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Parenting a child with special needs has taught me a lot. Here are some things I've learned that are helpful when I parent all three of my children.

By Jaclyn Greenberg
March 31, 2021
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An image of siblings in a park.
Credit: Courtesy of Jaclyn Greenberg.

My middle child was born with special needs. He's unable to walk or talk but is still a sassy 8-year-old boy. Over the years I've learned a lot about parenting a differently-abled child. And I started using those lessons with all three of my elementary-aged children and realized just how helpful they can be.

Here are a few techniques I've been using with all my kids that have helped my parenting journey. I encourage other parents to consider them whether they have a child with special needs or not.

Body language is key

My son can't express himself with words, so keeping a close eye on his physical reactions is important. He curls up into a ball when he's upset and is relaxed and engaged when he's happy. Even just a small flinch of his eye or a turn of his head can tell me when a room is too sunny or the water in a pool is too cold.

My other two children communicate with words, but their body language also speaks volumes and I've learned to pay attention to it. When any of my children have extra energy, yet are struggling to follow directions, they are, more often than not, tired. Before they get too wound up and potentially misbehave, I'll suggest we lie down for some quiet time. Usually, within a few minutes, they're napping.

Paying attention to body language saves us all frustration and bridges a gap in communication.

Everyone learns differently

Some people learn by listening, some by visualizing, and some by using their hands. Some people thrive when they are alone, and others in a group setting. With my son's limited mobility, his teachers use a variety of strategies in his classroom to determine what works best for him.

I keep these differences in mind when I reinforce concepts at home. I'll explain something a few different ways. Or suggest backing into an answer from another direction. Using manipulatives like measuring cups reinforces concepts by connecting to a fun activity like baking.

I also consider how my children learn when I sign them up for after-school activities. Some sports are team-oriented where others are more independent. Finding activities that are a good fit may take time but can be worth the extra effort to see my child thrive. And when they have to manage a class or deal with a coach that isn't a good fit? Knowing how they learn helps me understand their reactions, and how to help them overcome their challenges.

Walk away when you are losing patience

Children test their parents' patience. It's par for the course, right? But how I approach those moments is what counts.

Over the years I've struggled to get my son to eat enough. This causes a lot of stress around mealtimes. But seeing me get frustrated makes the situation worse. He knows when I'm losing my composure. And he responds by eating even less.

Now, when I feel my patience thinning, I switch gears. I make sure the kids are safe and walk away for a few minutes. I get fresh air. I do something productive that makes me feel better. Once I'm calm, I try a different food, or wait until he's more interested in his meal.

Taking a pulse on my own needs can help too. Have I had enough water to drink today? Do I need to put on music to lighten the mood? Small changes that contribute to my own self-care help me feel happier during potentially stressful times or avoid a loss of patience altogether.

Advocating needs to be done nicely but persistently

From finding doctors and therapists who work best with our family to figuring out how to include my son in outings, I spend a lot of time advocating for a child who can't speak up for himself.

I get angry when a facility isn't accessible. Or when a teacher or therapist doesn't understand my child. But expressing my anger never gets me a desired outcome. Now, I nicely explain what we need—and that goes for any situation involving any of my kids. If I don't make progress with one person, I thank them for their time and look for someone else who may be more knowledgeable or confident making accommodations.

Most people are willing to help if they can and know how. But the way I approach the situation makes a big difference in their willingness to be supportive.

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