Beyond a Diagnosis: Tips to Build Your Child’s Strengths

Professional Counselor, Anya Beebe, offers key actions that parents with special needs children can take to make a difference in the lives of their children.

Originally Published in Colorado Parent Magazine

Parents often ask me, “How do I help my child with special needs feel normal?” and “How do I help my child be the best that they can be?” In my work as a child therapist, I commonly work with children with different abilities such as ADHD, Asperger’s, Autism and sensory processing disorders. Working from a strengths based, positive psychology background, I have found that there are some key actions that parents can take to make a big difference in the lives of their children.

Here are some ideas to help a special needs child shine:

Focus on your child’s strengths not his diagnosis

ADHD-SensoryProcessing-Denver-Child-TherapyA diagnosis is often useful. It can help a child get the services that they need, the best educational programs and the correct insurance coverage. It can also help parents and people around the child to better understand his way of interacting and processing information in the world. Beyond these factors, though, it is important to look past a child’s diagnosis and focus on the person. Highlight their personal strengths.

I recently reconnected with a former client, a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who is now in his mid-twenties. He shared with me that as a child he had always felt a little different, but because his parents and his therapists focused on his strengths and not his shortcomings, he always felt good about himself. This gave him the courage and internal strength to find ways of overcoming his challenges, go to college and major in the subject that had always been his passion, chemistry. He said that he never felt like a boy with Asperger’s, but a boy who had an amazing family. When a child knows that you see them for who they are beyond their disorder, challenges that come with any diagnosis don’t seem as overwhelming and strengths can flourish.

Encourage your child and build self-esteem

No matter what the diagnosis, when we help children focus on their positive qualities, they are happier, feel better about themselves and become more successful overall. All children thrive with positive feedback, unconditional love and encouragement. Children with special needs especially need positive responses and interactions with parents as it is often one of the most motivating factors for children as well. When children with different abilities feel encouraged and motivated, they are more likely to take on new challenges and learn new skills.

Use your child’s interests to build other strengths

I often work with special needs children who have an intense interest in a particular topic, such as a certain cartoon character or animal. These children fixate on their chosen interest and this may be all they want to talk about.

As grown-ups, our natural tendency is to try to broaden their interests. (After all, it can drive parents a little crazy to hear, for the hundredth time, the detailed differences, for example, between the dinosaurs in the Triassic and Jurassic time periods.) But I would encourage parents to build on their child’s interest instead. Help them channel this energy into deepen their learning skills in other areas.

For example, if a child’s interest is in dinosaurs, use this topic to study other subjects: For math, count dinosaurs; in spelling and writing use words and stories that involve dinosaur activities; in art, create pictures of dinos; and to develop social skills pretend you are two Brachiosaurus learning how to share. By building on the child’s chosen interest, kids are often more excited to learn new skills. By accepting your child’s interest, they feel more supported by you.

Don’t be afraid to seek out help

We are fortunate to live in a society where there are organizations, clinics and private practitioners that provide beneficial services for children of all abilities. Early intervention can make a great deal of difference in helping a child and setting the stage for future success.

I have been fortunate to have worked with children who have made great progress through early interventions. For example, one sweet little boy had very typical characteristics of moderate functioning autism at 3 years old. After getting a variety of services, now at 5, this boy looks and behaves very much like a typical 5 year old with some minor issues. Professionals say that in early years there is a “window” of time to help a child. This is accurate but it is important to know that help, even later on can make a big difference in your child’s skill, behavior and emotional development.

Take care of yourself so you have more to give back to your child

Parents of children with special needs are some of the most dedicated, resilient and awe inspiring people I know. Parenting a child with special needs often takes three times the time and energy as a typical child, and the parents that I have seen manage this the best, take time to take care of themselves, too.

If we give, give, give and don’t leave any time for ourselves, we begin to run on empty. When our personal energy is tapped out, we have to work harder and might feel depressed, resentful, or irritable towards our children. Although it may feel selfish at first, it is important to do things that bring you joy outside of parenting. We then have more positive energy and deeper well of internal happiness and love to give back to our children. When we take care of ourselves, we are really taking care of our children too, because we are giving them the best in us.

Anya Beebe MA, LPC is a licensed professional counselor, art therapist, certified COPE parent trainer and mother of two.

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