Attachment parenting and special needs go hand in hand. But this high level of involvement can be challenging. We’re taking a look at the many benefits of attachment parenting for the special needs child, and how you can overcome the obstacles.Every child needs good parenting. However, some children have an extra special need for it.
Nearly one out of four households in the U.S. has one or more children with “special needs”: 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 to help them cope with their challenges and accompanying frustrations.
In many ways, attachment parenting might have been invented for special needs kids. Breastfeeding and nurturing touch provide the best possible nourishment for compromised bodies, brains and immune systems, while AP’s child-led approach can help parents respond appropriately to behaviors that may differ from what mainstream society accepts as normal.
Many parents who use attachment parenting techniques such as babywearing, co-sleeping, and breastfeeding 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 special needs child can itself be challenging. 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, along with ideas for helping them overcome these challenges.
Challenge #1: Judgmental Outsiders
Nearly every parent who follows AP principles comes under fire at some time or another for their “unorthodox” parenting methods. For parents of special needs kids this criticism can be devastating, especially when it comes from family and/or from medical authorities.
“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 not to be judged as unable to handle the situation. This sometimes leads to uninformed security personnel being called in and often social services intervening and making it all worse. 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.”
If you are enduring criticism for attachment parenting a special needs child (or any child, for that matter), it’s very important to realize that there are two ways to judge: with your head and 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. Whether you’re being criticized for breastfeeding, co-sleeping, or anything else, your heart will tell you the path that is right for you and your child. 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. Or, place an ad on Craigslist and start a group yourself!
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 the Special Needs Child
While many babies with special needs take to breastfeeding like a pro, 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 – learning issues, and OT issues as well. 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.”
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, whether due to poor advice and/or pressure from medical authorities, or because the child can’t nurse or just quits on his own, be sure to give the mother space to mourn her loss. “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.
Challenge #3: Attachment and the Less Responsive Child
Parents of some special needs kids, notably those on the autistic spectrum but also often those with ADHD and other attention disorders, might struggle with the attachment process itself. Many of these children simply don’t respond to attention and affection like neurotypical 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, says that because children with special needs often struggle with interactions that are crucial for creating attachment – such as eye contact, physical touch, and emotional attunement – encouraging these behaviors requires more parental effort than usual.
While normally it’s important to check in with your heart, in this case 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.
One great way to do this is through games and play. Through games, children can be guided towards increasing eye contact, physical touch, nurturing, 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.
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, 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: The Family Balancing Act
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.
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. Watch more than your infant and toddler, to everyone in the family – including yourself.”
Being mindful of everyone’s needs often requires parents to push themselves to a higher level of organization, and 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 to help them with a craft or toss the football in the back yard. And devoting even just five or ten minutes per day to checking in with your spouse or treat him or her to a back rub 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 to partner with your less needy family members is the only way to ensure that everyone gets at least a minimal amount of the attention they crave.
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 know n 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.”
As principal of Green Ink Copywriting, Christie has helped dozens of companies—from dedicated solopreneurs to top level agencies and multi-national corporations—improve their client retention, lead generation, and sales conversion through the written word. To learn more about Christie’s content- and copywriting services, visit her at GreenInkCopywriting.com.
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