Saturday, January 2, 2016

How to See Your Child with Special Needs in a New Way

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New Year, new perspective.  Family caregivers of children with disabilities can be encouraged by “reframing” how they see their child.  Reframing “is a way of viewing and experiencing events, ideas, concepts and emotions to find more positive alternatives.”[i] 

Get a Better Understanding of Your Child 
Dr. Ross Greene, the developer of Collaborative Problem Solving (more about this in my next blog), says “children will do well if they can.”  What this means is children are doing the best they can with the skills that they have.  It is important for family caregivers to realize that all behavior is communication and sometimes the only way children can communicate is by “acting out.”  This doesn’t mean the temper tantrums seen in typically developing children.  This is a “meltdown” in which the child is so overwhelmed that they either lash out or shut down.  I know.  On occasion it took my daughter 4-5 hours just to pick up a pencil.  Not to actually do the homework, but just to get started.


Family caregivers need to recognize if their child’s behavior is a skills vs. a compliance issue.  Is it that the child won’t do something, or that they can’t?  Maladaptive behavior may be the only thing that has worked for the child in the past.  The child needs to learn appropriate replacement behaviors and skills.  It doesn’t go from “zero to sixty.”  If the child is overwhelmed in class for example, the goal may not initially to be to get him/her to sit still for an entire class.  The child can learn to ask for breaks, or if nonverbal use a picture card.  At first, reinforce the request every time.  Then work towards asking appropriately.  Remember that if the child acts out and then is removed from class, he/she learns that this allows “escape/avoidance.”  Even negative attention is reinforcing! 
Imagine what it must be like to be your child
As frustrating as it may be to deal with your child’s behavior, think about what they’re going through.  Sure, things take longer and it would be easier to do it yourself, but if anyone had those special needs it would take them longer too.  Think of how frustrating it would be if you couldn’t hear well and needed things repeated multiple times or used alternative methods of communication.  Or how hard it would be if you had poor muscle tone, just to put on a pair of socks.  Think how it would feel to walk into a store if all the lights seemed brighter, sounds seemed louder, smells seemed stronger and they all hit at once causing sensory overload.  There is a difference between “disability awareness” and “disability sensitivity.”
 Then reimagine
Just like taking a picture and placing it in a new frame, now reframe your child’s special needs.  This is especially true for children with mental health issues.  Just like physical conditions, mental illness is physiologically based.  The organ affected just happens to be the brain in which symptoms manifest as behavior.  No one would blame someone with diabetes who needed insulin.

There are also positive ways to describe characteristics for all children.  Some examples are…
Instead of:                   vs.                                Reframing
Disabled                                                          Differently abled
Fearful                                                             Cautious
Hyperactive                                                     Full of energy
Stubborn                                                         Determined
Learning Disabilities                                      Learning Differences
Persistent                                                        Committed
Loud                                                                Exuberant
There are many ways family caregivers can have more positive interactions with their child with special needs.  “Catch them being good” means to reinforce the child when he/she is doing something you want to be repeated.  Rather than telling them “don’t” do something, tell the child what you do want them to do.  For example, instead of saying “don’t throw your clothes on the floor” say “please put your clothes in the hamper.”  Although it may be more polite to ask rather than tell your child to do something, some children interpret things literally and if parents ask if the child can do something they may simply reply no.  They’re not being defiant; the child is simply expressing a preference as he/she thought it was a choice. 
By reframing how they see their child through a more positive lens, family caregivers can better help their child with special needs. 
Ross Greene’s website
Remain Hopeful, 
Lauren Agoratus is a parent/advocate who works for the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network and serves as the NJ Coordinator for Family Voices (, a national network that works to “keep families at the center of children’s healthcare” at or FB  She also serves as NJ representative supporting caregivers across the lifespan for the Caregiver Action Network (formerly National Family Caregivers Association) in a volunteer capacity at or FB