Parenting a child with special needs presents unique rewards and challenges. I once heard a mom compare her experience to “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.” With all the twists and turns on the journey, it can be hard to focus on passengers in the back seat: the child’s sibling(s). Sometimes all you catch is a quick glimpse from the rear-view mirror, before your attention is called ahead to the next major bump in the road.
Before I address this topic any further, it is important to acknowledge that most parents of kids with special needs feel exhausted, guilty, and at times, overwhelmed. This article is not meant to induce more of those feelings. After a long day struggling with the needs of one child, the last thing you need is to be wracked with guilt about how it affected their sibling(s). This is hard to avoid, because quite frankly, many days your child with special needs will get more of your time and energy than your other kids. It’s the cold, hard truth; you can’t change this, and your other child likely knows it. The sooner you accept and acknowledge this, the sooner you’re on your way to giving your “backseat kid” what they may need most on those hard days: a listening ear and true understanding.
As a child therapist, I have spent many hours counseling parents that children, like everyone else, most want to be truly seen, heard and understood. In most cases, parents can do a “good enough” job giving this to their children. Hopefully, it is a relief to know that you don’t need to fix all your child’s problems or eliminate their struggles. You don’t need to have all the answers! But you do need to listen to them when it counts – to hear in a way that communicates: “I see you, and all your feelings are okay.”
For children who have a sibling with special needs, parents might be unaware of just how much is going on below the surface, both positive and negative. I recently spoke with a teenage girl who said this about how her brother’s autism affects her:
“I feel rejected by my family because often my turn never comes.”
“My sibling’s problems are more important than mine. No matter what I’m feeling some days, it feels like it doesn’t matter in the family.”
“My brother gets more attention for his interests because he talks about them so much. He doesn’t understand how I have interests that are important too.”
“I get to feel accepted because autistic people tend to be more accepting of others.”
“I get to watch him overcome his challenges and grow.”
“Sometimes people generalize autism as one thing, but it is a spectrum. They don’t get it, and that’s frustrating. Autistic people can be really different from each other.”
“I learn a lot because my brother knows a lot, and his mind goes so fast.”
“People can be mean and say rude things. They don’t really understand what people go through because they don’t live with it. It hurts and makes me mad. It’s hard because some things they say are true.”
“Sometimes it feels like he’s my mom’s favorite. It’s feels so unfair because she treats him differently. He gets more attention for his accomplishments.”
Before you ask your child what it’s like for them, prepare yourself for an honest answer that may be difficult to hear. It can help to take a deep breath; remember that your child’s struggles, no matter how difficult, can be opportunities for growth and learning. Having done this, it’s okay to ask directly about your child’s experience. You could phrase the question like this: “What’s it like for you? You know, living with your sister’s __________ (insert the name of the sibling’s disability)?” Then try to really listen and not talk much yourself. While you may be tempted to respond by saying something like, “I’m sorry … I just do the best I can,” resist. Just focus on hearing and reflecting what your child is saying; if they laugh, laugh with them, if they cry, cry with them, and above all, hear them. You can do this because in your own way, you get it; although you’re in different seats, you’re on this wild ride together.
Wasatch Family Therapy and Mad Science are teaming up for an exciting Kids Group. Designed for school-aged children (7-11yrs), this group will provide opportunities to learn how to navigate social situations and understand what it means to be a friend. Through exciting science activities and skill building, group members will practice building healthy relationships.
There’s a lot of scary things going on in our culture, and it’s very easy for children to get overwhelmed. Here are some strategies to raise healthy kinds in an anxious world:
1. Manage Your Own Worries
Think you can hide your fears from your child? You may need to think again. Children learn to read their parents’ facial expressions from a very young age. For instance, a toddler will glance back at his mother’s face before exploring a new area. If he detects calm from the parent, the toddler may feel reassured and explore the new environment; if he senses her fear, he may move closer to mom because he senses that there is danger nearby. All this can happen without any dialogue. Over time, a child may learn to fear going to new places because he has picked up on subtle parental messages of danger. Parents who learn to manage their own worries may help prevent anxiety in children.
