How to Talk to Your Special Needs Child About Challenges

Children with special needs are prone to depression and irritability at a rate nearly triple that of children that don’t deal with unique challenges. It’s a fairly predictable occurrence: the child encounters a difficulty that isn’t hampering their peers, and they wonder if anyone has ever had to work this hard only to not succeed as well as their relatively effortless cohort. As their parent, of course you want to do something to help them — and you can.

Talk About Your Own Struggles

Talking to your special needs child about some of the most challenging moments you’ve faced in your life — obviously, mediated based on their maturity level comprehension — can do an extraordinary amount to help them feel less hopeless. Knowing that their primary role model (you, their parent) has struggled, worked through difficult situations, and found a way to succeed can help them understand that success is out there to be attained.

Be Specific, But Not Bogged-Down

When you sit down to talk about your own life, it’s important that you operate at a level of detail that makes it clear you’re definitely describing a real event. Don’t talk in the abstract, or in the passive voice, or in the third person — say “I did this,” not “this happened to someone.” Talk about the salient details of the problem and go into detail about your emotional state and your emotional processes. But don’t get so bogged down in detail that you lose the point of the story; tell them only the parts that are most necessary to help them comprehend the point.

Frame Every Story in a Positive Light

Don’t tell stories of times that a problem made you give up, but then things turned out OK anyway — you don’t want to encourage them to give up! Instead, choose stories where your struggles were difficult, but you actively overcame them in the end. Point out the lessons you learned, and how those lessons made you feel better about yourself and your situation.

Talk about Starting Early

If you didn’t overcome the challenges you’re discussing until later in life, tell them why you wish you had learned those lessons much earlier. Discuss with them how your life could have been better if you had understood a decade earlier that (for example) standing up for your own needs was likely to result in your needs getting met.

Empower Your Child

Through the entire discussion, remember that your goal is to empower your child. It’s good to acknowledge that your child’s struggles are real — they should openly acknowledge that fact as well — but it’s also good to acknowledge that the power to overcome those challenges is in their hands.

Problems Are Opportunities in Disguise

Ultimately, the “meta-lesson” behind these discussions is the same: that every challenge your child is currently facing is an opportunity for the child to learn skills that they would otherwise never had attained. One day, in all likelihood, they will look back at that opportunity with gratitude — and that is the sign of a truly empowered individual.

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