In the field of psychology, “priming” refers to a memory effect in which one stimulus affects another stimulus. For example, if you were to read a list of words containing the word “table” and then were asked to complete a word starting with “tab,” you would be more likely to answer with the word “table.” In a more personal context, if I were to prime your self image by frequently calling you rude, annoying, and obnoxious, you would be more likely to behave rudely than if I’d used positive or neutral words toward you.
I didn’t know about priming when I started using what I now think of as my “Make It A Yes” approach to parenting – it was something I came to intuitively. Early on in raising my first child I felt like I was saying no a lot. As a toddler, so many of his requests, demands, and wants were things I could not let him do – for his own safety and well being, for my/other people’s safety and well being, or because the thing was not possible (if, say, we were all out of crackers, I simply could not give him more!).
A lot of autistic people deal with anxiety and a sensitive stress response – partly it’s how we’re wired, and partly it’s how we become conditioned to respond to a world that usually isn’t designed for our needs. Not knowing what’s coming up next, or having expectations that suddenly get dashed, can ratchet up our anxiety quickly. Children in general live in a world in which many things are out of their control, and that means that it can be rather unpredictable for them. So autistic children may struggle quite a lot with feeling anxious, not in control of what’s happening, and may have strong reactions when things don’t go according to their expectations.
I didn’t know when he was a toddler that my older child is autistic, but I did see that he could become very upset very quickly, sometimes, when things didn’t go his way. That’s common for any toddler, of course, but I sensed that he was struggling quite a bit to handle the daily frustrations of life.
It felt wrong to me to be in an adversarial relationship with my child so much of the time, and other parents’ reassurances that this was the normal way of things, and that it would do him good to know that I was the boss, did not make it feel right to me. For a time I worked against my own instincts and (I’m sorry to say) used punishments such as time-outs to reinforce all that “no.” But eventually our family shifted to non-coercive and non-behaviorist parenting practices and to a more cooperative family dynamic.
Still that left us with the issue of having to say no to so many things.
Until I realized I could say yes, even when the answer had to be no.
Along the way I had observed that when I led off my responses with “No, you can’t ___,” he became upset immediately. Unintentionally, phrasing things in a negative way probably was coming through in my tone of voice and body language too. Essentially, by beginning with “no,” I was priming him to react in a negative way to what I had to tell him. And especially when I was backing my words up with punishments, he was learning over and over again that whenever he heard me say no, things were about to go quite badly.
But if I found a way to phrase things with positive or neutral words, things went better.
“That sounds fun! We’ll have to try that another day.”
“Those crackers were so good we ate them all! Let’s get more next time we go to the store.”
“Oh, I wish you could get that. It looks so cool. We just don’t have enough money right now.”
When I respond in that manner, the basic content of my answer is still “no,” but everything else changes. I’m showing empathy with my words and I find that my tone softens and my body language is more open. Leading off with neutral or positive words gives my child more time and opportunity to take in the denial of his request without feeling quite as upset. He hears that I’m on his side even though I cannot say yes. “Priming” him with positivity helps him to handle disappointment, and every time he is able to weather that feeling of letdown, it builds up his coping skills and overall resilience.
This approach isn’t about coddling or spoiling, it’s about being considerate of a child’s feelings, being aware of their anxiety and sensitive to their stress levels. It’s about using your position of power as an adult and a parent to build up your child’s coping skills instead of merely wielding control. And in the end, it’s about simply being kind to the people you love the most.