Alphabet Soup of Diagnoses? How to Parent Kids with Different Issues
By Anna Stewart
We arrive home from another day of school and work. Danny, who has ADHD, runs up the steps. Samantha and Jesse take forever to get their stuff and go into the house. We step over Danny’s open backpack, wadded up papers and broken pencils littering the floor, since once again, the zipper is open. The refrigerator door is open behind him when he turns to me and says, “Mom, there’s nothing to eat.” He pulls out a bag of chips from the pantry and goes into the family room to turn on the TV.
“How could I deal with all my kids’ needs, which bumped up against each other and rammed right into me?”
Jesse, who is feeling down again, puts his backpack on the bench and takes his shoes off in the mudroom, just like he is supposed to do. He comes around behind me and shuts the refrigerator. Then he sighs.
My youngest, a sweet girl with developmental issues who needs lots of support, goes into her room and greets her guinea pig. She starts singing, out of key but on tune. Danny yells at her to shut her door. She keeps singing.
The dog is still dancing in circles around me, so unbelievably happy that I have returned once again. I can see she needs her water dish refilled, a job Danny was supposed to do. Meanwhile, Jesse is lying on the couch, not doing anything. Samantha comes out of her room with a book and papers in her hands. “Mom, I have homework.”
So here I am. Danny has left a trail of disorganization behind him, has chores he didn’t do and is eating junk food—which does not help him regulate. Jesse is overwhelmed with depression; he can’t muster energy for anything. He’s quiet, not asking for anything, but I can’t ignore him. Samantha has significant learning disabilities and is years behind her peers in reading, writing and math. She needs me to sit next to her to do her homework. What do I do?
I admit I have stood there and cried. I have yelled. I have slammed doors. And I have learned. I have learned that I have options and so do my children. I have learned that if I don’t take care of myself, then I am less likely to take care of them with grace, compassion and strength.
Parenting, and for many years now, single parenting, three children with unique needs, has been heartbreaking and beautiful, painful and transformative.
So back to my story. How could I deal with all my kids’ needs in that moment, which were bumping up against each other and ramming right into me?
- Yelling at Danny to turn off the TV, fill the water bowl and get something else to eat.
- Making a healthy snack, taking it into the family room for the boys and talking about the show they were watching (this left Samantha out, so to make it up to her I brought her a separate snack, hugged her and gave her space to decompress from her school day).
- Going to my room and shutting my door so I could change my clothes, wash my face, and take a few deep breaths.
- Turning on my computer to check Facebook and ignoring the chaos.
- Asking Jesse to come in my room and lie on my bed for a few minutes so he could talk about his day.
- Fill the water bowl myself, stick my hand in the bag of chips and collapse on the loveseat.
Some of those options came from a proactive, strength-based approach, while some are reactive, dis-regulated approaches. Over time (my children are all teenagers now), I learned that I had more success with being prepared emotionally, physically and mentally. Though my teens still have their unique needs and issues, we have mostly found a way to live in a more peaceful, respectful way.
Danny and Samantha still annoy the heck out of each other. His ADHD makes it nearly impossible to tune out her singing. And since she misses a lot of his higher level conversation, she thinks he is always making fun of her so she is very sensitive. The things that help my children live with each peacefully are:
- Communication: Openly and regularly explaining their special needs to themselves and to each other.
- Role Modeling: Expecting that they will be respectful by modeling it to them myself. (So instead of yelling at Danny to get the dog water, I calmly ask, “What does the dog need right now?”)
- Being aware of stages: Recognizing their individual developmental stages and being realistic about what they can do and what they can’t do (yet).
- Individual time: Giving each child individual time every day—even just 5 minutes of undivided attention can make a difference.
- Positive feedback: Giving each child positive feedback on their efforts, successes, sensitivity and kindness (not on qualities they can’t control, such as their IQ or their brain differences).
An important thing to note: Once our kids can talk and talk back, it’s easy to think they understand more than they actually do. Children tend to see things in black and white, good or bad. They use terms such as “He always gets the biggest piece,” or “She never has to do any chores.” Children learn the grayscale through direct and indirect teaching. For our kids with different wiring, we need to use tools such as timers, stopwatches, and daily logs to measure exactly how long their tantrum—or their sibling’s—actually lasted.
