Over the years I have read a lot of books about parenting specifically related to children with special needs. One of my personal favorites is the book Optimistic Parenting by V. Mark Durand.
In this book, Dr. Durand focuses on helping parents identify their own obstacles to parenting children with special needs, as he recognizes that we have to face our own challenges as parents if we are going to be able to help our children. This is a philosophy that is at the cornerstone of what I believe and practice as a clinician. I appreciate that the book is based on extensive research by Dr. Durand and his colleagues involving families, parents, and children with special needs, as well as his own personal and professional experiences. I encourage you all to read the book, as there are many helpful insights for both parents and professionals. I’d like to share ten key points that I have taken from this book and that are confirmed by my own personal and professional experience.
- Our thoughts and feelings influence our parenting.
It’s a fact that the things we think and the feelings we have significantly impact our parenting behaviors. Negative thoughts and feelings lead to negative behaviors and perpetuate negative cycles of interaction with our children. Thinking positive thoughts and staying emotionally positive leads our parenting in a positive direction.
- When we are defeated in our minds, progress can’t happen.
If a parent believes that their child can’t improve and their life is destined to be perpetually challenging, then that is true. Maintaining optimism that we all have the potential to change, and that things can be better tomorrow than they are today, is critical to making progress.
- Stay in the here-and-now.
Often in the midst of challenging moments with children, our minds jump into the future; and we are overwhelmed by the thought that these problems will never end, and we will still be dealing with the same problems 20 years from now. Keeping our minds focused on what is happening in the present moment helps prevent helplessness and hopelessness.
- Focus on one specific issue at a time.
It is generally the case that parents of children with special needs have a long list of things they would like to be different for their child and family life. When parents (or professionals) try to tackle too many things at once, everyone gets frustrated and burned out. It is typically best to work on changing one specific issue at a time so that both child and adult can target their energy and feel successful.
- Expect more from your child today than you did yesterday.
This doesn’t mean that you have huge changes in your expectations from one day to the next. It does mean that over time you slowly raise the bar within life activities to transfer more responsibility to your child. If I expected my child to take his own clothing off before bath time yesterday, then today I will have him put the clothing in the hamper. If she put her dirty cup in the dishwasher yesterday, then today she can put her cup and plate. There are many ways to slowly raise the bar; but the point is to continually add to your expectations so your child learns to do more in a supported environment.
- Don’t get so focused on the negatives that you fail to see or acknowledge the positives.
It’s easy to get sucked into thinking about all the negatives when you have a child with significant challenges. But, this can lead to perpetual negative thoughts and feelings that impact our parenting in unhelpful ways. While it’s natural to think about the negative things that are happening, it’s important to focus also on the things that are going well. Focusing on the positives puts the negatives into better perspective, and helps us stay optimistic about ourselves, the child, and the future.
- Stay calm and work your plan.
When things seem to be unraveling, it can be challenging to stay calm and focus on the plan you’re trying to implement with your child. One of the most critical skills I work on with parents is the ability to stay calm when your child is not. Even if things fall apart one day, it’s important not to lose hope. Stay calm in the face of the child’s dysregulation and keep working the plan. This is how progress happens – even if it feels like two steps forward and one step back.
- If you don’t believe in your child’s capacity to be different, then who will?
It is very important for children to know that their parents believe they can improve. No one will ever care more about a child than his or her parents. It is a parent’s job to hold on to the belief and expectation that the child can change for the better, and to expect that others in the child’s life believe the same.
- Ask for, and accept help when needed.
The saying “it takes a village to raise a child” is true for all children, but especially special needs children! There are times when assistance is needed, and parents should reach out to let others know what is needed. I have worked with parents who don’t believe they have anyone in their lives who can provide help, but this is rarely the reality. Whether it’s staff members at the child’s school, people at church, the child’s therapist, friends or community organizations, there are almost always people who can provide support in one way or another. Recognizing that no one can do this alone, and being brave and persistent enough to ask for what you need, is necessary. After all, parents of children with special needs are running a marathon and they need breaks and support along the way if they are going to see the race through.
- Be gentle with yourself.
At the end of the day we are all human, and as humans we make mistakes and wish we had done things differently. Every parent has regrets at various points about how they handled things, how they felt about something related to their child, or the things they think they should have accomplished. It’s important for parents to focus on the good things they are doing, and not get overly negative or self-punishing about mistakes or problems. Each day provides a fresh opportunity to make changes, work the plan, and try again.
Cultivating a sense of optimism is important for parents of children with special needs. Without a sense of optimism it is easy to feel hopeless about your child’s future, and helpless to impact changes in your child’s life. Maintaining optimism in the face of challenges is easier for some parents than others; but we all can benefit from looking at ways to bring more optimism into our lives. Hopefully these insights will inspire thoughts about what “optimistic parenting” means to you.