Parenting a Child With Special Needs

Raising a child has many joys, responsibilities and, at times, challenges. When a special needs child misbehaves, we are faced with the question: Is this child misbehaving because of the disability, or to test limits as most children do?  Is this behavior centered on I can’t or I won’t?  Sometimes children genuinely are unable to do what is asked of them. To understand and intervene in their behavior, we need to look more closely at it.

To start with, it will be helpful to look at patterns in misbehavior.  Most have a purpose to it. This could be attention seeking, avoidance of a task or expressing a strong emotion, to name a few. For most children, they are not direct at telling parents what is going on with them that is causing this misbehavior.  For special needs children, this is more challenging as depending on the disability, communication skills may not be a strong area for them. A parent may discover that acting out behavior is done mostly moving from one activity to another.  Planning an intervention to address this behavior would be helping the child better prepare for changes.

Looking for patterns could also help in a school setting.  If you are seeing problems at school talking to teachers and counselors and brainstorming ideas could find a common denominator in the misbehavior. This could also be helpful in coming up with interventions as well. The more people involved, the more insight you gain. Simple changes, such as a seating change, can make a huge impact in stopping acting out behavior.

Regardless of the behavior you are seeing, it is important that consequences be attached to negative behavior.  Allowing children to experience consequences of their own behavior is a necessary teaching tool. Try to make the consequences as immediate as possible. Delays in presenting consequence would prove ineffective as the child will have a difficult time associating the behavior with the consequence

Be positive. Offer positive reinforcement as much as possible. Children with special needs tend to be particularly sensitive to criticism. As such, negative reinforcement may backfire. Praise success and positive behavior as much as possible. Catch them being good.  Target the behavior you want to see and offer positives such as praise, hugs, and so forth. Kids will frequently repeat good behavior to experience the rewards again and again.

“By the time a man realizes that maybe his father was right, he usually has a son who think’s he is wrong.”

Charles Wadsworth

Parenting is a team effort. When it comes to presenting rules, the first step is to get on the same page with your child’s other parent. Children figure out their parents pretty early in life. Even infants are able to get to get mom and dad to react by crying. In divorce situations, it is especially important to coordinate your efforts. As long as parents are divided, there will be less attention given to their behavior.


Why Ask Why?

Parents often focus on values.  they come into therapy concerned that their children do not have the values or priorities in life that they do or would like for them to have. A parent reports frustration that the child is not chipping in for household work, or getting a job to save money, or helping out when needed.  When a child is not meeting the value criteria that is set for them by the parents, this could lead to lecturing, reminding, and preaching.  Most kids learn to tune this out at an early age.  It is more helpful to focus on behavior and not the value.

The reason they are not doing the dishes is not as important as having the child complete the task as directed by the parent.  Values may or may not be internalized by a child until later in life.  How many adults could say that when they were kids they thanked their parents for rules such as curfew?  It is later in life that we appreciate the rules our parents gallantly enforced.

Parenting A Special Needs Child (continued)

Consistency is the key.  Make sure expectations are presented in a way the child understands.  Most children are visual learners. Posting rules would be helpful in several ways. It offers children the clarity of expectations and parents the structure  and consistency they may need to enforce rules. This does not allow any wiggle room for children to back out of expectations. For children who do not read, picture cues can be helpful.

Keep it simple.  Children with special needs have difficulties with organizing and problem solving. Too many rules could be overwhelming.

Prioritize what you want and expect from your child. Ross Greene, PhD in his book, The Explosive Child, suggests three baskets for behaviors. (see illustration  1).

Focus on solutions. Instead of trying to discuss the issue at the time when the child’s problem solving ability is impaired, discuss and brainstorm alternatives when the child is emotionally available to discuss the issue in a rational manner. Effort should be directed at figuring out what you can do to solve the  problem the next time it happens.

Basket  A

Non Negotiable issues Safety issues.  Well being of and respect for others.

Examples: Drug or alcohol use in the house, playing in the street, school attendance.

Basket B

Negotiable rules including issues that are very important to the parent but about which they are willing to entertain discussion and compromise.

Examples:  Curfew, after school activities

Basket C

Includes issues about which parents agree to allow their children to use their own discretion.  These are largely unimportant in the grand scheme of things

Examples: hair, clothing