Being a parent is hard. Being a special needs parent is really hard. I find that too many of us think that being a better parent has to do with providing more things for our kids, a better school, better doctors or some other tangible thing. I don’t think that is how our kids would define ‘good parenting’, do you?
Here’s my advice on ways you can be a better parent today. And by ‘better’ I mean your kids will like you more.
1. Take care of yourself. This is about as basic as it gets – if you are not taking care of your own needs, then you are over-tired, stressed and not making things better. Imagine how much easier everything would be if you were well-rested, relaxed and parenting intentionally instead of reactively? Start by taking a shower. Build from there.
2. Listen more. Our kids have lots to say, and we all end up cutting them off because we are much more concerned about our own agenda and what we think needs to be happening as opposed to what is actually going on. Take the time to truly listen to your child’s concerns. Listening now means they will tell you things when they grow up. Minecraft, YouTube or whatever is on their mind, sit still, put down your phone, and listen with your whole being.
3. Plan to Connect. Instead of just planning therapy sessions, or play dates, or errand running, plan a time to just be. Time to spend with you and your child (if you have more than one, do this for each of them) and learn about each other. If you don’t, you’ll turn around and have a teenager on your hands in no time.
4. Play. This is one that is often forgotten. Play with your kids! This does not mean supervise them playing, it means that you have to actually, really, truly, play WITH your child. Let them lead, sit on the floor, make funny voices, and interact in the games that mean the most to your child.
5. Stop Parenting the Label. Your child is more than just one label or another. He is a child. A human being. Start looking at him like that. Wherever he is in his development, regardless of what he can or can’t do, should or should not be doing, parent the whole child. As he is now. Parent that kid. It is much easier than parenting his symptoms.
6. Be Silly. This seems crazy, I know, but be silly. Kids love to laugh. Don’t you? There is nothing better than a great moment spent giggling together that the two of you will remember for years. If you can’t think of anything, tell a joke. Or, if you have kids like mine, fart humor is always a win.
7. Forgive. When you live with a child who has extreme behaviors, or that meltsdown in public, or otherwise seems to do embarrassing things, forgive him. Let it go. Often we as adults carry around the frustration of a past event for too long. My favorite definition of forgiveness is, “Giving up the hope that the past could’ve been different.” So true. Let go of what could’ve or should’ve happened. Deal with what is.
8. Cuddle. Do you spend enough time hugging and cuddling with your child? I know this is hard for many kids with autism/sensory issues, but do what works for your child. Being physically close (whether that means sitting next to each other, or cuddling up on the couch) helps build your attachment. Yes, you are attached, sure, but increasing the closeness between you and your child (especially if there is chaos during the day) is a good way to reset. Both of you.
9. Apologize. If you mess up, forget something, change the schedule, or yell too much, apologize. Apologizing for when you screw up shows your child that you are empathetic about his feelings, that you make mistakes too (no one is perfect) and that it is OK to admit you are wrong. Modeling this behavior is a HUGE bonus for him. And you’ll feel better.
10. Relax. Try not to have so many rules that you aren’t enjoying life. My mom says to me all the time when I am telling the kids they can’t do something, “Don’t punish yourself.” If I get too strict, I end up punishing me too. When I loosen up a little, without giving in, I do find that the boys are much more enjoyable to be around. Huh. Wonder if they feel that way about me too?
11. Accept. I think we are always trying to therapy one thing or another out of (or into) our kids that we forget to just accept them. They need to know that they are perfect just the way they are. A child who feels like everything about them needs to be corrected – don’t do that – don’t say that – stop – no – don’t – does not feel self-assured. So, you stop it.
12. Love. This goes without saying, sure. But with kids you actually do have to say it in many ways. Remember to let them know you think they are great. “You are a great kid!” “You know, I think you rock!” Or my favorite, when my kids do or say something cool, I say, “I love that about you!” Self-esteem is a reflection of what our kids hear every day from us. So give it to ‘em!