How to Parent a Child with Behavioral, Sensory or Developmental Difficulties:
Practical Wisdom for Compassionate Caregivers
If you’re reading this, you probably already know that children with behavioral, sensory or developmental difficulties don’t respond to typical parenting advice dispensed in books and playgroups. And you are definitely feeling some combination of overwhelmed, inadequate, angry, embarrassed and just plain flummoxed. But there is a way through. By understanding your child’s inner world and applying simple, effective techniques, you can vastly improve your relationship with your child and your child’s ability to manage well in the world.
Most of my patients who diligently apply the framework below report striking progress in a matter of months, achieving a level of domestic tranquility that many have never experienced in their child’s lifetime.
See the world from your child’s perspective—be an Empathic Detective
When children fall and hurt their knees, they cry and the crying makes sense. But children with behavioral, sensory, or developmental difficulties don’t know their experience is different and cannot describe their problem. Parents see mysterious, bad behavior, and, understandably, try to correct it. By the time they reach my office, many families are trapped in an escalating cycle of negative behavior: Child “misbehaves,” parents become upset and scold them, prompting child to act out even more, and so the cycle goes on.
But once you understand the meaning of your child’s behavior, you can react effectively. Your child is not naughty, just invisibly and chronically distressed! The trick is to understand what is not working right. You do not need to be an expert in the field of childhood disorders, just an expert in the field of YOUR kid. You can be that expert, an empathic detective.
Start by deepening your understanding of how your particular child’s condition feels. I don’t mean research a disease. I mean, observe your child curiously. His or her particular difficulties makes the world seem a bit different than to most of us. Allow yourself to wonder and describe your child’s different world. What does it feel like to not hear things quite right? To be extra sensitive to touch? To feel off-balance? To not quite get the feeling from the internal body? To have a hard time writing? To be always misunderstood?
A child with touch sensitivity might often feel just a bit irritable. A child who has difficulty balancing might be cautious in strange situations because of the general feeling of being off-balance. A child who has a hard time writing or reading might be embarrassed or frustrated at school every day, and tired or angry from compensating. A child who cannot be understood might get angry, or tune out. And so on.
Next, apply your curiosity to your child’s experience with other people. What is the pattern, and how might that feel for your child? For example, a child who cannot feel the edges of their body—proprioceptive difficulties—often have trouble spacing around themselves and crash into things or into people. Crashing could be an accident, or even on purpose, to gain mastery and find the “edges” of their bodies. It might seem like the crashing child is being mean or purposefully hurtful. That can set up a loop as people react negatively to your crashing child. Try to imagine how people react to your child’s way in the world, and what your child begins to think and feel, about others and him or herself.
The closer you can get to your child’s felt experience, the more sense their behavior will make.
From there, it’s a relatively easy leap to react to “misbehavior” in a way that’s both appropriate and effective.
Mirror and validate instead of merely correcting
While a simple “Stop that!” may correct the behavior of many children, it’s pretty much guaranteed to fail with a child experiencing behavioral, sensory or development difficulties. Instead, the best way change unwelcome behavior is to address the underlying cause by techniques called mirroring feelings and validating experience.
Mirroring feelings (“you seem upset”) or validating experiences (“It feels bad when your friend takes your truck”) takes the emotional steam out of challenging behavior, for both you and your child. Thus, “I know you are angry at your sister for stealing your cookie, but you may not hit” is more effective than “don’t hit”.
The trick is to reflect the child accurately, or close enough. An Empathic Detective is ready.
As you get closer to understanding your own child’s experience through the empathic detective work, you can begin to accurately mirror and validate your child. Take the example of a child with spacing difficulties. Instead of snapping “Be more careful!” a more effective response sounds more like this: “It is hard to know where your feet are, so you crash. I understand that. Sometimes, other people don’t like being crashed, even though you do.” An accurate statement like that helps your child make sense of his or her topsy-turvy world. Your child will know you are an ally and start to cool down. And a child who feels mom and dad are allies lets mom and dad make corrections, because the world feels safe. Eventually, a child with that support often learns to correct themselves.
Learn by Doing
At the beginning, these tools feel awkward. So, at first you will feel funny or frustrated. That’s ok, because the first step—and it’s a big one—is to try something different. Your child will sense the change well before you perfect the technique.
It is ok to make parenting mistakes as you go along. Every parent gets frustrated or angry, and that is ordinary as you learn. The trick is to give yourself space to regain calm— feel free to give yourself a time out!—and come back ready to do more empathic detective work and try again. Children learn from this that we all make mistakes and are forgiven. And remember, as you learn about your child, you will keep discovering, so the learning takes time and keeps going.
Many parents and families find it helpful to work with an experienced therapist to accelerate their learning curve and make change. When your child has a hard time, then everyone needs help learning and finding new ways to live together. An experienced therapist can provide insight into the child’s particular felt experience, and help coach you through finding ever more effective responses. The cycle of positive change happens fast after that.
Helping parents manage the feelings their difficult child generates, and aiding them in developing compassionate, useful parenting strategies, is the heart of my practice. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 917-319-8941 to learn more or see if working together is right for you.