3 Step Method to ACE Communication with Complex Kids & Teens

The 3-Step A.C.E. Method to Better Communicate with Complex Kids

Am I Doing the Right Thing?

One of the most common concerns raised by parents in Sanity Sessions with me is some variation of this question: “Am I doing the right thing?”

Reasonably so, parents of complex kids want reassurance and acknowledgment. You want to know that you are making good decisions and that you are helping your child move toward independence. You understand that ‘different' kids call for ‘different' parenting. And you want to know that you are on the right track.

The next thing you want to know is often some variation of: “How do I say things so that my kids will listen and respond – respectfully?!”

It can be maddening to say the same thing over and over – and feel like you're not getting the results you want. It begins to take its toll on your relationship with your kids. Whether you're yelling, begging, constantly repeating yourself, or giving up – that's not how you want to be communicating, and it's not creating the kind of relationship you want to have, right?

So here is a simple, three-step process that really works like magic, a simple acronym that will help you better communicate with your kids and teens: ACE.

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Before ACE (or A.C.E.)

The ACE strategy starts with an assumption: your child is not being lazy, rude, or intentionally disrespectful. If you're still not sure whether that is accurate, please read Actually, It's Not That Easy and Naughty vs. Neurological. Consider taking Sanity School®, as well. Take some time to thoroughly understand what your kids are struggling with so that you can support them better – by communicating with them as effectively as possible.

The ACE Strategy to Communicate Better

As parents, we want to be more positive in how we're speaking with our children and teens, but we just get so frustrated. Sometimes we get furious when we can't get our kids' attention, or get them to follow simple requests. Other times, we feel helpless, like nothing seems to work.

ACE can help you respond to and redirect challenges with impulsivity, inattention, emotionality, decision-making, and most of the other problems your child struggles with in terms of self-regulation and self-management – without losing your cool or putting your child on the defensive. It levels the playing field. Even better, it's all in your control.

So, are you ready for better communication? Learn and use ACE: Acknowledgment, Compassion, Explore Options.


Name it. Acknowledge what's going on for your child (verbally) so they can begin to recognize it themselves. When you start to acknowledge that your child is struggling with something, it will do a lot to help your child not feel “wrong” but instead feel empowered to try to handle things differently in the future. For examples:

  • "Wow, when you were standing on the counter, I'm guessing you forgot that you're not supposed to do that, huh?"
  • "When your sister's backpack knocked into you, that must have really surprised you. I know you didn't want to hurt her and that it was an instinct to 'hit back' when you thought you were being hit."
  • "When I asked you to take out the garbage, I'm wondering if you heard me or processed that I was asking you to do something."


Show your understanding. Have compassion for the mistake that your child made so that she can recognize what happened without feeling judged. Humor is always an added bonus. For examples:

  • "It's hard for me to control myself, too, when I'm really excited about something."
  • "I get really freaked out when I get startled, too, and sometimes I can't control myself. It's like what happens when I see a cockroach, right?"
  • "I know when I'm concentrating on something, and sometimes I don't really realize someone is speaking to me."

Explore Options or Explain (Problem Solve)

Work it out. Explain your perspective, explore options for how to handle things differently in the future, or communicate your expectations. Once you've reduced defensiveness with A.C. – you can redirect the behavior or problem-solve as appropriate. Maybe you negotiate a compromise or use a code word. Allow your child to regain a sense of control. For examples:

  • "When you're trying to reach something that's high, I'd prefer if you ask for help. But maybe you're getting old enough to use a step stool, too. What do you think? How do you think you might remember not to climb up on the counters?"
  • "When you get startled and lash out and hurt people, I know you don't mean to, and it's not how you want to treat people – even if it is unintentional. Would you like to think together about it and come up with some strategies that might help when you get startled or surprised? I know you love your sister and didn't mean to hurt her. Why don't we make sure she's okay and apologize to her first, and then we can come up with some other strategies for the future when you're ready? What do you think about that plan?"
  • "When you're focusing on one thing, it's like the rest of the world doesn't exist. It's called “hyper-focus,” and it can be a really cool skill to have. I realize now that I need to make sure I have your attention before asking you to do something. Is there some way that you would prefer I get your attention? Maybe tap you on the shoulder or even just ask if I can have your attention for a moment?"

ACE Gets Results

ACE is a simple strategy that you can remember easily. And it gets results. Our members tell us, consistently that when they remember to start with Acknowledgment and Compassion before they re-direct unwanted behaviors or jump into problem-solving, it always leads to better results. So ACE it with your family communication – you'll be amazed at the results.

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