The Balancing Act
Parents raising multiple children, especially if they also have special needs, are in an ongoing balancing act. The sweet spot always eludes us. We are always shifting, hoping for some sanity. Parents have to demonstrate the way to be balanced at the same time we are stretched thin with worry, fears, therapy appointments, calls from school, getting services and support and making sure we put a healthy dinner on the table. Since parenting is a journey with lots of pit stops but no actual destination, it—and we—are always living inside a work in progress. This means we have to take the long view of our lives, and at the same time, we have to be sure that we have our own adult lives as well as a family life. (Remember, it’s not one or the other, it’s both.)
Find a balance by specifically and deliberately addressing these three areas—Emotional Needs, Physical Needs and Mental Health Needs—in ways that honor your values, morals and beliefs. If you don’t, you may not have the energy to sustain the demands of parenting a high-needs family. Understand that this is not selfish, it’s essential.
- Emotional Needs:
- Talking with friends and/or joining a support group.
- Put your worries into a box and burn or bury them.
- Find blogs or book about how other parents cope.
- Spending time with your spouse/partner and not talking about the kids!
- Make a collage or list that represents your dreams (and do some soul-searching to remember what they are).
- Physical Needs:
- Go outside for at least 5 minutes every day even if it’s in your car with the heat on and the windows rolled down.
- Redirect your worrying energy to clean the house, wash the car, pull weeds, cook, anything that keeps you moving.
- Meditate, pray or listen to relaxation audios.
- Go to bed before 11 p.m. no matter what. Choose health with exercise, diet, and supplements.
- Ask for help when you need it—to give a kid a ride, take your dog for a run, or bring a meal. It is not a sign of weakness to ask for help, it is a gift to others to be able to serve.
- Mental Health Needs:
- Download your brain: Create a place to keep the info in your head such as a binder or notes app to keep doctor reports, IEPs, along with logs of phone calls, emails, etc.
- Make child-specific to-do lists (rather than one long, never ending to-do list) and set-up child-specific folders.
- Hold regular family meetings (or a partner meeting, or even by yourself) where you look back on the week, celebrate the successes and problem-solve issues.
- Start a ‘blessings jar’ to help see all the good happening even when it feels like it’s all falling apart.
My biggest lesson in learning how to balance a family full of diverse needs is that I have to actively choose, over and over again, to be a parent first. My other roles of manager, therapist, driver, cook, housecleaner, accountant, handyperson, (and more!) have to come second. I realized this when I learned how to see and treat my children and kids first and not the AD/HD, depression, medically fragile, slow learner diagnoses that they carry with them.
When my kids were little, I spent a lot of time correcting, diverting, doing OT and PT and speech drills, and often forgot to be their mom. I got resentful of all the things everyone thought I should be doing and finally, out of exhaustion and frustration, gave up trying to be perfect and do everything perfectly. I thought I was failing but in giving up, I learned how to surrender to the unique, delightful beings each of my children are and find a way to connect to the best in them. I discovered that I didn’t have to be something I wasn’t any more than my kids did.
When they were in their early teens, we had a family meeting. I said that although I was still the boss, I needed a team to make our household run smoothly. I needed (not as a favor but to fulfill a real need) them to work with me and each other to get all the chores done, issues resolved, and events of life celebrated. They listened and they understood. Things didn’t magically change overnight, but they get better as each year goes by.
Danny still leaves his stuff around but has learned his own way to organize his things. He uses an alarm app on his phone to remember to feed the dog. He is still distracted and annoyed by his sister’s singing but puts on his headphones and instead of yelling, goes and shuts her door.
Jesse moved through his depression by finding something he loves to do—play music. He still spends a lot of time alone but now we realize he is an introvert and requires a lot of down time. It doesn’t mean something is wrong.
Samantha will always need help with homework, which we now do right after school. With her, we used children’s books about people with special needs to give her a safe way to learn about her own challenges. We talk about disabilities and what she needs to be successful. She has difficulty understanding her brother’s AD/HD and we keep talking about how everyone needs help with something. I make sure I talk to her about what I do to take care of my needs, as well.
Parenting several children with special needs includes everything that every parent with multiple children handles. We also get to experience an exponential factor of intensity, duration, and frequency just to keep it more interesting. The added work, worry and wondering does not make us “special” or super-parents; we are doing the best we can and handling things we never thought would be part of parenting. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I hope you find your way to enjoying the differences in your household by first taking care of yourself—emotionally, physically and mentally—and then offering those same skills and strategies to your children. They deserve it and so do you.