The Importance of Setting Limits for Children With Disabilities

Posted August 21, 2012 by

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I went to St. Andrews College which was built for students with various disabilities. There were many students there that were paralyzed from the waist down from water skiing accidents or jumping trains. There were paraplegics, quadriplegics, and students with neuromuscular disorders. They were an amazing group of individuals who maintained their wild spirit while confined to a wheel chair with courage, dignity and the continual pursuit for independence.

There was one new student that stood out. He was a freshman, paralyzed from the waist down. The difference was that he was always asking for help. At the cafeteria, he would ask someone to get his silverware or reach out and grab him a dessert. From what I could see, students were happy to help, for awhile. But, after a few weeks, I heard comments like, “get it yourself”, or “you can reach it.” We all found his behavior very irritating because he was there to go to college as an independent person.

That student didn’t return after that first semester. It was the first time I encountered “learned helplessness” as Debbie Pincus refers to it in her article: Learned Helplessness: Are You Doing Too Much for Your Child?

If you’re doing too much for your child, you will eventually feel burned out and put upon. You can determine if you are an over-functioner if you tend to move in quickly with advice, think you know what’s best, not only for yourself but for others, have a low threshold for your child’s pain and don’t allow him to struggle with his own problems.

As the parent of a child with a disability, it is even harder to allow them to feel pain, fail, or suffer natural consequences. They may suffer from isolation, being bullied, or left out of school functions. You may think, “Don’t they endure enough difficulties in their life? How can I add to it by setting up limits and rules?”

The truth is they may need those limits even more than other children. There seems to be a universal sense of guilt when you encounter someone with any type of disorder. We often feel the need to help, protect, or make things easier for them. However, the most responsible thing you can to do is problem solve with them so they can take care of their own needs and become more independent.

When my daughter was four years old, we went to a family reunion. There was a rock face that all the kids were climbing up and down on. My daughter had muscular dystrophy and couldn’t walk well and couldn’t run at all. I let her climb. My Aunt, who was sitting next to me, berated me for allowing her to do something so dangerous. She said it was irresponsible. I remember replying that I’d rather have her  take a small risk and possibly get a scraped knee than mentally handicap her at this age by telling her she couldn’t play with the other kids because of her disability. I did not want her to start experiencing limitations. My Aunt didn’t know how to respond. So, I kept my eyes on my plate, my heart in my throat and waited. I will say my daughter was very smart. She did a great job and was so proud of herself! When she was a little older we took a vacation in Utah where she became a very agile and fearless rock climber. My heart is often still in my throat, but as she grew, I knew she was the best one to judge what she could or couldn’t do.

Obviously kids need to take chances with safe limits in place., We don’t advocate putting your child in danger. The final decision is always up to the parents who are the experts on their children and their abilities. The point is children with disabilities need discipline and limits maybe even more than their peers. They need to be comfortable enough in their own skin to navigate socially, through school, careers, and families. They may need additional help with manners, how to get along with people, communicate and most of all, how to be independent. As parents, that is where we can do the most for them.


Holly Fields has worked with children with emotional and physical disabilities for more than 15 years in the home, at school, and in rehabilitation settings, as well as therapeutic riding programs. She was with Legacy Publishing Company as a 1-on-1 Coach for two years. Holly has a Masters Degree in Special Education. She has two adult children, two rescue dogs and one cat.

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  1. Report

    Do you have any suggestions for parents whose 10 year old daughter with serious special needs and who tends to cry when she doesn’t get her way. Her parents have found it difficult to deny her many things and she is unable to do much of anything for herself. Now at ten her behavior is quite annoying. Any suggestions as to how to begin to discipline this child? She is not cognitively delayed. Thanks.

    • Empowering Parents Coach drowden Report

      Thank you for writing in for suggestions in regards to the
      most effective way of disciplining a child with special needs.  One thing
      I think is  important to keep in mind is that while having a disability
      may not be an excuse for acting-out or
      disrespectful behavior, the child’s specific special needs still have to be
      taken into consideration when helping that child develop effective coping and
      problem -solving skills. From what you have
      written, it sounds like you are requesting information to share with this
      girl’s parents to help them better manage their daughter’s behavior. Because we
      are a website aimed at helping people who are in a direct parenting role
      develop more effective ways of addressing acting-out
      behavior, we are limited in the scope of coaching we are able to offer. While
      it is very kind and considerate of you to want to help these parents deal with
      what sounds like a challenging situation, offering unsolicited parenting advice
      can often be taken the wrong way.  Ultimately, it is up to the parents to
      decide how they wish to parent their child. Granted, this can cause some issues
      for people who have to work with the child in other environments, such as
      school or therapy-based programs. In those
      situations, it is best to defer to the administrators to ensure your approach
      is in line with that of the school or program. We wish you the best of luck
      moving forward. Take care.

  2. Holly Fields Report

    Chase’s Mom: Thank you for bringing up an excellent point. You know your child and his abilities better than anyone else. You need to be his advocate and make sure that he is safe and healthy. As a parent, you are right, that is your responsibility. From what you have written, you have also given him every advantage that you possibly can. You have worked diligently to ensure he has the manners and the ability to express himself. I have so much admiration for the passion and determination you have regarding your son and his future. You have been through a great deal of trauma from his birth through all of his surgeries. Speaking for myself, the terror I experienced when my daughter had surgery (and the diagnostic testing which took well over a month) is something that I will never get over. You have shown a great deal of strength and perseverance where your son is concerned. As you so tenderly wrote, “it is somehow enough….” We wish you the best and continued success with your son. Thank you again for your comment.

  3. Holly Fields Report

    Oliver and Mkrwebber, thank you for your comments and support. Disciplining kids with disabilities is not a comfortable subject for any of us to address. I am so pleased to hear about the success you have had with your daughter, Mkrwebber. It takes a lot of hard work and heartache as a parent. Congratulations! Please keep in touch with us.

  4. Chase's Mom Report

    I agree up to a point, however, what about children who are developmentally delayed? We aren’t sure what he understands or doesn’t understand. He gets frustrated when he can’t do some things and throws a fit. Some things we do for him or with him as he would not do it without help. He doesn’t care about food, so he would starve if we didn’t encourage him to eat. We’ve lived through his premature birth and 44 days in NICU, as well as 10 surgeries including open heart! We are over protective, but we need to be–he has down syndrome and would be taken advantage of without us. Just this week he came home from school with a huge bruise all across his chest. He is an amazing child and we will advocate for him and encourage him until the end. We pray everyday for him to be the best he can be–that’s all anyone can ask. That’s not to say we don’t get frustrated but when we see him say “Thank you” and “Hi!” and “Excuse Me” and the best “I Love You!” it is somehow enough…

  5. Mkrwebber Report

    I wholehearted agree with this. My daughter has autism, and I would hate to see what she would be like had I treated her as if she were a lesser person. She has thrived because I did what you did: just gave her the opportunities without bias, prejudice, and with the expectation that she would succeed and do well. I applaud your positive attitude towards disabilities.



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