2. Turn off the Evening News
The U.S. media outlets often use fear and sensationalism to attract more viewers. Kidnappings and extreme violence are reported frequently, while common acts of kindness and community support are rarely given weight. With repeated exposure, children, and even adults, may begin to believe that the world is more dangerous than it actually is. Even young children who appear to be occupied in play can tune in to environmental messages. Parents who choose to turn off the television and intentionally relay good news may help their children avoid the growing anxiety so common among today’s kids.
3. Encourage Kids to Face their Fears
For most parents, it is hard to watch their children struggle. It can be tempting to swoop in and rescue the child from a frightening challenge. There are situations where children could benefit from parents’ sensitive support and encouragement to confront feared tasks: first, give validity to the child’s feeling (fear or worry), and then encourage the child to move forward anyway. In this case, parents send the message that our fears do not have to debilitate us.
Your Inner-Child Called, She Wants her Creativity Back: How to Reclaim the Healing Power of Artistic Self-expression
Creativity is universal and can contribute to our sense of well-being. In fact, expressive visual art activities can decrease feelings of sadness, increase positive emotions, and reduce stress. Young children seem to know this, as they quite naturally grab whatever is available to scribble, cut, or sculpt. However, adults are oftenmuch more constrained, sometimes even paralyzed, as they approach creative self-expression. If we polled a kindergarten classroom, I expect the kids would mostly agree: adults are missing out. Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Here are a few suggestions to help adults reclaim the healing power of spontaneous artistic expression:
Create for You (and you alone!)
Around second grade, most of us begin to question our artistic abilities. Likely because at this point in child development, we begin to focus more on winning approval from others. It is this developmental change that likely contributes to the shift of focus from creative process to artistic product. “My picture isn’t as good as hers.” If adults are to rediscover spontaneous creativity, we must throw comparisons out the window, and choose to create art for ourselves – not for the satisfaction or approval of others.
Get Lost in the Experience
Young children often appear to tune out all surrounding noises and distractions when they are deeply engaged in artwork. Adults can rediscover this sort of absorbed focus if we practice and make time to turn off the television or put our cell phones on silent-mode. If we are fully present in the moment, it’s more likely we can access and express deep emotions during the creative process.
Be Willing to Make a Mess
Sometimes life is confusing, chaotic or ugly, and it’s helpful to have a way to work out or process those uncomfortable feelings. If we adults give ourselves permission to create chaotic or messy artwork, then we can begin to confront and explore the jumble of emotions hidden beneath the clutter of our lives.
When we make something new, we tend to feel more alive. So, what’s stopping you: “Go, get your creativity on!”
Most divorcing parents are greatly concerned about how their child will take the big change. Many expect sadness and worry but do not always feel equipped to help the child cope. Understandably, it is hard for moms and dads to offer ample emotional support to their child if they feel overburdened themselves. Parents are typically overwhelmed with grief, anger, financial concerns, residence changes, custody arrangements, and co-parenting issues, to name a few. Yet children cannot put their needs on hold until parents have fully adjusted. So in the meantime, something simple, like sharing a carefully selected book together, may offer some connection and understanding the child needs for that day. The following children’s books have been valuable in my work with child-clients, so I share them hoping they can help others too:
“The Invisible String” by Patrice Karst (Ages 3+)
Children whose parents divorce typically experience repeated separations from one or both parents. This versatile book reassures children they can still feel connected even during times apart.
“People who love each other are always connected by a very special string, made of love. Even though you can’t see it with your eyes, you can feel it deep in your heart, and know that you are always connected to the ones you love” (The Invisible String by Patrice Karst).
:Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss” by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen (Ages 8+)
When a couple divorces, all family members usually experience grief to some degree. This book tells the story of a woman who makes “tear soup” after she suffers a great loss. She shares some essential ingredients of the healing recipe: feel the pain of loss, accept that it takes time, and recognize that grief is different for everyone.
If your child experiences distress due to parental divorce, call to schedule an appointment with Melissa at Wasatch Family Therapy – 801.944.4555.
On any given day, kids and teens may feel joy, wonder, disappointment, rage, jealousy, and endless other emotions. Yet, many kids will inevitably learn from parents or peers that “happy” is the only emotion acceptable to express or even experience. “Happiness” in our culture tends to reign supreme as the highest aspiration – the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It is what we are taught to aim for – what we all deserve.
