Parenting children with special needs is often exhausting, overwhelming and lonely as well as joyful, fun and rewarding. Most parents of children with special needs will tell you they need more patience, perseverance and support parenting their child (ren) with special needs than their neurotypical child (ren). Support and guidance is important for all parents and I encourage you to seek out connecting with other parents of children with special needs as this will likely help you feel less alone and isolated. Finding people who share our struggles and “get it”, no matter what the “it” is, is a helpful tool in many areas of our lives.
The basics of good parenting are the same no matter what your child’s needs are. Of course, you have to make adjustments based on your child’s level of cognition, understanding of cause and effect and physical abilities. All parents are faced with figuring out the best ways to support their child (ren) to becoming as successful, independent and happy as possible. Children who have special needs do require some different parenting techniques depending on what their disability is, however, the most important parenting skills to possess, or learn if you do not already posses, for all parents are:
- how to set clear expectations about what is and is not acceptable behavior in your family and about consequences for inappropriate behavior
- how to consistently address similar situations, different children within the family and between caregivers
- how to instill a positive sense of self into your child
- how to be loving and firm at the same time
- how to ask for support, assistance and/or a break
A lack of clear expectations often leads to behavior problems, a lack of self-esteem and manipulation. All children need some sense of structure and clear expectations are a key part of that structure. I am an advocate of including your children in on the discussions about what is and is not acceptable behavior and what the consequences will be for exhibiting inappropriate behavior. Including your children, as they are able, in on this process helps them feel a sense of self-worth and that their opinion matters and leads to less issues with discipline because these were agreed upon principals. You should write down what your family expectations in positive language rather than negative language. For example, “Everyone will use respectful language” rather than “No cussing or swearing”. Some families like to post their expectations to remind everyone of what they are and some families just keep them somewhere in the house where they can be reviewed and amended as needed.
Consistency goes hand-in-hand with clear expectations. Children need to know that all caregivers will handle issues similarly. Children, all children, are masters at knowing what they can get away with, with different family members. This often creates issues between the primary caregivers, which can lead to significant relationship problems between spouses, partners and/or caregivers. Consistency cuts down on manipulation and cuts down on sibling issues. If your “typical” child sees that there are consequences for your child with special needs (albeit adjusted based on their disability) they are much less likely to feel jealous, angry and resentful toward their sibling with special needs.
All parents want their children to feel good about themselves and have a positive self-worth. Although, you may get overwhelmed and frustrated with multiple doctor’s appointments and therapy appointments make sure your child understands that this frustration is not directed at him or her. Many children internalize their parent’s negative feelings so it is important to be aware of that. Also, be careful about talking about any child present like they are not in the room. Often it is not parents or caregivers who do this but other family members, friends, and acquaintances who do not understand disabilities. This tends to occur quite often with children who are non-verbal and children who have cognitive delays. Do not let anyone assume that your child cannot understand what is being discussed. To hear build self-esteem, celebrate little steps for your child with special needs as if they were big steps, even if people in your family or friends think it is silly or unnecessary.
Being loving yet firm is a difficult yet important balancing act. Parents who are overly permissive and friendly to their children often experience similar behavioral issues with their children as parents who are too strict or rigid with their children. I have worked with many parents who have feelings of guilt about their child with special needs and overcompensate for that by never disciplining them or holding them accountable for their behavior. This is a huge mistake and will most likely lead to significant behavioral issues. Early in my career, I worked with a family who had a child with Cystic Fibrosis and they felt so badly that he would die young that they let him do virtually anything he wanted. He ended up in a classroom for children with behavior disabilities very soon after he started school because he thought rules did not apply to him. I know parents do not do things like this out of malice but out of misunderstanding. Managing all your children’s behaviors with loving firmness is the best practice.
All parents need to feel supported and need a break sometimes. Parents with children with special needs need more breaks and usually get fewer breaks. It is critical to have a couple people in your life that can cover for you, at least occasionally. I know many parents of children with special needs think other people will not be able to handle their child’s medical or behavioral issues but with a little training and discussing, it can be successful. It is in the best interest of everyone in the family for the primary caregiver(s) to be able to disengage (at least physically) occasionally. As I mentioned earlier in the post, connecting with other parents who have similar feelings and experiences helps immensely.
Tell me about your experiences with parenting your child (ren) with special needs and how it is different or similar to how your parent your “typical” child (ren).