Every child needs good parenting. However, some children have an extra special need for it.
Attachment parenting (AP) and special needs go hand in hand. But this high level of parental involvement can be challenging. That being said, the benefits of attachment techniques while parenting a child with special needs are worthwhile.
Nearly one out of four households in the U.S. has one or more children with “special needs”(source). Special needs is described as any condition that presents significant challenges to a child’s ability to function normally, whether it be physically, mentally, socially or emotionally. This can include anything from cancer to blindness, allergies to ADHD to autism, dyslexia to Down’s syndrome to diabetes and/or a whole range of other conditions.
With such a dizzying array of disorders under the “Special Needs” umbrella, it can be difficult to make any overarching statement about these children and their families. However, one thing all kids with special needs have in common is a need for extra parental support. Your parenting style can help them cope with their challenges and accompanying frustrations.
Attachment Parenting Techniques
In many ways, out of all of the parenting styles, attachment parenting seems as if it has been invented for special needs kids. This method follows a child-led approach. This can help parents respond appropriately to behaviors that may differ from what mainstream society accepts as normal.
Attachment parenting techniques include things like babywearing, co-sleeping, and breastfeeding. Parents who follow these practices report being told by health care providers that their special needs children are calmer and make significantly better progress than their similarly-challenged peers.
However, attachment parenting a child with special needs is not easy. We thought we’d take a closer look at some of the obstacles parents of these special children often encounter when attempting to follow AP principles. Plus we’ve sought out some ideas for helping parents overcome these challenges.
Challenge #1: Navigating Judgmental Outsiders when Parenting a Child with Special Needs
Nearly every parent who follows attachment parenting principles comes under fire at some time or another for their “unorthodox” methods. For parents of special needs kids this criticism can be devastating, especially when it comes from family and/or from medical authorities.
Even when it comes to breastfeeding, “Mothers have said to me, this is the thing where my child and I are so connected. This is how I can soothe my child and help him be the most peaceful and grounded, (it’s) the one thing that keeps me connected to my child no matter how well or unwell (he) is,” explains Leigh Anne O’Connor, a Private Practice Lactation Consultant and a La Leche League Leader of 12 years. “A lot of them are very torn because everyone in their world is telling them to stop. I often ask the mother what does she want? That’s often not even a consideration (in a conventional setting).”
Autism and mental health specialist Lynette Louise agrees. “(Judgment is) one of the biggest challenges for parents showing up with behavioral disorders. When a child is ‘behaving’ angry the ‘gentle’ parent is seldom supported by the environment.
As an example, imagine a six year old autistic child having a tantrum in a public place. The parents (often feel) pressured into forceful responding in order to not be judged as unable to handle the situation.
Unfortunately, our social system of checks and balances uses neurotypical assumptions about parenting and child behavior. So when a parent of the special older child is discovered to be co-sleeping with their child, this information is met with suspicion instead of support. Fact is, a slowly developing child needs a longer period of attachment style support and sleeping with family may just be the most important piece of their development.”
Solution: Trust Yourself and Look for Kindred Spirits
If you are enduring criticism for attachment parenting a child with special needs, it’s very important to realize that there are two ways to judge. One way is with your head. And the other way is with your heart. Most of the criticism from the outside world comes from people who judge with their heads. Take the time to check in with your heart.
Trust your instincts, because you know your child better than anyone else. Your heart will tell you the path that is right for you and your child. And that’s whether you’re being criticized for breastfeeding, co-sleeping, or anything else. Listen to your instincts no matter what the culture is saying. It’s a parenting tool that has a lot more authority than your doctor or even your mother!
The other crucial thing is to find and connect with a community that supports your efforts to parent from the heart. Find others in your community who are accepting of your choices. Even if their parenting style differs from yours. Local La Leche League and Attachment Parenting International groups, meetups, and natural foods communities are great places to look for kindred spirits.
Online communities can also be a great source of support. And there are thousands of good ones to choose from. You may find it most helpful to join groups that focus on your child’s particular issues, as well as general attachment parenting communities.
No matter what communities you are a part of, remember that every family is unique – especially when you have a special needs child. Resist the temptation to compare your family with others, and keep checking in with your heart.
Challenge #2: Breastfeeding a Child with Special Needs
While many babies with special needs take to breastfeeding just fine, others experience significant difficulties. In fact, it’s not uncommon for breastfeeding problems to be one of the first signs that a child may have special needs.
O’Connor advises breastfeeding mothers to pay special attention to their babies’ muscle tone in the first few months. “Poor tone can indicate a problem. When there are tone issues where babies can’t latch, I’ve seen some of these children end up needing some kind of support. Keep a look out for low muscle tone—when infants don’t have a lot of strength to nurse. You might also see delayed rolling and crawling.
An overabundance of tone, or “stiff baby” can be an issue as well. With a lot of stiff babies it’s birth trauma. I send them for body work such as Cranial Sacral Therapy. It can be helpful to swaddle these babies. I am generally not a swaddling-while-feeding-fan, but for these babies it can be calming.”
Solution: Manage Expectations and Seek Expert Support
If a breastfeeding problem does arise, it is very important for the mother to seek support. La Leche League Leaders and lactation consultants can help address breastfeeding problems like inability to latch, difficulty swallowing, and refusal to nurse.
However, it’s important for moms to realize that their breastfeeding relationship with their special needs child may not turn out as they had envisioned. Some mothers end up nursing far longer than they had ever imagined. Others find their children weaning before they themselves are ready.