I commonly hear parents say to their kids:
I just want you to be happy.
“How can you be so down? Just look at all you have to be happy about.”
“Just focus on the positive. You’re dragging everyone down.”
Though these parents have good intentions, their statements might imply that if kids are not contented, they are somehow failing, or that happiness is the only feeling others are comfortable with. Children may respond to these messages by feigning a cheerful disposition and generally suppressing negative feelings to please parents. Unfortunately, suppressing feelings can compromise a child’s psychological well-being and fuel unhealthy behaviors.
Pain is a critical part of the human experience and in most cases, it is healthiest to confront it head on. Encourage children to acknowledge and accept emotions, such as anger or hurt, by using mindfulness meditation strategies. If your child seems overwhelmed by her emotions, encourage her to find a way to express them: talk to someone she trusts, write in a journal, create a work of art, or see a mental health therapist. Let us teach children that no one’s life is solely full of sunshine and that to live fully, we must stand in the occasional rainstorm.
The word “Millennial” is rarely used in a positive way. How is it that an entire generation has become the punchline of society’s best joke? Perhaps we use humor to ease the sense that something is terribly wrong and we feel helpless to change it. College counseling centers are bursting at the seams with newly hatched “grown-ups,” depressed, anxious, legitimately struggling to make it. Others, who may fare better emotionally, seem to possess an unparalleled sense of entitlement. There are endless ideas about what has gone wrong. Among those most commonly put on trial are “spare the rod” and “everybody gets a trophy.” While it is beyond the scope of this article to examine those theories, there are a few generally accepted approaches that can help parents get on the right track toward raising responsible, well-adjusted children in these rapidly changing times.
Parents can help kids form realistic expectations about life in the adult world. They can also provide the opportunity and support for children to practice valuable coping skills. To achieve these goals, parents should allow their children to routinely experience three normal life experiences and then teach them how to manage the resulting emotions:
Children need love and affection from parents to become healthy adults. They do not, however, need to always get their way. In fact, if a child learns to expect that their every desire will be continually fulfilled at home, it sets them up for future high conflict relationships and dissatisfaction in general. Parents should allow kids to regularly experience disappointment and teach them how to cope with the related difficult feelings. These childhood lessons can minimize grownup tantrums, the kind that occur when adults melt down because they did not get their way or things did not turn out as planned.
Children can learn valuable lessons from painful mistakes. However, when parents frequently rush to rescue their child, they teach the kid to expect that others will take ownership for their errors and thus share responsibility to solve their problems. Many parents do not want their children to experience sadness or failure so they come running to save the day. If this scenario becomes common, the older teen and adult may come to expect that employers, college professors or friends should sacrifice to solve their problems. Parents can prevent this sense of entitlement and instead promote self-confidence and problem solving skills by resisting the temptation to helicopter parent. This is not a heartless approach. Parents should offer support in the difficult growing process; a healthy dose of empathy can help kids learn to manage the emotional bumps and bruises that naturally accompany their missteps.
Nagging kids to do chores is no fun; however, requiring them to frequently complete these household duties has big payoffs. It teaches them that people must fulfill certain obligations to be part of a group. Children who learn this lesson from a young age tend to be more successful in relationships, academics, and career. When children are required to contribute to the family, it prepares them to live in a world where others will expect them to do their share.
Parents do their children a disservice when they shield them from the natural growing pains of life. So, the next time you are tempted to write the teacher a note because your teen failed an exam, or put your 9-year-old’s laundry away for the third day in a row, take pause, and ask yourself this question: What does this teach my child to expect from others? That they can always get their way, or that someone else should clean up their messes in life? If so, you may want to consider changing your course of action. After all, today’s children are tomorrow’s adults and all of us would like to live in a world where grownups are prepared to manage disappointment, take responsibility, and pull their own weight.
Raising a child in today’s world can be like running in a hamster wheel. Tie shoes. Pull on backpacks. Pack lunch. Drive to school, work, lesson, practice, home. Squeeze in homework, story time, and don’t forget to floss. Repeat. Parents and children sweat on this daily journey, hoping to reach some final destination called success. After all, we live in a competitive world. For Jane to attend Harvard on a full-scholarship, slide into her desk 10 minutes early, organic lunch in tow, she’s going to need a lot of help and support along the way. It takes a lot of doing to raise this child.
