Atypical kids need atypical parenting
Billy is a child with severe asthma. He is also highly gifted and loves going to class, but the school nurse is new and doesn’t know this. One morning the nurse calls Billy’s mom to report that Billy is having an asthma attack but not to worry: she thinks he’s just being manipulative and trying to avoid taking a test. Luckily, Billy’s mom is nearby and rushes to pick him up and take him to the doctor. For Billy, an asthma attack can be life threatening.
If your child has any type of significant challenge—from severe asthma to autism, from learning disabilities to ADHD to a neurological disorder—you do not have the luxury of being a chill parent. As you have already figured out, kids who are atypical need atypical parenting. The problem is that other adults, be they teachers, parents, or the school nurse, may not understand your choices or reactions.
Maybe you have been accused of being a helicopter mom when all you are doing is making sure your son or daughter is in good hands. Instead of helicopter parents, I have coined umbrella parents (link umbrella parents to positivelyatypical.com)
Maybe teachers and so-called friends suggest that your “hovering” is actually making things worse for your child. Or maybe you are a people-pleaser, hesitant to make waves, hoping your kid will be okay on that field trip when you know for a fact that he hates long bus rides and may vomit. Your desire to be liked and respected as a "sane and normal" parent overrides your legitimate concern for your child's well being. Perhaps you constantly doubt yourself, unsure of what it means to properly parent your son or daughter. There are no hard-and-fast rules for parenting any child, but my experience working with special-needs kids and their families has given me some insights I’d like to share with you.
What You’re Up Against
In some ways, atypical parents have the same challenges as all parents, only more so because the stakes are so high. The mother of one girl recently told me that the school principal saw her with the family dog and remarked, “You have no business owning a dog—you have too many problems with your kid.” Imagine this mom’s frustration! But she couldn’t say a word, because she didn’t want to get her child in trouble. That’s how most parents would react, but in this case getting on the wrong side of the principal could mean more than just getting the cold shoulder at the next PTA meeting. It could affect your goal of keeping everyone responsive to helping your child’s special needs.
In addition to having to deal with a more intense version of the typical parenting dilemmas, parents of atypical children must develop skills other parents can barely imagine. Constant vigilance is one. The average bumps and surprises of childhood can be difficult for special-needs kids to tolerate. Is Mad Mike the Science Guy coming to class? Cool! But not if your son is autistic and will freak out at Mike’s loud, smoky “experiments,” so once again you will have to be the Debbie Downer and voice your concerns. Conflicts like this can leave you feeling tremendously isolated—and isolation itself is one of the hardest parts about parenting an atypical child.
To help ease your way a bit, here are some guidelines I give to the families I see in my practice.
Do’s and Don’ts for Parents of Atypical Kids
- Do educate the environment around your child. Create a large index card that clearly explains your child’s condition and how to handle it. Hand it out to the people involved in your child’s care.
- Do be aware of who will be watching your child during a play date. Is it a parent who is aware of your child’s condition, or a nanny who’s going to be watching TV in the other room? If you feel uneasy about the supervision, reschedule the play date at your house so you can keep a closer watch.
- Do have a few friends in your corner. It helps to have friends witness your child’s meltdowns or special needs, so they have a clear understanding of the condition and can validate that, “No, you’re not losing your mind. You’re not overreacting.”
- Do discuss your child’s condition with him or her in age-appropriate terms.
- Make it solution oriented: “The reason you can’t handle Mad Mike is because it’s too much stimulation for you. Here’s what you need to do when you start to feel over stimulated.” Give your child a script (link to positivelyatypical.com)
- Do not become emotional when describing your child’s condition. When talking to professionals or even other parents who are not your close friends, you must be matter-of-fact about it. Otherwise, they will dismiss you as hysterical and overprotective. Save your emotions for family or close friends. It’s okay to be assertive as long as it’s done respectfully.
- Do not wait for a diagnosis. Your child may not have an official diagnosis, but you may know in your heart that he or she is having difficulty. Follow the do’s and don’t listed above, and find out more about the conditions that seem to align with your child’s behavior.
Rita Eichenstein, PhD, is a noted psychologist and pediatric neuropsychologist, renowned in the field of child development, and author of Not What I Expected: Help and Hope for Parents of Atypical Children (Perigee, April 7, 2015). For more information go to www.drritaeichenstein.com. Her blog Positively Atypical can be found at PositivelyAtypical.com