Are You the Parent of a High-Needs Child? Read This Book

A refreshing take on raising your child.

Posted Apr 13, 2019

During the first year of my Ph.D. program, my wife, Lauren, and I became foster parents of three children. They were siblings, ages 3, 5, and 7.

Our lives completely changed, and have never been the same. Eventually, after three years of battling the foster care and legal system, the laws in South Carolina changed, thanks in large part to our attorney, Dale Dove, who took important matters to the federal courts. Once the laws changed, affording foster parents the right to proactively seek adoption, we were able to almost immediately adopt our children.

Being the parent of children from a difficult background has been a humbling and beautiful experience. Lauren and I had to learn that due to the neglect experienced by our children and thus, the lack of healthy and organized attachment, that emotionally, our children were basically infants, regardless of their actual age. 

When our children threw temper tantrums over what seemed to be small matters, rather than expecting them to make emotionally intelligent and conscious decisions, we needed to see them as infants, unequipped to handle the complexity. We needed to love them and give them physical affection. To hold them like you'd hold a crying toddler.

Over time, our lives have begun to normalize. However, our lives are far from "normal," in a traditional sense. And we are okay with that. Our lives are "normal" for us. Despite the challenges and difficulties, and the fact that our life and family may not be what we envisioned or expected, we wouldn't trade our family for the world. 

Recently, I came across a book by Tamara Anderson, a mother of two autistic children who writes and podcasts about her experiences. The book is called Normal For Meand although not heavily scientific, it is actually quite science-based. But, even more, I found it to be a humbling and honest read. Actually, I loved the book: It gave words, meaning, and comfort to my own experiences as a father of children I love and care about, but who may be faced with different challenges than what I perceive other families face. 

The book details strategies for dealing with diagnoses, such as managing expectations, grieving when coming to terms with your situation, overcoming denial and anger, and healthily moving forward even accompanied by periodic depression

A large part of the book addresses matters of faith, such as having your faith shaken or strengthened when seeking "miracles" or "blessings" associated with your child's well-being and development. 

Additionally, it provides helpful suggestions and perspectives for dealing with the sheer exhaustion of parenting high-needs children. Interestingly, in my own case, Lauren actually became pregnant with twins one month following the adoption of our children. Thus, in a span of 10 months, we adopted three children and gave birth to twins. (I know...)

Parenting can be exhausting. Parenting children with autism, though, I personally cannot imagine. My youngest brother is autistic. And for six months during my undergraduate career, I actually did behavioral therapy and school-shadowing of an 11-year-old autistic boy. Sometimes, there seemed to be no solution. Sometimes, it felt like the road ahead was simply too long. 

Anderson also addresses the emotions of comparing your life to other families that seem far more normal. She addresses jealousy and envy. I must admit, I myself have had similar experiences when having dinners with friends whose families seem far more stable and whose children seem far more responsive, capable, and obedient. 

Aside from the more traditional solutions, such as therapy, etc., Anderson advises the use of journaling wins and celebrating small victories. I can absolutely attest to the efficacy of these strategies. Research has shown that gratitude journaling is a powerful and effective tool for emotional regulation, selective attention, and well-being (e.g., Flinchbaugh, Moore, Chang, & May, 2012).

Additionally, measuring progress is another helpful form of selective attention, wherein you consciously focus on progress made rather than the impossible chasm to cross. Measuring the gain, rather than the gap, can strengthen resolve and motivation because these are often the byproduct of confidence, which has been found to be the byproduct of past performance (Sitzmann & Yeo, 2013). Thus, by giving yourself the space to reflect on the progress you've made, no matter how small, you recognize change. That recognition gives a sense of movement and confidence, which can increase motivation.

Conclusion

As a father of five young children, three of whom were recently adopted through the foster system, I found Normal for Me to be refreshing, inspiring, and helpful. Fundamental to finding joy in your circumstances is recognizing that your life is "normal" for you and that that is not only okay but absolutely amazing. Once you reshape your internal narrative and develop helpful strategies, you can then begin developing confidence and increased motivation to grapple with your challenges. 

References

Kaczmarek, L. D., Kashdan, T. B., Drążkowski, D., Enko, J., Kosakowski, M., Szäefer, A., & Bujacz, A. (2015). Why do people prefer gratitude journaling over gratitude letters? The influence of individual differences in motivation and personality on web-based interventions. Personality and Individual Differences, 75, 1-6.

Sitzmann, T., & Yeo, G. (2013). A meta‐analytic investigation of the within‐person self‐efficacy domain: Is self‐efficacy a product of past performance or a driver of future performance?. Personnel Psychology, 66(3), 531-568.