Every child with special needs is still a child at heart. No matter what issues, conditions, diagnoses or disabilities help educators, parents, and professionals figure out how to teach and reach a child, there is also an individual there who has his or her own interests, favorites, and delights. As parents, we do everything we can think of to be appropriate advocates for our growing children. We read voraciously, we attend conferences, we stay up late…but we must also keep in mind that our children need to be children, too.
How do we feed that need to just be a kid? Here are some suggestions that have worked for us.
- Let your child choose. Pick a night when your child gets to choose what the family does. Game night? Movie night? Walk to the park? Read a book? Dress up? On that night, it’s his or her choice, and everybody goes along cheerfully. If the child has siblings, make sure to schedule time when each child gets to choose. It’s easier to get buy-in from the whole family if everybody has a turn (it’s also a valuable teaching moment for turn taking, diplomacy and behaving politely when it’s not your turn).
- Take your time. Children with processing or integration disorders need extra time to let events and circumstances make sense. They know it takes them longer, so patience is the watchword. We all feel anxious when we’re hurried through an activity we don’t quite understand (think “buying a car”). Now imagine it’s the people you love the most…selling you a car…every day. There are some times when you have to hurry, but there are also times when you can slow down. This requires a bit more planning on your part (leaving 30 minutes early for an appointment instead of 15), and it might require more explanation (if you’re going to be in a waiting room for a little while, you’ll want to lay out social expectations regarding sitting still and using a quiet voice).
- Ask your child for help. Whether it’s reaching the top shelf, reading the small print on the cereal box, carrying groceries into the kitchen, or maybe a hug after a hard day, every child is willing and able to be useful to his or her parent. We demonstrate our confidence in them as individuals when we need them for something. Everybody likes to feel needed.
- Make a mistake in front of him or her (once in a while). Children aren’t just “adults in training,” but there is a component of that involved. Children model what their parents display. So if you make a mistake and can recover gracefully and graciously, the odds are better that’s what they’ll learn, too. This takes practice. We live with social expectations that parents have to be perfect, and that special needs parents are these energetic, available juggernauts. Some of us can manage that, but for most of us, we have to pace ourselves or lose our ever-loving minds. It’s normal and natural to make mistakes, and modeling successful resolutions to unexpected events helps your children learn that:
– nobody’s perfect;
– it’s appropriate and acceptable to apologize and make right what went wrong; and
– when you make a mistake, it’s not the end of the world.
Part of treating your kid like a kid includes being kind to yourself as well. Taking time to demonstrate that we believe in their competence, that we value their opinions, and that we appreciate the things they enjoy goes a long way to building constructive and mutually respectful relationships.