The Balance of Special Needs Parenting
We live in a stress-filled world. The more anxious we feel, and the busier we get, the more we overcompensate for our children.
My sister and her family were on their way to our house for dinner. Our living room floor was scattered with toys. I asked my son to pick them up. Instead, he sat down and played. I reminded him that he had no time left and that I expected the floor to be cleared of all toys.
My son stomped and cried, “Mom, I don’t want my toys put up!”
I certainly didn’t want my family to stumble on toys the minute they came through the door, and I didn’t want them to walk into an emotional battlefield either.
So, I quickly gathered all the toys and deposited them in my son’s bedroom. He began to wail. I went into desperation mode, and I compensated. I grabbed an armful of toys from his room, and I dumped them on the living room floor.
Later, I wondered what was I thinking? I allowed my son to have his way just to ease off the stress at the moment.
- What if I had used the situation as a guiding tool?
- What if I had slowed down, taken a deep breath, and made it clear to my autistic son that it is more than okay to play with a toy or two to help him feel calm while we had company?
- What if I had taken the time to point at the clock, explained how soon the family would be arriving, and that safety comes first – and that he could play a big role in that responsibility? “If you pick up the toys, our family will be safe. They will not trip on things, and you will feel comfortable with your favorite toy at your side – and that is okay. Good job, well done!”
How will my son ever develop independence if don’t take the time to turn everyday challenges into guiding moments vs. overcompensating?
Why is this so difficult for me? I know that I am limiting his development when I do not set boundaries. How do I create a balance?
The Reasons Why Parents Don’t Set Limits
Parents that set boundaries are less apt to overcompensate for their children. Why, then, is it so difficult to set limits?
Some of the top reasons why parents do not set limits:
- “It doesn’t work…he just ignores me.”
- “I am not sure he understands why.”
- “He had a tough morning.”
- “Frankly, he’s worn me down.”
- “I wanted this to be a nice time.”
Parents overcompensate when they feel guilty (“My child had a rough day” or “They don’t know any better”), or when they are stressed or tired (“He/she wore me down” or “I need peace, and I just want to enjoy my day day” or “I am the only parent”), or because they feel any efforts to set boundaries will not work (“It doesn’t work” or “He just ignores me”).
Related: Learn more about limit setting for our autistic children, and the obstacles that can make that difficult, in a discussion with our RDI® certified consultants, Kat Lee & Lisa Palasti: Limit Setting with Our Children, and Limit Setting Take 2.
Why It is Important to Set Limits
It is important to have a limit-setting plan in place and revisit the plan regularly. The plan is to trust yourself as a parent and to help the child become independent (by setting boundaries and not overcompensating), but also to trust that the child can become independent.
Consistently Setting Limits That are Appropriate Help to:
- Establish clear behavioral guidelines.
- Reduce your child’s anxiety.
- Teach your child respect for and consideration of others.
- Help your child develop a greater ability for self-regulation.
Setting boundaries helps to ensure parents guide without overcompensation, and this requires presumed competence in our child.
When you take on the role of compensator rather than a guide, you reduce your child’s ability to learn and to be challenged by their own experiences, and this limits their wanting to seek out more in life. It reduces their “Ah-ha” moments, their seek-promoting experiences, “Look what I did. I want to make that happen again!” To your child, your overcompensation is processed as I don’t believe you are capable.
Creating Balance: Where to Start
- Safety is first and foremost (example: no climbing on cupboards or shelves).
- Respect is important. Be respectful of the child, but also each family member and their space.
- Rules will change over time as the child gains greater competency and developmental readiness.
- Start with something manageable.
7 Steps to Setting Limits/Boundaries
Let’s revisit the story about my son and the toys on the floor. After our visitors left, I set the limit that only three toys could be brought into the main living space at one time.
Limits are designed to help children grow and develop independence. Even though this is a process that can take time, it should not be overly restrictive or confusing.
1. Be Clear With the Limits
(i.e., only three toys at a time in the main living space).
2. Be Consistent
Even when you do not feel like enforcing the limit.
3. Provide an Alternative Behavior
For example, “I know you didn’t mean to make a mess in here, but next time I want you to…”
4. Set a Consequence
Such as, “If you bring more than three toys into the living space, you either must take some of them back to your room, or you will have to put all of them away until…”
5. Use Positive Words
For example, “When we keep the toys picked up, everyone is safer, and we are ready for company to come to our house any time. Also, when the toys are picked up, we can go on outings…but not until then.”
6. Offer Choices
Allow appropriate exceptions to the rule…allow your child to think outside of the box, but while using respect for you and your rules.
7. Do Not Argue
Explain why the boundary is set (i.e., safety, respect, etc.), but do not get into any power struggles.
Remember these key things when setting and enforcing limits:
- Avoid doing things for your child that they can do for themselves. Remember, when emotions are running high, they may need your emotional support.
- Ensure you and your spouse, and other caregivers, are on the same page.
- Slow down and breathe. Allow yourself and your child time to think.
Give yourself grace. Give yourself permission to forgive your mistakes and lapses in judgment. No person is perfect…and no parent is perfect.
Life is tough for a family living with autism, but there is hope!
You have this. Your role as a mindful guide is to restore and stimulate your child’s Growth-Seeking and provide the environment for your child to thrive in our complex world. Rather than take the backseat to “treating” your autistic child, you get to experience your child’s development first-hand.
Get More Help
The RDI® program can give you the tools you need to guide your child’s growth and neural development.
And you won’t be alone – the RDI® Online Learning Community can give you the support and resources your family needs.
The Community offers the most up-to-date autism research and exclusive RDI® tools, resources, articles, and presentations, as well as support from real people – RDI® professionals, adults on the autism spectrum, and other parents just like you.