Please Stop Suggesting Discipline Methods Can 'Fix' My Child's Special Needs

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
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My friend and I are sitting on a park bench together, sipping green tea and watching our kids chase each other around the playground. One of my kids, who has ADHD, speech delays, and sensory processing disorder, breaks out in a wail and starts chucking mulch at another child.

I set my tea down and calmly approach my kid. This isn’t my first—or last—rodeo with tantrums. After I help my child return to a calmer state, I ask what happened. Another child wouldn’t share the bike he’d brought to the playground even though my child asked politely to take a ride.

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I explain to my child that riding the bike today isn’t going to work. The bike doesn’t belong to us, nor do we have a helmet. I’ll happily allow them to ride their own bike at home later. My child sniffs, nods, and gets up, dashing after their friends.

Crisis averted, I think. And I head back over to sit by my friend. And that’s when she starts rattling off a list of unsolicited suggestions on what I could be doing better to deal with my child’s tantrums.

And she’s not the only one, nor will she be the last. Because I’ve been told by family members, friends, and strangers, none whom are parenting kids with special needs, what I should be doing to manage my kid.

What I want them to know is this: You cannot discipline special needs out of a child.

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What about time outs, another friend suggests. Listen. My dysregulated child is not going sit in a “calm down” chair and mull over the behaviors that they cannot help. An upset child is in fight-or-flight mode, not I’ll-sit-here-quietly-and-contemplate-my-transgressions mode. Puh-leeze.

We opt for time-ins, which I get is an uncommon parenting method. The time-in happens right by mom or dad, and it’s not a punishment. It’s an opportunity to chill out, take some deep breaths, and recalibrate. Once the child is calm, we can chat about what happened and possible solutions.


“Kids who misbehave just need a good spanking,” declares an older family member. First, I don’t know what part of spanking is “good.” Secondly, it doesn’t take a psychology degree to realize that a child who is emotionally distraught over a situation isn’t going to snap out of their distress because a parent swats their backside. In fact, it’s only going to piss the kid off more.

This one is easy for me. We don’t spank. I want my kids to grow up to be problem-solvers. Spanking doesn’t accomplish that goal.

Martial Arts Class.

Try enrolling your child in a martial arts class, multiple friends have suggested. After all, their kids were out of control until they learned how to have the utmost respect for themselves and others by learning some karate moves and chanting mantras while bowing. It takes all I have not to burst into laughter when I’m told, yet again, that my kid can earn a purple belt and magically shed the inclination to become argumentative.

I’m sure that the self-discipline and respect emphasized in martial arts can be helpful for some kids. But many of the class activities require children to sustain focus for a long period of time and to follow multi-step directions which is basically a ticket to Failure Town for kids with executive functioning issues. Selecting fun and helpful extracurricular activities for children with special needs poses significant challenges for parents.

Vitamins, Shakes, and Essential Oils

Some moms selling for MLM companies have tried to push their focus and calm vitamins, shakes, and essential oils on me. As if a droplet of oil or some ground-up bark from a native tree in India will eradicate my child’s diagnoses.

Call me a skeptic, but I think a lot of MLM products are scams and the people selling them are only spewing information they’ve been provided by higher ups in the pyramid scheme. To me, this information shouldn’t take the place of the child’s doctor and, you know, real science.


When someone watches my child go from zero to sixty, I prepare myself to hear a predictable mini-lecture on how electronics are rotting children’s brains. Perhaps, for starters, I should take the TV out of my child’s room.

Here’s the deal. Not only do none of my children have TVs, iPads, or cell phones in their rooms, but we only have one TV in our entire house. We don’t allow any electronics Monday thru Thursday. And on weekends? We allow the occasional movie or group round of Minecraft. We do this to leave lots of time for creativity and rest, but also to avoid giving my child with special needs the opportunity to perseverate on electronics. But thanks for your assumptions, Susan.


Sure, I could put my child on a super-strict diet in which I will steal away all childhood joy and push muddy looking smoothies, no gluten, and zero preservatives. The know-it-alls have preached the healing properties of the Feingold diet, a gluten-free diet, or a never-again-will-my-child-taste-sugar diet. All of these are food plans they have never tried for their own kids.

We do the best we can. We don’t consume artificial food dyes since they tend to exacerbate behavioral issues. (Think Red #40.) My child eats plenty of fruits and veggies. Caffeine, processed foods, and a lot of sugar are all no-nos. But the reality is, dietary changes cannot in and of itself cure my child’s special needs.

Here’s the real deal, fantastically explained by Dr. Dan Segal and Tina Payne Bryson, authors of No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. All kids have an upstairs and downstairs brain. The downstairs brain is feelings-central. The upstairs brain has to do with thinking and problem solving, AKA—being reasonable.

When something upsetting happens, such as when the child at the park refused to share his bike with my child, the downstairs brain can flip its lid. When this happens, the upstairs part of the brain cannot kick in. The child’s feelings about the situation take over.

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The goal is to teach children how to regulate their emotions and learn to enact the upstairs brain. This doesn’t happen by punishing a child for their immaturity or special needs. A spanking, a time-out, or a broccoli-kale-fish supplement isn’t going to make the child turn on those upstairs brain skills.

Parents and caregivers have to step in, help the child get back to a state of regulation, and then ask important questions like, how can we make this better? Or, what should we do now? How can I help you make a great decision? These questions help the child see that they can be a problem-solver, and they can change what happens next time. In essence, parents and caregivers are brain-trainers.

It’s a relentless journey, and it takes patience, commitment, and confidence. Kids with special needs are complex people. They are also amazing humans.

Many of us who are parenting kids with special needs feel a tremendous amount of guilt and fear for our children. We worry that we aren’t doing the right things, at the right time, and in the right way. The medical bills keep coming, and we are constantly in negotiations with doctors’ offices and our insurance companies. We want our kids to be happy, successful, and understood, but the path there isn’t always clear.

We are just trying to make it, day by day. And when someone approaches us to offer their uneducated advice on how to discipline our kids, it’s infuriating and heartbreaking. Such suggestions only beat us down even further than we already were.

Even though we know that the adviser is completely ignorant, their words can linger in our minds for hours, days, weeks, months, and even years. Words are powerful, and I wish more outsiders would offer empathy and support rather than judgment.

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