Realizing that your child is almost a teenager is a surprise for many parents. Where did the time go? Raising pre-teens and teenagers can be stressful, especially if your child has developmental or medical challenges. To help prepare your pre-teen and teenager for what to expect, special needs moms can embrace these 10 specific skills. These skills will prepare you as you guide your teenager through the transition into adulthood regarding puberty, sex, safety and becoming as independent as possible.
Here Are 10 Skills From A Special Needs Mom That Can Be Life Saving For Your Kid
#1 Establish a trusting and safe relationship with your child
Every child needs an adult in their life with whom they trust, can ask questions, and share their thoughts freely. This relationship cannot happen overnight, but over time, children know who they can and cannot count on for guidance, protection, and support.
What you can do: Be mindful of this trusting relationship. Stay connected with your child. Let them know you care about them and are interested in their activities, hobbies, and passions. The time you spend sending the message to your child that they can trust you will go a long way.
#2 Talk about puberty
The developmental changes of puberty are confusing for most teenagers and maybe even more so for children with special needs. Help your child prepare for what will happen next. Ignoring the topic or counting on other sources (peers, social media, health class) to educate your child about puberty can result in misinformation and more confusion.
What you can you do:
- Talk about puberty and explain that bodily changes happen to every teenager.
- Allow them to ask questions.
- Address the topic frequently, allowing the conversation to flow at their pace so they understand and feel comfortable with the topic.
- Use the correct name for bodily parts and functions so they learn correctly.
- Help them to establish healthy routines and habits before puberty starts regarding dietary health (to help with weight and acne), deodorant, soap, flossing, and dental care.
- Talk about shaving and sanitary napkins before they need these items.
#3 Talk about sex
All children need accurate facts about sex so they understand and stay safe. All children, including those with intellectual or developmental challenges, deal with sexuality, identity, love, and attraction. They need to gain information from someone they trust and feel comfortable asking questions.
What you can do: Initiate conversations that are non-judgmental to teach them about appropriate sexual behaviors, differences between public and private, urges and decisions, saying no, pregnancy and self-care. When the time is right, you can also discuss topics of birth control, masturbation, and intimacy.
#4 Talk about abuse: sexual, emotional, and physical
Safety is a general concern for all parents, especially for special needs moms. Children with developmental and medical challenges are three times more likely to be physically, emotionally, or sexually abused and/or neglected as compared with their neurotypical peers. Abuse is especially a risk for a child who is non-verbal or who has significant communication challenges.
What you can do:
- Educate your child about how to maintain personal space, the difference between private and public behaviors, secrets, and private parts.
- Describe behaviors that are considered sexually, physically, and emotionally abusive and allow them to ask questions.
- Let them know that no adult should ask them to keep secrets about where they go or what they do.
- Let them know that no one should touch their private parts without permission, hit or kick them, lock them in a room or deprive them of food, clothing, or bathroom facilities.
- Develop a relationship with your child that is safe, comfortable, and loving so they know how you feel.
- Make it clear that they can tell you if they feel unsafe or violated.
- Let them know that they will not be blamed or punished, regardless of who is making them uncomfortable.
- And most of all, make sure abuse is not occurring in your own home.
#5 Talk about driving
Many teenagers want to fit in with their peers and gain independence. Obtaining a driver’s permit is one way to do this. However, many children with challenges related to seizures, intellectual difficulties, and/or medications may not obtain a driver’s permit.
What you can do: If your child with special needs does drive, talk with them about driving rules, what to do if stopped by a police officer and who they are allowed to give rides to in their car. If your child is not permitted to drive, talk with them about who they are and are not permitted to get a ride from. Investigate with them how they can get from one place to another via bus, uber, or other agreed-upon transportation that is safe.
#6 Talk about and teach skills needed to advocate for health care
Our children will soon become adults and their care will shift from pediatric medical care to adult medical care. Adult care professionals usually speak directly to their patients; therefore, your child needs skills to advocate for their health care independently. It is important to know to what extent your child will be able to advocate for themselves.
What you can do: Encourage your pre-teen or teenager to greet their doctor, explain their symptoms and answer questions about their health on their own. Special needs moms can help their child to prepare a question for the doctor prior to the visit, keep notes about doctor visits, and a schedule of their medical, dental, and therapy appointments.
