Monday, April 29, 2013

5 Survival Habits for Parents of Kids with Special Needs

Parenting a child with special needs is hard, it is demanding, and it is often thankless. We often feel as if we are surviving from day to day. Yet, without you, where would your child be?  Your child needs you. More than that, your child needs you at your very best. Below are five habits that I sincerely believe we must always keep our eyes fixed on developing as we fight to do our best for our children. I know that sense of exhaustion first hand and I hope this can help you refocus, renew, and revitalize all of your efforts.

1. Always Bring Your "A” Game!

I know this may seem as if we are asking a lot, but parenting our kids requires that we bring our parenting “A” game! Those momentary lapses that we all experience as parents are always going to be there, but taken as a whole, our kiddos NEED us to be nothing less than extraordinary (and trust me, you are)! That weight can feel like it is going to crush you, but don’t let it. You’re not going to be perfect, but perfection should not be your objective. As Vincent Lombardi famously said, "Perfection is not attainable. But if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence." He also said (and this one is one of my favorites) "The only place 'success' comes before 'work' is in the dictionary."

In this grand attempt, you must be courageous and persevere. You’ve got to be as brave as David (as in vs. Goliath), you’ve got to be tougher than Rocky, and more determined than an ant trying to rob a picnic singlehandedly (those ants are bananas!!!). Remember, you are their superhero! I know you must be thinking…this is easier said than done, but if anyone can do it, it is YOU! In my nearly two decades serving as an educator, our special needs parents have always been the roughest, toughest, hardest working group of parents I’ve ever come across. You truly are special. This is a fact!

So what is the best way to accomplish this? First off, you must work smarter (not just harder) and realize your amazing worth! The difference between being great, good, and even mediocre at anything you attempt is not always how much time and effort you invest. Just as an example, I’ve known many mediocre teachers that put in countless hours, yet their results were…well…mediocre. What is the secret of greatness? How do the great ones squeeze so many hours out of the day? How do they achieve the impossible? They DON’T! Instead they are successful by focusing on what matters most and doing what works best. They get the biggest bang for the buck. They are the coupon clippers of parenting/teaching. Learning to do this is imperative, and who on this earth is better positioned to do this than you?

I’ve often mentioned to folks that regardless of whom you compare them to, parents have an immeasurable level of understanding regarding their kids, but they often underestimate themselves. The most gifted, talented, and dedicated teacher/doctor/specialist cannot hope to match this. If you are trying to duplicate the strength of others, then yes you will have difficulty. That is what a lot of us actually feel. However, if you capitalize and exploit your strength as the undisputed expert on your child, then your chance of success becomes exponential! As you learn new things, remember that it is all being built on the foundation of your understanding. You may not be a neuroscientist, but just some simple brain-based learning strategies combined with your unmatched knowledge can become an incredibly potent mixture (very superhero like)!

The last part of your “A” game is consistency! When it comes to being a parent, you can’t be streaky. Our kiddos need you to be their rock…their lighthouse in the storm. You will not always be able to do the sailing for them, but you can guide them, and always provide them with safe harbor. Be that solid wall that they can ALWAYS lean on for support. It is not always the single “big” thing that we do that matters. More often than not, it is all the wee little bitty things that we do consistently, day after day without fail, that end up having the greatest impact. Do everything you can so that you don’t burn out. Take care of your kids AND yourself. This isn’t a sprint…slow and steady will help you, and your child, win the race.

2. Be Willing to Explore Interventions Firsthand

We have learned more about the brain in the last decade than we have in the last two centuries. Yet I still always marvel at the “new” interventions because there really isn’t anything new under the sun. What neuroscience has done is validated the best of the best through the latest technological innovation. This really is invaluable. I could care less how you figured out that it works, just tell me what works! If it is tried and true turned into neuro-new, then it’s fine by me. I recommend that you NEVER stop learning. You are the primary advocate for your child and you’ll always be. Become an expert in them and what affects them.

You’re unlikely to meet many people that know more about whatever your child is dealing with than you. I heard Brian Tracy say once that reading, approximately an hour every day in your chosen area, over the course of a year, will provide the knowledge equivalent to that of a doctoral degree (not the pay raise unfortunately…but oh well). The opposite is also true. Trust me when I say that there are plenty of people out there with doctoral degrees that are just for show. In contrast, they’ve got a magazine article’s worth of knowledge at most since all they wanted was the title. Don’t be that guy/gal. Constantly seek to learn new things that can and will help your child. You never know, you could end up being a blessing to others with what you learn.

The next step is for you to integrate what you learn and build upon what you already know. I’ve read through a ton of research scanning for what would work in conjunction with what I already know. I’m a cherry picking FOOL! I’m looking for the ripest and sweetest fruit. Always search out the cream of the crop. This is the 80/20 principal. 20% of what you do is responsible for 80% of the results. 20% of people at work are responsible for 80% of the work. 20% of folks driving are responsible for 80% of the traffic…etc. etc. With kids, I explain this using a pizza analogy. Ever notice there is always that one slice of pizza that’s where the greatest amount of toppings seem to hang out and party? It’s the slice every kid wants to go for first (well, me too). Learning is just like that. Look for the loaded slice of pizza…leave the scrawny one with the single piece of pepperoni in the pizza box where it belongs (I kinda feel sad for that slice now).

