How We Hold Our Child With Special Needs Accountable For Their Actions

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
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I’ll never forget the day a friend said to me that I was making excuses for my child with special needs. She added that I wanted exceptions for my child—exceptions to the norm, the standard expectations set for four-year-old children. Kids need to learn to live in the real world, she rendered.

I was taken aback. After all, my child had two official diagnoses, and one pending. This friend, whom I’d long trusted, was basically telling me I was a crappy parent and setting my kid up to fail. It stung.

As I gained my special needs parenting sea legs, coming out of a long-standing fog of uncertainty, I dumped the friend. Not solely because she made offensive statements about children with special needs, but also because she was high-maintenance—a chronic complainer. I didn’t have the time or energy for that.

I got my kid the help they needed—first, at school. We created an IEP—an individualized education program—providing the appropriate teaching and accommodations. We also sought outside therapies—a process we’re continuing today. Throughout all this, my friend’s words rang in my ears. Would all this assistance cause my child to become entitled, lazy, and worse, a total jerk? How could I give my child assistance without them thinking the world revolved around them?

Kids with diagnoses like ADHD and sensory processing disorder (SPD) can have a difficult time regulating their emotions. They can go from zero to 60 in five seconds—either due to sensory overload or things not going the way they anticipated. Meltdowns can look like a temper tantrum’s twin—but they are not the same thing. Yet, those who are outside of the need can take the child’s big emotions personally, causing unnecessary drama and judgment.

Despite the list of diagnoses and what they mean when it comes to regulating emotional responses to things like not being invited to birthday parties, I am determined to hold my child accountable for their actions. My child has a lot of potential—and I wanted that potential to have the opportunity to soar.

The task that many of us parenting children with special needs face is how to balance their challenges with decency and manners. In order to do this, I’ve learned to be proactive—putting tools and techniques in place to give my child the opportunity to make the right decision. Just like telling someone with anxiety to “chill out” or “don’t worry” doesn’t work, a child with special needs can’t be talked out of their needs with a dismissive, curt phrase.

Some of our tools include noise-cancelling headphones and chewing gum. I also carry fidget toys in my purse so my kiddo has something they can safely touch and help keep them occupied, like when we’re standing in a line or sitting in a waiting room.

We also don’t take our child places where we know they are set up to fail. Restaurants and big stores are particularly triggering because of the sensory overload—too many lights, conflicting and unpredictable sounds, lots of objects to touch. Even with our go-to tools, busy public spaces can be challenging.

Is this coddling? I’ve been accused of that many times—always by parents who have no clue what it’s really like to parent a child with special needs. If I’m feeling patient enough, I explain that kids with special needs have to work three times as hard as typically developing children in almost every situation. I can’t just throw my child with needs into an environment and expect them to succeed. My job is to prepare them, guide them, practice with them, and then eventually, gently prod them into the situation solo.

My kiddo messes up, like all kids do. Kids with big feelings who are easily triggered are always working on their emotional regulation skills. I can see the look on my child’s face when a situation is over-stimulating—a ticking time bomb. Sometimes I can prompt my child to take a deep breath or ask for help—both of which are helpful—but sometimes, it’s too late.

My child might flip their proverbial lid and throw something without thinking twice. That something might be a sibling’s favorite toy or an ink pen sitting on the counter. If the toy breaks, my emotionally-driven kid is immediately embarrassed and sad, often collapsing in tears. Once we can calm down, we talk about what happened, and I prompt my child with a problem-solving question like, “What should we do next?” The answer is usually to apologize.

Even my toddler—the youngest of my four kids–knows how it goes. If you screw up, you make amends. This might mean using their allowance to replace the damaged toy. If an incident occurs at school or elsewhere, we will write an apology note. We don’t render unrelated consequences which only prolong the issue.

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In essence, we talk through situations—proactively and after the fact. Recently, we were visiting the library when a woman at the checkout counter turned. Her face was noticeably different. As she walked away, my child with special needs said to me, “That lady looks weird.” I was flabbergasted and embarrassed by their word choice.

I wanted to scold them, very firmly, but I knew that would only prompt my child to go into an emotionally dysregulated state. This would not only cause a scene, but it would be ineffective in teaching my child a lesson.

Instead, I decided to quietly and immediately address it with a thoughtful question. I asked them how they thought that woman felt being called weird. My child said, “Sad.” I wanted to evoke empathy—not shame—and a reminder to think before speaking, because words matter. We also talked about what to do the next time we encountered someone who had differences.

I want my children—all of them—to be accountable for what they choose to say and do in their lives. My child with special needs is not an exception, though they certainly need more chances to exercise their decision-making skills and opportunities to respond appropriately. And when they screw up? We deal with it and move on.

As I share often with those who tend to be judgmental about the best way to parent a child with special needs and big feelings, I’m not offering excuses. I am, however, offering explanations. And in return, an open mind and some support is appreciated.

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