If this happens, be sure to give the mother space to mourn her loss. Whether due to poor advice and/or pressure from medical authorities, or because the child can’t nurse or just quits on his own. “I will tell you over and over and over how many mothers, if they wean before they are ready, how they grieve,” says O’Connor. “People will laugh at that, like ‘you’re so silly,’ but it is a legitimate sense of loss and it’s important to help her cope with it.”
One way to make up for the loss of closeness is by finding other ways to connect physically with your baby. This is also very important to do with autistic children and others who may not respond the way we expect them to behave.
Challenge #3: Attachment Parenting with a Less Responsive Child
Parents of some special needs kids might struggle with the attachment process itself. Especially those on the autistic spectrum but also often those with ADHD and other attention disorders. Many of these children simply don’t respond to attention and affection like neuro-typical children do. They may not want parents to kiss them, hold them or make eye contact. They may not even get upset at being separated from their caregiver.
To the parent, this may seem like the child is rejecting them. Often, the parent blames themselves and feels guilty for having a less-than-ideal relationship with their child. Or, they may unconsciously mirror the child’s behavior back to him, resulting in a downward spiraling relationship and poor self-esteem for all involved.
Mark Loewen, a child therapist in Richmond, VA, explains that children with special needs often struggle with interactions that are crucial for creating attachment. This can include things like eye contact, physical touch, and emotional attunement. So, encouraging these behaviors requires more parental effort than usual.
While normally it’s important to check in with your heart, in this case of parenting a child with special needs, it’s also critical to keep your head. Remind yourself that your child’s behavior is not a personal rejection. Instead, realize that you will consciously have to use your powers of observation and logic to figure out ways to reach your child.
Solution: Look for Fun Ways to Connect on Emotional and Physical Levels
One great way to do this is through games and play. Through games, children can be guided towards increasing eye contact, physical touch, emotional attunement and connection, without feeling threatened or judged.
Loewen suggests activities like making handprints with lotion and powder. The parent puts the lotion on the child’s hands. The focus is not on touch, but on the game, which reduces the resistance on part of the child.
You may also try Applied Behavior Analysis. According to Autism Parenting Magazine, “ABA is a method of treating people with autism by modifying behavior using positive reinforcement. This approach employs the principles of applied behavior analysis, which states that desired behaviors can be developed using a rewards-and-consequences system.”
Other activities include playing hand games (such as patty cake). And hand stacking games that encourage eye contact and touch. Games like hide and seek, tag, or catch also encourage eye contact. Activities such as drawing on each other’s faces or backs (using only fingers) and putting stickers on each other encourage touch, emotional attunement, and connection.
“An important factor to consider with children that have sensory issues is that too much contact can overwhelm them and create a negative experience,” says Loewen. “Parents need to pay attention to when an interaction is challenging their child at a healthy level, and when they are becoming overwhelmed. Respecting a child’s boundaries communicates that the parent is setting up a healthy structure, and keeping the child safe.
Be attuned–don’t follow anything blindly. A lot of it is trial and error. Try to be sensitive and listen to what your baby (or child) is telling you. Don’t quit right away, but if (what you’re doing) doesn’t help, adjust it and try something else.
Challenge #4: Parenting a Child with Special Needs While Balancing the Rest of the Family
Raising a child with special needs can be an extremely intense experience, especially when the situation involves emotional disturbances and/or serious medical concerns. In these situations, it is important for parents to be cognizant of the needs of the entire family, including “normal” siblings and the other adult caregiver(s).
A child with special needs often receives the lion’s share of the attention, leaving other family members feeling neglected. This can lead to low self-esteem and sibling rivalry issues amongst the children, as well as marriage and relationship issues between adults.
Solution: Be Mindful and Get Organized
According to Austin, TX based family councilor Tammie Martin, the solution is to stay very mindful of the needs of every member of the family. “Self-awareness and other-awareness in the family is critically important. Pay attention to nuances of behavior and tone. (It’s impossible) to always do things in an ideal way, but strive as much as you can to be aware before the need arises. Being aware is #1.”
Being mindful of everyone’s needs often requires parents to push themselves to a higher level of organization. And also to think creatively about making time and opportunities to meet everyone’s needs. It may not be possible to take your other child out camping or to the movies as much as you would like. But you can almost certainly find 20 or 30 minutes here and there. And devoting even just five or ten minutes per day to check in with your spouse can do wonders for a marriage.
Don’t leave these things to chance.
They may sometimes happen on their own. But getting out the family calendar and mindfully scheduling these opportunities is the only way to ensure that everyone gets their time.
Remember to Take Care of Yourself, Too
Most importantly, be sure to practice self care when your child has special needs. Martin stresses that it’s important to schedule down time for yourself as well–and you may need to rely on others to make it happen.
“Ask for help when you need it. Nobody can meet the needs that you haven’t let known are out there. Communicate. Be vulnerable. A lot of women and men are perfectionists. We try to do everything and do it all so well, but playing the martyr doesn’t help anyone. Risk being vulnerable and ask.”
Resources for Parents of Children with Special Needs
If you’re a parent or caretaker of a child with special needs, here are some resources you might find useful:
Cerebral Palsy Family Network – a compassionate community that provides resources for loved ones with Cerebral Palsy.
Learn about Financial Planning for Kids with Special Needs.
How to take care of yourself when your child has special needs.