We want to shield our children from pain, difficulty, and trauma. This is natural. But we do our kids a disservice when we succumb to enabling. What is enabling? This is when we, as parents, inadvertently encourage unwanted behavior. Case in point: when we give in to a tantrum in order to avoid a scene at the supermarket. We can all agree this is not the way to parent in the best interest of our kids, yet we all do this sometimes.
So how do we support special needs kids (and all kids!) while not enabling? The key is to understand what support means. Support is assistance or care we give that helps a child grow, progress, gain a skill or gain independence. It doesn’t coddle. We ‘support’ a baby by dressing her, because she is not capable of doing this task on her own yet. We then support her as a preschooler by teaching her how to dress. There is an end goal of support: independence and self-reliance.
When we simply try to protect our kids instead of supporting them, enabling can occur. Protecting might come in the form of allowing him to skip school because there is a problem there he doesn’t want to face. It might be when chores are done for her long after she is capable of helping out.
But what about special needs kids? It gets trickier to decipher what is support and what is enablement when it comes to special needs situations such as anxiety, depression, autism, and SPD in kids.
How to support (not enable) special needs kids:
Learn about your child’s disorder and what he should be capable of within those perimeters. Never compare your child to others (even with the same disorder) but rather, educate yourself on the disorder itself, and then apply that knowledge to your individual child.
Provide a safe space to land. At home, make sure comfort items are available, support services are regularly sought out, and coping mechanisms are taught (by example, too!).
Acknowledge your child’s feelings. When my son with depression and anxiety feels ‘uncomfortable in his skin’, I listen without offering solutions, and make sure he knows his feelings have been heard.
Allow consequences to occur. You can’t shield your child from consequences. If she feels she must miss school because she is upset or must leave school for the day after an issue, acknowledge her feelings (see above), but allow natural consequences to occur. She can come home and be soothed by her safe space to land, but she will also have to work twice as hard on the homework she missed in class, for example.
Set boundaries. Everyone in the family should feel heard, safe, and healthy, including mom or dad. Put perimeters on your child’s behavior (what you will allow him to express, for instance, and what you will not tolerate), and stick to it. This is especially important when it comes to violence, physical harm (to herself or others), or destruction of property.
Assist when your child cannot deal with something on her own. When you know a problem or issue is beyond the current abilities of your child, assist. Walk them through it, advocate for her at school, or teach self-care, self-soothing, or relaxation. There are days, only a few, when my school-aged child cannot get ready for school all on his own, when in the midst of an anxiety attack. I talk him through the steps that will help get him to a better coping place, coaching him so that in the future, he can manage on his own.
What not to do:
- Don’t allow your child to avoid all uncomfortable situations.
- Don’t ‘take it easy’ on him because you feel badly for him.
- Don’t protect her from natural consequences.
- Don’t cover up for them (to save face…theirs OR yours).
What if you can’t tell if it’s support or enablement?!
The thing all parents of special needs kids know: mental health changes from one day to the next. What your depressed teen may be capable of today may be different tomorrow. What your child with autism can feel comfortable with this hour may be different the next. So how do you know when you are offering needed support and when you are ‘letting him off the hook’?
You will have to use parental judgment, trial and error, and a bit of guesswork. Sorry, there’s no exact answer (don’t we all wish there were?). Try to take each moment as as it comes, and judge each moment by its own merit. Has your child had a full night’s sleep? Have they changed medication? Was it an especially hard day to cope? Take all these things into consideration before deciding how much to lean in and help.