Guest Writer for Wake Up World
Your child is your pride and joy, but they are also unique human beings. As much as you adore them, sometimes, their behaviors can confuse and distress you. This rule holds for most parents, but particularly for those with neurodivergent children.
What, exactly, is neurodiversity, and how does it impact child development? More crucially, how can neurotypical parents support their kids?
What Is Neurodiversity? What Does It Encompass?
Neurodiversity is the idea that brain differences are just that — differences, not disorders or abnormalities. Rather, they are natural variations of the human mind.
Therefore, neurodiversity spans a wide array of physical and mental traits. It affects the perception children have of how their body relates to the space around it and its reactions to changing heights and speeds.
Neurodivergent children also exhibit moods and behaviors others might find unusual, even distressing. Disorders such as autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder fall under the heading, as do Tourette’s syndrome and ADHD.
Parents should know that coping mechanisms like rocking and repetitive motions are self-soothing techniques — they should let their child continue without interference. They do have to set limits and intervene during meltdowns, but they must remember that their child is only trying to meet their needs the wrong way, not intentionally misbehaving.
Tips for Parenting Neurodivergent Children
If you are the parent of a neurodivergent child, how can you show your support and love? Here are eight tips.
1. Listen, Listen, Listen
If your neurodivergent child behaves in ways you find foreign, your first instinct may be to ask them to stop the behavior. However, doing so without understanding why they act that way in the first place can lead to misunderstandings and future meltdowns.
Instead, ask your child what’s going on with them and listen without judgment or offers of advice. Schedule weekly talks so you can check in at a time when they aren’t feeling emotional. Simply asking your child why they do the things they do can sometimes modify behavior, but your primary goal is to make your little one feel heard.
2. Show Empathy
Your child will encounter no shortage of people who accuse them of faking their differences to get special attention. Please don’t be one of them.
The human body is infinitely complex, and your doctor’s first-and-foremost job is to determine that your child isn’t dying. However, getting a clean bill of health doesn’t mean they don’t have an undetected or as-yet-unknown condition that affects how your child acts. Telling your kiddo, “you’re fine — quit your whining” when they know they feel awful is gaslighting and disconnects your little one from the reality of their physical self.
3. Validate Their Experience
Your child’s experience is quite different from yours. For example, children can get migraines like adults, but they might not say their head hurts. Instead, they might complain of frequent illnesses or become irritable when their pain levels increase.
Parents can become frustrated after repeated doctor visits reveal no major underlying disorder. They might accuse their child of faking it, when in reality, their nervous systems can become overwhelmed by excessive light and sound exposure. Kids might not recognize that their symptoms drive their behavior — it’s up to parents to check in with their child’s physical feelings and provide interventions like quiet playtime in the bedroom.
4. Pick Your Battles
Your neurodivergent child will do things that try your patience at times. However, learning to pick your battles makes peaceful coexistence more possible.
For example, does it really matter if your child wants to ride in the grocery cart at age 6 or 7 when you think they should have left that behavior behind? If they don’t risk getting stuck, why make them feel sad for no reason?
5. Go Easy on the Punishments
Punishing bad behavior can backfire, especially if your child could justify their actions if they had the words to explain it. They may understandably feel angry if you take away their cellphone for watching YouTube videos before bed when doing so helps them fall asleep. To them, your rule banning electronics seems arbitrary.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever punish your child, but take the time to talk to them first. Explain consequences for misbehavior during quiet times so they don’t seem unreasonable when enforced.
6. Set Respectful but Firm Limits
As much as you want to understand your child’s neurodivergent behavior, you do need to set limits. Unrestrained tantrums can result in injury to your little one or others.
If your child struggles to maintain eye contact with you or refuses to include others in play, you must intervene. However, orders like “stop pulling your sister’s hair” often backfire. Instead, use gentle physical interventions like separating the two or turning your little one’s face to look at you.
7. Provide the Tools They Need
Neurodivergent children can be geniuses. However, they may also need extra tools to succeed.
If your child struggles to focus on oral lectures, would a written transcript help their comprehension? If they frequently grow overwhelmed in noisy classrooms, is there a quiet place to calm themselves?
8. Teach Emotional Intelligence
Your children aren’t born knowing skills like using mindfulness to recognize intrusive thoughts or physical sensations that affect their mood. You, as their parent, must guide them.
Guess what? It’s OK to teach your children practices like yoga and meditation to get in touch with their feelings and manage their emotions. Schools that have tried this method report fewer behavioral problems, and you give your child a healthy coping mechanism they can use for life.
Neurotypical Parents, Please Support Your Neurodivergent Children
If you’re neurotypical, your child’s neurodivergent behavior can baffle and dismay you. Please learn to support them and help them thrive with these tips.
About the author:
Kara Reynolds is the Editor-in-Chief and founder of Momish Magazine. Mom, stepmom, and wife – Kara wants to normalize big blended families. She enjoys pilates, peanut butter, and pinot grigio – but not at the same time.