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July 18, 2024

Raising children with special needs | Ask Nicole

Raising children is like riding a wild roller coaster with exhilarating highs, terrifying lows, and unexpected twists and turns. Some parents love the action-packed roller coaster and find joy and laughter even in the midst of tantrums and attitudes. Other parents close their eyes and hold on for dear life.  And when the wild ride ends each day, we catch our breath and get back in line to experience it all over again. 

Now imagine being on that same wild roller coaster, but on a deserted island. This is an analogy I once heard from a family who has a child with special needs, or disability.  They felt exhausted like many other parents, and also judged and isolated at times because their child had difficulty interacting with other people.  Yet these parents also experienced the joys and rewards of parenting that led them to get in line to experience the wild ride every day.

This monthly article provides tips for families raising children, based on the world-renowned Triple P – Positive Parenting Program, available to families in Santa Cruz County. If you have a question or idea for a future column, please email me at [email protected].

Dear Nicole, 

I have two daughters who are very strong-willed.  However, I feel like they are “easy” compared to my 4-year-old who has autism.  He can say a few words but mostly uses gestures and sounds to tell us what he wants and gets angry (aggressive) when we don’t understand him. It’s hard to go anywhere with him because it’s so stressful. What should I do?


Dear Ann,

Children of all ages and abilities need safe and loving environments in order to become healthy, well-adjusted adults.  And like their “typically-developing” peers, children with special needs benefit from having opportunities to develop new skills, form positive relationships and become active in their communities.  Here are some tips: 

Spend quality time together

This is the foundation for building positive relationships between all parents and children. Give your son brief and frequent attention throughout the day.  Stop what you’re doing and talk or sit with him while he’s engaged in an activity that interests him.  Although some children with special needs may not show an interest in or reciprocate the affection, the loving and consistent attention reassures them that their parents and caregivers are available when they’re needed. 

Have realistic expectations

Children with special needs grow and learn at different rates, just like their typically-developing peers. Although that sounds obvious, it’s common to expect too much too soon and become disappointed or frustrated when children can’t do certain tasks. It can also be problematic if parents’ expectations are too low and they miss opportunities to teach their children important self-care, social and communication skills.

It’s equally important to have realistic expectations for yourself. Many parents of children with special needs experience strong emotions such as fear, guilt, grief, anger and resentment. This can lead parents to believe they should be available 24 hours a day, or they must protect their children from all hardships, which can lead to burnout or a sense of failure. Having realistic expectations is a form of self-care, which makes it easier for parents to remain calm, nurturing and available.

Teach your child to communicate what he wants

Someone once said, “All behavior is communication.” This is particularly true for children who have limited verbal communication. Yelling, screaming and biting are often children’s way of expressing emotions, asking for attention or help, or avoiding unpleasant tasks or situations.  

These behaviors can be replaced by teaching children to communicate with short phrases, sign language, pictures, printed words, or gestures. If your son gets frustrated when he needs help, teach him to point to a picture that represents help. Get his attention, then prompt him to ask for help by saying, “Point to the Help picture.” At first, you may need to gently guide his finger to point to the picture. Keep practicing this, and give descriptive praise each time he points to the picture – “Nice job asking for help!” Eventually, he will learn to ask for help with fewer prompts and less physical guidance.

Final Thoughts: All children need love, affection, security, and opportunities to develop important life skills. Although their level of independence and abilities may vary, children with special needs can become adults who live full and meaningful lives. It all begins with finding a way off the deserted island and riding the wild roller coaster with all the other exhilarated, exhausted parents.

Nicole Young is the mother of two children, ages 16 and 19, who also manages Santa Cruz County’s Triple P-Positive Parenting Program, the world’s leading positive parenting program. Scientifically proven, Triple P is made available locally by First 5 Santa Cruz County, the Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency (Mental Health Services Act) and the Santa Cruz County Human Services Department. To find a Triple P parenting class or practitioner, visit http://triplep.first5scc.org, www.facebook.com/triplepscc or contact First 5 Santa Cruz County at 465-2217 or [email protected].

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