. He is now 2 and despite the odds he is walking and talking and “looks” like a normal 2 year old. However, his emotional side is just over the top with hitting, biting, throwing himself, banging his head, etc. And the older he gets the more sensory issues we are noticing such as socks, shoes, diapers and pants. Any suggestions for when they are so young to stop biting, etc?

    • Earleen, this is a tough one because, at 2 years old, there is so much development happening. Do you have a local therapist who is skilled in healthy attachment, bonding (and even disorders like FASDs or attachment) who could speak into your situation?

      • Earleen Smith

        Unfortunately we don’t know where to start to look and DSS isn’t a help since they are now adopted and these behaviors are showing more and more each day.

        • Debora Dunning Bates

          Also look for an Adoption Support Group. They still have trainers that come in and talk sessions that you can gain information from.

          • Earleen Smith

            Thank you!

    • Debora Dunning Bates

      Earleen – If I might ask… where do you live? I have resources in the Denver area that were a great help with my little guy. Let me know and maybe they could help you too.

      • Earleen Smith

        We live in Smithsburg MD

        • Debora Dunning Bates

          Look for physical therapist that deals with sensory processing disorder. Ours was such a huge help! Also the books The Out of Sync Child and The Out of Sync Child Has Fun.

          • Bethany Becker

            Earleen, I have the Out of Sync books, and the teacher manual, in good condition. Happy to send those to you if you would like to have them. Let me know how to contact you.

    • One thing I would recommend (and this is super simple), is to do a Google Search for Trauma Informed Therapists in your area or Attachment and Bonding Therapists in your area. Believe it or not, many people have found the right professionals by doing this simple task. You could also pose a question on Facebook in your local community or city and find some good answers. The mob mentality is valuable when it comes to these type things and especially in the foster and adoptive community.

      • Earleen Smith

        Thank you

  • Kpainter

    Thank you .. I so NEEDED to read this today! I actually, over the weekend, made binders for our children entitled “How to be a Family Member”, complete with step-by-step instructions and clip-art to illustrate what we do, how we act, what we do not do … simple things like use manners, answer questions, show respect with our words and bodies, do not kick/bite/hit/punch people or animals … you know, basic rules of being a human. To that, I was kicked, screamed at and told I’m hated … BUT, after a few days of suggesting they read/look at their binder, they are doing it and it’s an easy thing for me or my husband to reference. My children are 5 and 6, have been with us for 2.5 years now. They have a copy of the binder in their backpacks that they carry daily and I made a copy for the daycare. I’ve noticed since I introduced this a few days ago, I feel some relief because I can say it until I want to bang my head against the wall as you mentioned, lol … but being able to direct them to the binder while I take a few minutes to keep myself in check … has me feeling LOADS better in a just a few short days. I’m hoping this will be something they can use to actually visualize what I’m trying to say to them. Fingers crossed 🙂

    • I love everything about this. Such a great way to guide but also keep your emotions in check as a parent. Thanks for sharing.

    • Kristin Wetstine Chadwick

      Wow!! I’m loving this idea! I know my kiddo is very visual, and I’m almost positive she’ll respond well to seeing visuals.

  • Tasha Wilson

    For the last couple years my, now, 8 year old son who’s a twin has struggled DAILY with even the most basic rules like not running or yelling. Although I did not drink or do drugs while pregnant he had a lot of issues in utero. He lost nearly almost all of his fluid and wasn’t expected to make it to birth. After a lot of problems with his development a neurologist suggested an MRI, and that turned out completely normal aside from a significant amount of “white space” in his frontal lobe. This troubles me because yes, I know it’s there and I know that’s a huge explanation for his behaviors, I don’t know how this “white space” happened! So reading yet again the white space affects the logical reasoning part of the brain was validating. It’s so nice to have these tips to try to help my son. For the last year I’ve cried myself to sleep more times than I can count because as a single mom I’m all he has and I feel such an incredible burden to look to the ends of the earth to found help, to get help figuring him out. All I wanted was help! If anyone has any suggestions for trying to help me figure out what caused his brain to develop this way that would be amazing!

  • Dawn Shultz

    This changes not only your expectations of them, but your expectations for YOU (caps borrowed). Your life cannot be quick. You might have been looking forward to the park or the store, and may have to give it up for the sake of teaching the child… again… that throwing a fit is not a valid part of being part of this family.

  • Emily Amlin

    How do you help a 14 year old, with some of these struggles, to take some responsibility for the problems that occur because of difficulties with executive functioning? Maybe it is the logic that you are talking about, but she sees no reason or need to apologize or make things better when her actions have caused stress to the family. She gets consequences, serves them, but never mends relationships. I try to start each day with “new mercies” but struggle because she doesn’t seem to see that she has done anything wrong.

    • Michelle Sackett McKinney

      I hear you, Emily. We have an 11 year old the same way. We always have him say sorry, and he will. But we have never seen remorse. It’s disturbing because I worry about him relationship with God. I spend a lot of time praying for him to understand this.

  • Jake Beeney

    We are the parents of three boys, 11 (biological), 6 (Foster to adopted) and 2 (Adopting July 20!). The two youngest were Meth exposed and born at 29 weeks. Our 6 year old displays all of the behaviors you described and this article was so helpful. Stay calm, We control the environment, and realize they are wired differently than most. Thank you for sharing this! One of the struggles is getting others (uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents) to understand this as well and show the same grace and patience to our kids. Thank you for this post and for the website. Great resource

    • Jake, you are most welcome. So glad you got a lot out of the post.

  • Kathi Regan

    1 thing I have found very helpful is instead of saying it over and over, especially with chores or homework even her to g ready in the morning. Is a list a quick list
    brush your teeth
    make your bed
    get dressed
    eat
    help with your lunch
    simple but saves time stress and your voice

  • SueCanRush

    Reading Heather Forbes knowledge in this arena was life-changing.

  • Sarah leblanc

    Do you seek counseling and medication as well for your trauma child? We have an adopted child as well as 3 bio kids and have been going to counselors for years. They don’t seem to be effective. It would make sense if this is the case of groundhogs day syndrome so to speak. That he does retain anything from our sessions.. thoughts?

    • This question is near my heart. I feel your pain and your struggle in this area so much. We have 4 kids, all adopted. I’ve yet to find a counselor that gets developmental trauma and so I gave up for the time being. It is something I know I have to pursue again soon as we have one in middle school now. As for meds, also, doctors don’t get our kids. I’ve learned it’s so important to find the right doctor who does otherwise they will automatically either give the ADHD diagnosis or worse, bipolar and give harsh meds right away. In my experience with my kids, anxiety has been the cause and therefore anxiety meds have been prescribed minimally, and we have found huge benefits from it. But I also was able to find a doctor who gets trauma kids. So here’s my suggestion…here’s a list of therapists who do get it and hopefully there is one in your area. https://child.tcu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/17.07_TBRI-Practitoners.pdf
      And if you are a member of Oasis (which if you are not, click here to become one: http://confessionsofanadoptiveparent.com/oasis) our developmental pediatrician that prescribes my kid’s meds is being interviewed about this very matter this month! I think it might really help you. Hang in there and don’t give up. I’m not giving up on the counseling piece either.