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Imitate success! Kobe Bryant never innovated a single thing on the basketball court. All he did was study the greats and copy their moves. Do your research and seek the advice of those that have had success. Sometimes we get too wrapped up in finding others that are suffering like us. This is not a bad thing. Sometimes these folks are the only ones that can truly understand what we are going through. Just avoid the urge to sit around and have a pity party. Keep your eyes focused on the prize.

You must constantly be on the search for interventions that will suit your child. Not everything will be a one size fits all approach. Just because someone else has success doesn’t mean you will also, but the reverse is true. Just because it didn’t work for someone else, doesn’t mean it won’t be wildly successful for you and your child. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Ask questions, seek the answers of others, keep on researching, and don’t feel as if you must pioneer a new approach that no one has ever undertaken. I’m not Lewis and Clark. Give me a map. Give me a BUNCH of maps…oh and a compass. This challenging life of yours is hard enough. Don’t make it any harder.

3. Experiment with Diet and Nutrition

Do you get your car’s oil changed? Does your car use the higher octane gas? What happens if you neglect these simple things? Bad nutrition and its effects can be just as debilitating on your body. The most preventable tragedy of standardized testing I witness is kids literally falling asleep as the test drags on and their sugar fueled morning meal causes them to crash. I’d wager any amount of money, that just changing the way we eat prior to testing would have a positive impact on test scores across the board. There are long lists of food ingredients (oooh future post idea) that impede the functions of the brain (MSG, red dyes, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, etc.). Just attempting to eliminate these can have a positive effect.

Now consider the opposite. What if nutritional components were supercharged instead? Elite athletes (not the scrubs) rely on elite nutrition. They leave no stone unturned. The brain and body system is connected and the same is true for our learners. Our family has made a shift (primal/paleo diet for the most part) and the changes are EXTREMELY noticeable. My kids, with disabilities, have made great strides this year academically and behaviorally. I feel silly for having neglected this for so long, but we don’t anymore, and it doesn’t have to be as hard as you may think.

What we do is actually pretty simple. If we can’t pronounce the ingredient, we don’t eat it. I just scratch my head wondering why floor cleaner is made with “real” lemons, while the lemon flavored drink is artificially flavored. We have a generation of kids who are eating what can only be loosely defined as food (with ingredients often banned in other countries). I don’t want to scare you, but I do encourage you to just look at food as fuel, and try to make it the best you can afford for your learner.

If you do make this leap however, try to be broad in scope with incorporating the good AND eliminating the bad. Keep your expectations realistic, depending on your commitment, and remember that small steps add up (this was not an overnight process for us). For example, if you eat one food for joint health, than eat ten others that cause joint inflammation, don’t be surprised by the results. Just go with the basic premise that your brain and body are connected. Choose your fuel accordingly.

4. Observe and Reflect Objectively and Often

Each learner is different. Do your best to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of your children. The classic clinical model is to look at what is wrong and try to fix it. When all we do is look at what’s wrong, we overlook everything that’s right. If all you do is work only on weaknesses, you are basically striving for…mediocrity. You are striving for…average. You hang your hopes on ho hum. Forget that! Focus on their strengths and NOW we are talking! You want to go from good to great…from above average to AMAZINGLY AWESOME! Your strengths are where you can distinguish yourself. My daughter with FASD suffers academically in math, but she just loves to read, and her emotional intelligence is ridiculous! I will help her “manage” her weaknesses, and pour everything I can into developing her strengths! Check out this link to help you discover your child’s (and your own) strengths. Discover Your Personality Type (and your child's as well)

To accomplish this you must give constant attention to detail. Again, no one can do this better than you. You will be constantly observing and reflecting on what you do yourself, and on what works best for your child. You are on the front line and you’ve got the bird’s eye view. Trust your instincts and always do your best to stay objective. Don’t be afraid to make changes. Trust yourself!!! You are your child’s first and most influential teacher. This is not by accident. Reflection is a powerful tool in your toolbox.

5. Always Keep an Open Mind and Hopeful Heart

You must stay positive. Don’t beat yourself up over any failures. Don’t let grief, guilt, or grudges hold you back. Through our failures we can learn even more than from our successes. These all lead to learning. Learn how to turn failure into success. Understanding the mistakes we make when we struggle can help make you failure proof and make your children failure-proof too! Remember that the true measure of a person is not in how they avoid adversity, but in how they face adversity. Your children need you to always model this…always, always, always! Here is another handy link on how to do just that.

How to FAILURE-PROOF Your Child (and yourself while you're at it)!

Also be open to new ideas. It is easy to dismiss something if you automatically assume there is no hope. You must be constantly growing yourself as a learner. You must gain the experience that you will need to guide you in what you should do. You must then have the confidence in yourself that will allow you to do it.

Finally, celebrate growth! Observing growth in our kids, especially those with special needs, is often akin to watching water boil or paint dry. It doesn’t seem like it is happening, but trust that it is! Don’t compare their strides to the strides of others. Constantly praise the EFFORT they put forth to accomplish the objectives before them, and not just the outcome. Those outcomes may not appear as often as we like, but we can praise the effort that we want present always. Compare where they are with where they have been and rejoice in every ounce of effort they put in and in every triumph they achieve! And when they do triumph, party like its 1999!!!