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Parenting exceptional children: Managing challenges and problem-solving as issues arise

Article five in a special six-part series – a strengths-based approach to raising autistic, ADHD and other neurodivergent children

Parenting a child with additional needs can bring additional challenges. You might have to advocate to get the right services for your child, as well as adjust your own parenting to meet their individual needs.

Many parents describe being on a long journey with ups and down before they find a way to parent and connect with their children that works for them. In this article we describe a three-step model for reflecting about challenges and managing the problems that arise.

Stage 1: Pausing

When facing into an ongoing problem, it is easy to get caught into reacting the same way. Sometimes, our reactions may be ineffective, or make the problem worse. In resolving problems, the first step is to take a pause so you can step back from how you normally react and to consider in a calm thoughtful way how best to respond.

For example, rather than continuing to pressurise a stressed child back into full days at school, invoking increasing meltdowns, it might be useful to pause to consider other ways to meet their educational needs. Or rather than continuing to expose your child to new team sports or group social activities when this is increasing their anxiety, perhaps it is worth pausing to consider other ways to help them be physically active and connect to others.

Stage 2: Tuning In

The second stage is to spend time trying to understand what is going on for you and your child. It can be useful to first reflect about your own reactions.

  • How stressed are you about what is happening?
  • What are your expectations and where do these come from?
  • Is there anything tiggered from your own past?
  • Did you have similar or different experiences when you were your child’s age?

It is also important to take time to empathise with your child and to imagine how they are experiencing the situation.

  • What is their behaviour communicating to you? What needs does it reveal?
  • For example, what is it about going to a family event that is difficult for them?
  • Will they find a noisy, busy environment overwhelming?
  • Do they feel pressured with small talk?
  • Or maybe they have an aversion to the food that is being offered?
  • Or perhaps they are avoiding going because they are experiencing burnout or fatigue after a long stressful week at school?

You may have to be a detective to work this out as your child is unlikely to know or be unable to tell you. It is also worth reflecting about when things go well for your child and when they are their happiest. These might provide clues to managing the current challenge.

Stage 3: Making a Plan

When making a plan to manage a challenge, it is important to first focus on what changes to the environment are possible to help your child. Historically, too much focus has been put on trying to change neurodivergent children so they can “fit in better” (eg, teaching them neurotypical social skills). However, this can communicate to your children that something is “wrong with them” and can set them up for a stressful failure if they can’t meet these expectations. Helpful changes to the environment might include:

  • Adjust your expectations to match your child’s needs and preferences
  • Building better routines that suit your child
  • Including relaxed sensory spaces in the day so children can relax, unwind and feel safe
  • Seek neuro-affirming services (eg occupational therapy or speech and language therapy) to provide extra support to address your child’s specific needs
  • Providing your child with opportunities to follow their passions and meet other neurodivergent children
  • Collaborate with teachers and activity leaders to create the right environment for your child. Share what you know works for your child (eg, they might need breaks or supportive reminders etc)
  • Encouraging others to learn about neurodiversity and to appreciate different communication and learning styles

It can also be useful to coach your child in how to manage specific challenges but this should be done in a neuro-affirming way that appreciates their differences and the way they communicate. In Article 6 we will look at how to conduct these conversations in an empowering affirming way.

Coregulation and your child

Many neurodivergent children experience high levels of daily stress caused by sensory overload, social anxiety, school pressures and unmet physical needs. Frequently, this can lead to overwhelm, emotional outbursts or meltdowns, which can be challenging to deal with as a parent. Some parents unhelpfully think their child is “misbehaving” or “looking for attention” and others feel guilty and think their child’s meltdown is a reflection of their parenting.

In fact, neither is usually true and a meltdown is usually sign that their child is overwhelmed by the accumulative stresses and demands of the day.

In helping your child, the goal is to respond calmly and empathically so you help them regulate their emotions. This process is called coregulation, whereby you act as a calm balance to your child’s upset and dysregulation. Over time, you want to help your child learn to self-soothe and self-regulate. Children need repeated experiences of coregulation from an understanding adult before they can begin to self-regulate. Coregulation involves many different responses and what works varies greatly from person to person. Such responses can include:

  • Being a warm and calming presence
  • Being close by or giving space depending on what your child needs
  • Keeping your body language relaxed
  • Communicating your understanding by using a gentle tone of voice and making supportive gestures
  • Touching or physically comforting your child in a way that soothes them (or not touching them if that works better)
  • Reducing sensory triggers in the environment (eg, dimming lights, turning off the TV, etc)
  • Creating a safe environment that relaxes your child (eg, sitting on bean bags, putting on music, giving them a drink, or a snack, etc)
  • Address any underlying issues that might be creating stress for your child in the lead-up to the meltdown

Often parents “talk too much” during meltdowns. Frequently, they get caught into problem-solving and asking questions such as “what is the matter?” or “what happened at school?” Although problem-solving with your child might be useful later (see Article 6 next week), it is usually ineffective when your child is in a high state of arousal. Indeed your questions might be experienced as a demand and make your child more agitated and prolong the meltdown.

Remember, the goal of coregulation is to help child become calm and return to a relaxed state. As a result, make sure to use language that soothes your child and helps them regulate. Some children want to talk during meltdowns and your role might be to simply listen. Others may just need you to be physically there close by to support them. Often it is simply a case of trial and error to find out what works best for your child.

Manage your own stress as a parent

By its very nature, parenting is enormously stressful and triggering. As a result, it is very important to take steps to manage your stress levels as a parent and to prioritise your own relaxation and self-care. This is for your own sake and for the sake of your children. It will be difficult to respond thoughtfully and calmly to your children unless you also look after your own needs. Good parent self-care usually involves prioritising one or two daily things that relax and recharge you such as ringing a friend for a chat, listening to a podcast you love, walking the dog, cooking a meal you like, spending time in nature, or doing 10 minutes of meditation.

It may also mean seeking counselling, joining a neuro-affirming parenting group and reaching out for understanding, professional support.

Identify what you need and find out what works for you.

Parenting exceptional children

  • Part 1
  • Part 2
  • Part 3
  • Part 4
  • Article 6 in the series will be published next week and will look at how parents can advocate for and empower their children.
  • John Sharry is clinical director of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology He is delivering a three-week online course, Parenting neurodivergent children, in April and May. See solutiontalk.ie

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