One Step at a Time

Contributed by Susan Orenstein, PhD, and Sarah Maxey

Most parents would agree with Franz Peter Schubert’s sentiment that children “come into our lives, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never the same.” Let’s face it though, children also leave footprints on the rug you just cleaned, forget their homework and beg relentlessly for Starbursts in the grocery checkout line. Being a parent is tough. Being a parent of a child with special needs intensifies the challenge.

While all children require love and attention, children with emotional, behavioral, learning, social and health difficulties can be especially demanding. Parenting a special needs child can be physically and emotionally exhausting. You may feel spread thin as your responsibilities at home or work accumulate. If you have other children or a spouse you might experience guilt that you do not balance your relationships with them as well as you would like. With increased stress it becomes easier to focus on the setbacks rather than celebrate the successes.

The following are some general principles for parents of special needs children for changing behaviors and creating a positive home atmosphere.

One Step at a Time
Children cannot be expected to overcome challenges in giant leaps. Think of the journey toward improvement like a ladder in which each rung must be addressed to get to the top. What are small goals that your child can achieve? Identify and be able to recognize these steps that indicate progress. Doing so will ensure that you don’t take successes for granted and will encourage both you and your child.

Correctly Correct
When correcting your child, do so immediately after the behavior and give specific feedback. Tell the child what you would like to see them do instead. Be consistent and clear.

Catch ’Em in the Act
The most successful way to modify your child’s maladaptive behavior is through positive reinforcement. Catch your kids when they are doing something right — playing quietly, showing patience or interacting well with others — and acknowledge it. Determine what motivates your child most and use this as a reward to encourage good behaviors. An encouraging word, touch or treat for doing what’s right will help steer your child to better behavior and build self-confidence.

An example that puts these principles into action comes from Billy, a high-functioning autistic child who would fight his parents about going to bed. This was leading to nightly pattern of parents yelling and dispensing time-outs, without changing the pattern. Billy’s parents consulted Dr. Aurelie Welterlin, a child psychologist at Orenstein Solutions, hoping to break this miserable bedtime cycle.

Dr. Welterlin helps parents identify their child’s strengths in order to develop an effective behavioral plan. Taking advantage of Billy’s strong visual processing skills, she made a chart for Billy with all the steps of his nightly ritual, starting with putting his toys away. Each step of the nightly ritual had a card and a corresponding envelope. This helped Billy break the process up into manageable tasks. Even if Billy completed just step one of the process, his parents would give him praise. If he derailed on the next step of brushing his teeth, his parents were right there to guide him to the bathroom explain what he needed to do next. When Billy started the process on his own, his parents would lavish him with praise and he received a coveted Buzz Lightyear sticker if he completed all the five steps.

Nurture Your Adult Relationships
Parenting in general, and especially parenting of special needs children, can sometimes dominate your relationship with your spouse, leaving little room for romance and intimacy. To avoid growing apart, find time away from the kids to relax, have fun and be intimate. Communicate openly about both your parenting and relationship challenges and recognize the different perspectives you may have. Maintaining a healthy relationship with your spouse will reduce stress and facilitate greater progress for both you and your child.

Fuel Yourself
Occasionally put down the grocery list and leave the laundry unfolded. Keep a list of things you find relaxing or fun and regularly schedule personal time for these activities to help you recharge. Increase exercise to reduce stress and improve your mood — join a yoga class, go for a walk, or play a Wii Fit game. Your child senses your energy. Aim to be as positive and mentally healthy as possible for both them and you.

Elicit Support
You are not alone in your struggles with a special needs child. Search the Internet or local support groups for parents with similar experiences. Share ideas about what works and doesn’t work and learn from each other’s experiences. You may also consider seeing a counselor or therapist who specializes in treating special needs children. Establishing a strong support group to provide the guidance you need to maintain your motivation, positivity and sanity.

Orenstein Solutions is a group private practice providing comprehensive psychological services to promote loving, healthy modern families. For more information, visit or call (919) 428-2766.

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