I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with fifteen years of experience working with children and families. I’m also a mother of two. In my professional life, I spend a lot of time talking to parents of children with special needs about their struggles. In my personal life, I have heard some version of this conversation between parents more times than I can count:
Parent One: “He throws a screaming tantrum every time I try to introduce a new food. I can’t even put food he does like on a plate he doesn’t like without him screaming and falling to the ground.”
Parent Two: “Oh my God, I know. That is totally normal. My kid was a picky eater too at that age.”
Parent One: “He was? Oh okay, glad to hear it is normal.”
Parent Two: “Don’t worry! They grow out of it.”
This is how supportive parents talk to one another. Validating each other’s frustrations. Helping to normalize the struggles. These conversations are why having friends with kids is so important. Otherwise, you feel alone in your everyday concerns. Empathy, validation and normalization are extremely important for the overall well-being of parents. The lack of in person parent-to-parent support during the COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the most difficult and isolating things for most folks living with children. Overall, it’s great that we are so quick to jump in to validate and normalize experiences. Here is what is harder to say:
“It shouldn’t be that hard. That was not my experience.”
It’s true. All kids are picky. All kids have tantrums. All kids have difficulty focusing on their homework, get upset and say things they regret, have difficulty sleeping, don’t eat, don’t potty train, develop speech at their own pace, and create tension and stress in the lives of their parents. But for children with special needs, these struggles are more pronounced. For these children, normal parenting strategies are usually not enough.
Children with special needs usually need more assistance, from trained professionals, to make developmental progress and overcome challenging behaviors. Many children on the autism spectrum are incredibly rigid about the foods they will eat and how they will eat them. Simply hoping they will “grow out of it” usually isn’t enough. These children need evidence-based consistent intervention to make progress.
When a parent of a typically developing child normalizes the experiences of a parent of a child with special needs, this unintentionally cause the parent to feel like they aren’t doing enough. The parent often feels like; if this is normal than what is wrong with me? Why am I struggling so much with this normal childhood behavior? When parents get the message that their child’s extreme behavior is “normal” they often delay seeking professional help.
The first five years of brain development represent a critical period for an individual’s lifelong trajectory. Early intervention is incredibly effective and the earlier a parent seeks professional help, the better.
There are also cases where a child’s behavior is not unusual, but the parent’s reaction to the behavior is extreme. It is normal for the struggles of parenting to feel overwhelming at times. But if the everyday struggles of parenting feel overwhelming all of the time, or debilitating some of the time, this is cause for concern. Sometimes a parent is struggling with their own mental health challenges. These struggles should also not be minimized as “totally normal.” Again, this may have the consequence of making a parent feel like there is something wrong with them for having such a difficult time. Rather than seek help, a parent may feel ashamed and not admit how much they are struggling. Again, delaying seeking professional help only makes matters worse for the parent, child, and the parent-child relationship.
Here is the message I want all parents to hear: “Yes: parenting is hard. But it shouldn’t feel completely overwhelming and impossible most of the time.” If it does feel that way, either because of your child’s extreme behavior or your reaction to their behavior, there are people trained to help you. And when you find the right helpers, they will make it less hard.
If this is you, here are some resources to try:
If your child is exhibiting developmental delays and is under three years old, you can reach out to Golden Gate Regional Center at www.ggrc.org and make a referral to the Early Start Program
If your child is older than three years old, you can connect with your local school district about getting an assessment for an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). This applies even if your child is above three but is not yet enrolled at school.
Concerns about autism:
If you are worried about autism, you can take a free screener called the M-CHAT, accessible via the Autism Speaks site: https://www.autismspeaks.org/screen-your-child
Concerns about social-emotional development and mental health (for you or your child):
Your pediatrician or PCP is always a great resource, but you can also check out all of the free resources available through the Child Mind Institute, new to the Bay Area: www.childmind.org. This organization is also available to provide neurodevelopmental and behavioral assessments for your child.