If possible, teach your teenager about the release of information sheets, waivers, and insurance programs. Teach them how to access emergency care when their doctor is unavailable. Encourage your teenager to participate in the readiness assessment task to identify what skills your child has acquired and what they need to learn in preparation of managing their own care.
#7 Talk about and explore aspirations, passions, and career goals related to future plans
Children with developmental challenges have aspirations, passions, and career goals, just like every child. Once they become teenagers, students begin to prepare themselves for the transition of high school and explore their interests and options. Teachers and school guidance counselors can assist your child in exploring the options of vocational training, employment, college, and other opportunities in the community.
If your child plans to attend college, but needs accommodations, know that colleges follow Section 504 instead of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Colleges may not modify their curriculum, but they will offer accommodations as needed (i.e., extended time on tests, assigning notetakers). Accommodations will only be offered after a student provides documentation of a disability by registering with the Office for Students with Disabilities at the college of choice.
What you can do: Work as a team with your child, teachers, and guidance counselors to prepare for the transition out of high school. Explore options of vocational training, employment, college, and other opportunities in the community that are in line with your child’s interests, passions, skill level, readiness, and career goals. Don’t let the limited opportunities available at your child’s high school limit your child. Look at programs outside of your district that match your child’s interest. If your child is not ready to graduate from high school, investigate options available at your school district that best prepare them for the transition.
#8 Dental care may become even more challenging during the teenage years
Establishing care with a dentist who understands the needs of your child is one of the most important decisions you will make. Challenges such as spine issues, medical needs, visual or hearing impairments, attention difficulties, sensory limitations, or cognitive delays can cause dental care procedures to be complicated.
Find a dentist who is experienced to accommodate children with special needs to promote comfort and safety. This will decrease fear and anxiety, even if your child has difficulty spitting or swallowing. Establishing regular dental visits and good dental hygiene habits before the child is a teenager will help during the teenage years.
What you can do: Ask around. Connect with other special needs moms and ask them for dental referrals based on the positive experiences of their special needs child. Also, call your health insurance company and ask them to recommend a dentist in your area who specializes in children with special needs. Accommodations can include allowing the child to use headphones, music players, body blankets, and mild sedation so that dental care is successful.
#9 Understand that “talking out loud” is not necessarily a sign of mental illness
As children develop language and communication skills, it is common for them to talk out loud randomly throughout the day. This is commonly referred to as “self-talk”. This “private speech” typically peaks between the ages of three and five and can be very animated as the child explores the things around them, relationships and plays out imaginary friendships.
As children develop into adults, the out loud “self-talk” transitions into an internal dialogue, referred to as “inner speech”. This transition happens for about 96% of adults. But, for about 25% of adults, they do not develop “inner speech”. Instead, they continue to talk out loud to remember important things, complete a task, rehearse and practice an upcoming conversation, or to think through whatever is on their mind. Many individuals with special needs continue out loud “self-talk” into adulthood.
What you can do: Listen to what your child is saying when they talk out loud. Are they using speech productively to organize their thoughts or practice future conversations? Or, are they demonstrating a form of echolalia by repeating past phrases over and over again? It is not necessary to discourage or stifle self-talk that is verbalized out loud unless it is interruptive. In this case, self-talk can be redirected so they learn social rules such as when to speak and when to stay quiet at work, school, and in social situations.
#10 Update your emergency plan (frequently)
Doctors, nurses, and special needs therapists can help parents prepare for an emergency or crisis situation. In the event 911 needs to be called, special needs moms can prepare Emergency information Sheets that include a child’s photograph, history, diagnosis, medications, and sensory challenges. The information can help first responders and emergency room staff understand the child’s medical, behavioral and developmental needs. In the event a child wanders off from home or school, the information provided can help first responders identify and locate the child safely.
What you can do: Update your child’s emergency information sheet each year (or more frequently as necessary). Make copies that are readily available to you at home and to school personnel so in the event an emergency occurs at home, at school, on the bus, or during a class field trip.
As children with special needs approach the pre-teen and teenage years, they gain independence, friends, and many new skills. However, they can also become more vulnerable. This is an opportunity for special needs moms to teach important skills that can actually save their lives. Special needs moms who embrace these 10 skills will be better able to guide their children through the transition of becoming an adult.
If you’re a special needs mom and need help with this kind of transition, please contact Dr. Nancy Musarra for help. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 216-954-5665.