Being a Parent is a tremendous responsibility and challenge. “Getting it right” whatever that means, will tax you intellectually, emotionally and perhaps financially. “Getting it right” when you have a child with special needs can be even more challenging.
As a Certified School Psychologist with an additional Master’s in Developmental Psychology AND as NYS Licensed Psychoanalyst AND with having 30-plus years practicing as a clinician AND 27 years “practicing” as a parent I have boiled it all down to 4 Levels of Listening!
LEVEL 1: Listen to Your Inner-Self
Listen to your inner thoughts. In other words, listen to those fleeting thoughts that fly through your mind in a quick millisecond. Often, these are the thoughts that make us feel guilty, angry, confused, or ashamed with ourselves. Catch these thoughts, repeat them to yourself, and consider them. Some examples:
- “What’s wrong with him?”
- “He is not listening.”
- “He’s not getting it!”
- “He is so angry, why?”
- “He thinks he is in charge. Who does he think he is?”
- “He is not looking at me, why?”
- “He does not like to be touched, what’s wrong with him?”
- “I’m just like my parent.”
- “I’ll do anything to avoid a melt-down.”
- “He should be doing this by now, but he’s not, what’s wrong?”
LEVEL 2: Listen to Your Feelings When Talking About Your Child
When you talk about your child with others, do you question whether your son or daughter is developing at an age-appropriate level? What emotions do you feel? Do you become embarrassed? Annoyed? Listen to, and recognize, these feelings as they arise. Remember that these feelings may display themselves when you are interacting with your child until these feelings are resolved. Some examples:
- “I don’t feel connected to him”
- “I feel so helpless, I don’t know what to do!”
- “I feel so depressed.”
- “I feel so angry, I could kill him!”
- “I feel so guilty, what am I doing wrong?”
- “I feel so lost.”
- “I love being with him all the time”
- “He is perfect.”
LEVEL 3: Listen to Yourself When Talking to Your Child
As previously mentioned, sometimes our inner feelings display themselves while we are interacting with our children. We reach our breaking point, become angry or apathetic, and act-out towards our children. As parents, we must realize the impact that our words have upon our vulnerable and impressionable children. Some examples:
- “If you stop, I’ll give you anything/everything.”
- “Aren’t you listening?”
- “What’s wrong with you?”
- “I’m tired of fighting with you. I give up, do whatever you want!”
- “You’re doing it all wrong!”
- “Maybe if you paid attention, you would get it right!”
- “That is not what I said, first do this then do that!”
- “I’ll give you something to cry about!”
LEVEL 4: Listen to Your Child
Children are communicating with us from birth in ways that are consistent with their development. From the earliest days of childhood, if there is something developmentally wrong, a child’s communication (non-verbal then verbal) will be out of sync within the interaction and/or context. Children are more emotional than intellectual, at first, and they are expressing those emotions one way or the other. Typical child developmental areas including motor skills (fine and gross), cognitive development, language development (first receptive then expressive) and social/emotional development, are well documented. Your child may be communicating important thoughts and feelings for you to hear, for example:
- “I can’t help it!”
- “You said this, not that!”
- “I didn’t understand you!”
- “I hate you!”
- “I’m trying but I can’t do it!”
- “You’re not listening!”
- “I’m the boss!”
Each parent has learned how to be a parent from how they were raised. From the time we are born, we are learning how to be a parent from our parent(s) and caregivers. That amounts to thousands of seconds, minutes, hours, days and many years of possibly learning detrimental parenting techniques. Within a “typical family,” parents are generally “good enough”. However, many children that come from “typical families” develop significant behavioral and emotional problems. When a special needs child is born, the “typical parent” has difficulty adjusting all of his or her learned parenting skills to meet his or her child’s special needs. All of the “typical parents'” feelings, actions, and thoughts (conscious and unconscious) go haywire. By the time the special needs child enters school, the educational support system kicks-in and, generally, takes over. By this point, the parent of the special needs child has been traumatized. Too often, the parent does not deal with the emotional impact raising a special needs child can have. Although the loving parent knows that he or she must treat the special needs child differently, the parent may unconsciously slip back into the pattern of parenting behavior that he or she is used to from his or her own childhood. Or, a parent may slip back into the pattern of parenting behavior that he or she uses to parent his or her non-special needs child(ren).
At times this unconscious parenting can create significant emotional and behavioral difficulties with special needs children. This is an all-too-common problem.
Our parenting practices have evolved from many generations and are deeply ingrained. In light of the profound effect our parents’ parenting style has had on us, changing one’s parenting style is no easy task. Listening to ourselves and our children, from the minute facial expressions, to the physical and emotional messages, is a crucial factor in our ability to change our parenting behavior. It is only after we listen to these emotions and communications that we can achieve deep and lasting change. Listening and hearing all of these subtle, and not-so-subtle, forms of communication opens us up to the possibility of responding more appropriately and effectively to our children.
There is rarely any harm done speaking and working with a qualified clinician to help you work through your feelings and thoughts.