Contrast this image with my experience in the play therapy room, where my primary purpose is to be with the child:
“My racing mind slows down. The run forward, look back halts to a peaceful stop and I am here. In that middle space called now. My eyes soak in the brown curl hovering over his left eye. A pale, freckled arm stretches long to reach the top shelf. Blue eyes with long lashes gaze as he tugs on the truck. The sand feels cool. We sift and pour, moving our toys in and out, over and under it. I smell the playground dirt on her socks. Our stomachs flip and flop as we feel her worries. Time is up. The door opens. Shuts. I sit, alone, on the tiny red chair, my knees higher than the table. The colors in the room are more vivid. I feel connected, grateful, alive.”
Experiences like this are common for me in the play therapy room. Why do I rarely feel this sense of well-being at home, with my own children? The answer is simple: I am too busy trying to hold the juicebox just right so it will not spill when I pass it over the back seat. You know the struggle. We can become so preoccupied with providing for physical needs, intellectual stimulation and talent development, we forget to give our children and ourselves one of the greatest gifts we can offer: our full presence.
To do this, carve out space every day to be with your child. We’re talking 5 minutes to start, nothing too ambitious. During this time, notice your child’s physical features, his rate of breathing, how she moves and smells. Hear the intonation of her speech. Soak her in, non-judgmentally, using all your senses. Does this sound odd? It may be helpful to think back to when your child was an infant. It may feel more natural to fully notice a newborn baby’s sound, appearance, smell, because you were seeing her for the first time. Why must we stop feeling that joy when our child is older? Give it a try tonight between teeth brushing and bedtime or while you wait for little sister at dance. The time of day does not matter. No special handbook or instruction manual required. 5 minutes is enough to start. All you need to be fully present with your child is the one thing he wants most: you.
As a child therapist, there is one thing I know about exceptionally intelligent kids: they are often misunderstood, and for good reason. Gifted children possess an inner world so rich and complex, that quite frankly, others just don’t get them. We tend to view gifted and talented kids narrowly, in terms of their performance: “Wow, Landon has a huge vocabulary. Jane made a fully functioning robot. Sam reads all day.” This is where we sometimes miss the mark. Yes, gifted kids think more, know more, create more, but to truly understand them, is to see how uniquely they experience the world. If the young gifted child could teach us, this is what she might say:
“My feelings are bigger and different than everybody else’s.”
Super Sensitivity and Emotional Intensity: Just as gifted kids’ thinking is more complex, so is their feeling. Teachers, friends, and parents often see their emotional eruptions as a sign of instability, when actually their ability to sense and feel on such a deep level is one of their greatest strengths.
“I don’t feel my age.”
Uneven Development: Gifted children’s intellect, social skills, and emotional self-control can progress at different rates. If you can imagine a child housed in an eight-year-old body, with the mind of a thirteen-year-old, and the social skills of a six-year-old, then you can begin to comprehend how complicated daily life can get for these kids.
“People don’t make sense and I’m the only one who cares.”
Deep Social Concerns: Gifted kids are often highly troubled by issues of suffering, injustice, and hypocrisy. As such, they can react intensely when such things directly affect them or they observe this is the larger world. Most people will understand how an adult approaching mid-life could worry about the meaning of life, death, pain, and the injustice of the world, but when the 5th grader is crying about such issues during recess, it leaves most people rather confused and even uncomfortable.
“There is no one in the whole world like me.”
Profound Sense of Loneliness: A keen self-awareness accompanied by the feeling of being different can leave gifted kids feeling like aliens––it doesn’t help that their passionate curiosity and interests often do not match those of their classmates. Because of these difficulties, the school experience for gifted kids can be sometimes one of painful rejection.
Despite their many differences, gifted children have the same basic emotional needs of every other kid: they long to be accepted and understood. As parents, educators, and mental health professionals, we can help by simply listening when they try to show us that being exceptional does NOT always feel like a “gift.”