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Transition Coach, Shari Murray and I recently recorded a podcast discussing the Power of Positive Assumed Intent. We felt this was an important topic because we are all guilty at one time or another of assuming the intent of others actions. As a parent it’s common to ascribe negative intent to your child’s behavior when they act a certain way. If you can shift your mindset from assuming negative intent to positive, your relationship with your child can grow in ways you never thought possible.

This way of thinking is especially prevalent in families with children who struggle with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and anxiety. For example, children who are on the spectrum or who have anxiety often have difficulty with change and like to stick to a routine. When changes do occur, they can fall into what looks like compulsive, repetitive, self-absorbed, or even oppositional behaviors—when in reality, they’re having a hard time deviating from their routine.

Dig Deeper

From a parent’s perspective it’s easy to see some behaviors as oppositional and negative. We assume that the child is selfish, wants things to go their own way, and that they are making our life miserable on purpose. But what we don’t realize is that there is usually something deeper going on and it’s something we can absolutely change.

Shari pointed out: “It’s important to understand why we ascribe the negative intent so quickly. A simple reason for this is that it does look oppositional and purposeful on the surface and it’s easier to believe that’s the case. Once you know if your child is on the spectrum or has anxiety, it’s important to realize that these diagnoses are really about information processing problems. They have a difficult time processing information from multiple places at once or that comes in too quickly, and this slower processing can lead to missed information.”

Like a Freeway Under Construction

Shari explained: “If multiple lanes are shut down and there’s a flood of cars coming, only a few cars are getting through at once as opposed to when all of the lanes are open. It’s slow and can be messy, and this is how many children who have these diagnoses process information and experience the world. This triggers a nervous system response and can create uncertainty within them, leading to behaviors that seem problematic.” This analogy about a freeway under construction is a great visual for parents to remember.

Shari relayed an experience about a teen she worked with who was on the spectrum. The teen had a test coming up and was going to make some flashcards, and as he was writing, his parents noticed that he was writing everything down in paragraphs. His mom noted that he wasn’t doing it the right way, and to try something different. Since he had done this on a previous exam and it went well, he didn’t want to change. It turned into a struggle of who knows more, and then a situation like that became a traffic jam. To the parent, it might seem like the child was just being defiant and stubborn—but it really had nothing to do with her.

Making the Correct Assumption

It is important to make the correct assumption, says Shari. “One question a parent might have is whether it’s ever right to assume problematic behavior. It’s almost always safe to make the assumption that the child’s intention is just to find some predictability because they need to make sense of their world. When we approach our kids assuming that their intention is pure, we interact with them in a much healthier and more productive way.”

She continues, “The three basic things to know when it comes to assumed intent are:

First, acknowledge it and validate that it’s about creating predictability and security.

Second, it’s important to not try to convince the child that there’s nothing to be anxious about. You have to respect that it’s very real for them.

And third, have patience and compassion.”

Doing these things will help build mutual trust and respect, resulting in a healthier relationship.

To hear more about this topic, listen to the Not by Chance Podcast episode “Assumed Intent” with Dr. Tim Thayne and Homeward Bound Coach Shari Murray found on Apple Podcast or Spotify.

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