Alphabet Soup of Diagnoses? How to Parent Kids with Different Issues


We arrive home from another day of school and work. Danny, who has  ADHD,  runs up the steps. Samantha and Jesse take forever to get their stuff and  go  into the house. We step over Danny’s open backpack, wadded up papers and  broken  pencils littering the floor, since once again, the zipper is open. The   refrigerator door is open behind him when he turns to me and says, “Mom,   there’s nothing to eat.” He pulls out a bag of chips from the pantry and goes   into the family room to turn on the TV.

“How  could I deal with all my kids’ needs, which bumped up against each other and  rammed right into me?”


Jesse, who is feeling down again, puts his backpack on the bench  and takes  his shoes off in the mudroom, just like he is supposed to do. He  comes around  behind me and shuts the refrigerator. Then he sighs.

My youngest, a sweet girl with developmental issues who needs lots  of  support, goes into her room and greets her guinea pig. She starts singing,  out  of key but on tune. Danny yells at her to shut her door. She keeps singing.

Related:  Kids pushing your buttons?

The dog is still dancing in circles around me, so unbelievably happy that I  have returned once again. I can see she needs her water dish  refilled, a job  Danny was supposed to do. Meanwhile, Jesse is lying on the  couch, not doing  anything. Samantha comes out of her room with a book and  papers in her hands. “Mom, I have homework.”

So here I am. Danny has left a trail of disorganization behind  him, has  chores he didn’t do and is eating junk food—which does not help him  regulate.  Jesse is overwhelmed with depression; he can’t muster energy for  anything. He’s  quiet, not asking for anything, but I can’t ignore him. Samantha  has  significant learning disabilities and is years behind her peers in reading,   writing and math. She needs me to sit next to her to do her homework. What do I   do?

I admit I have stood there and cried. I have yelled. I have  slammed doors.  And I have learned. I have learned that I have options and so do  my children. I  have learned that if I don’t take care of myself, then I am less  likely to take  care of them with grace, compassion and strength.

Parenting, and for many years now, single parenting, three  children with  unique needs, has been heartbreaking and beautiful, painful and   transformative.

Related:  Teach all your kids how to be responsible by creating a “Culture of  Accountability” in your home.

So back to my story. How could I deal with all my kids’ needs in  that  moment, which were bumping up against each other and ramming right into  me?

  • Yelling at Danny to turn off the TV, fill  the  water bowl and get something else to eat.
  • Making a healthy snack, taking it into the   family room for the boys and talking about the show they were watching (this   left Samantha out, so to make it up to her I brought her a separate snack,  hugged  her and gave her space to decompress from her school day).
  • Going to my room and shutting my door so I   could change my clothes, wash my face, and take a few deep breaths.
  • Turning on my computer to check Facebook and  ignoring the chaos.
  • Asking Jesse to come in my room and lie on  my  bed for a few minutes so he could talk about his day.
  • Fill the water bowl myself, stick my hand in  the bag of chips and collapse on the loveseat.

Some of those options came from a proactive, strength-based  approach, while  some are reactive, dis-regulated approaches. Over time (my  children are all  teenagers now), I learned that I had more success with being  prepared  emotionally, physically and mentally. Though my teens still have their  unique  needs and issues, we have mostly found a way to live in a more peaceful,   respectful way.

Danny and Samantha still annoy the heck out of each other. His  ADHD  makes it nearly impossible to tune out her singing. And since she misses a   lot of his higher level conversation, she thinks he is always making fun of  her  so she is very sensitive. The things that help my children live with  each  peacefully are:

  1. Communication: Openly  and regularly explaining their special needs to themselves  and to each  other.
  2. Role  Modeling: Expecting that they will be respectful by modeling it to them   myself. (So instead of yelling at Danny to get the dog water, I calmly ask, “What  does the dog need right now?”)
  3. Being  aware of stages: Recognizing their individual developmental  stages and being  realistic about what they can do and what they can’t do (yet).
  4. Individual  time: Giving each child individual time every day—even just 5 minutes  of  undivided attention can make a difference.
  5. Positive  feedback: Giving each child positive feedback on their efforts, successes,   sensitivity and kindness (not on qualities they can’t control, such as their IQ   or their brain differences).

An important thing to  note:  Once our kids can talk and talk  back,  it’s easy to think they understand more than they actually do. Children  tend to  see things in black and white, good or bad. They use terms such as “He always gets the biggest piece,” or “She never has to do any  chores.” Children  learn the grayscale through direct and indirect teaching. For  our kids with  different wiring, we need to use tools such as timers,  stopwatches, and daily  logs to measure exactly how long their tantrum—or their  sibling’s—actually  lasted.

Related:  Help for parents of defiant, ODD kids.

The  Balancing Act Parents raising multiple  children, especially if they also have  special needs, are in an ongoing  balancing act. The sweet spot always eludes  us. We are always shifting, hoping  for some sanity. Parents have to demonstrate  the way to be balanced at the same  time we are stretched thin with worry,  fears, therapy appointments, calls from  school, getting services and support  and making sure we put a healthy dinner on  the table. Since parenting is a  journey with lots of pit stops but no actual  destination, it—and we—are always  living inside a work in progress. This means  we have to take the long view of  our lives, and at the same time, we have to be  sure that we have our own adult  lives as well as a family life. (Remember, it’s  not one or the other, it’s  both.)

Find a balance by specifically and deliberately addressing these  three  areas—Emotional Needs, Physical Needs and Mental Health Needs—in ways  that  honor your values, morals and beliefs. If you don’t, you may not have the   energy to sustain the demands of parenting a high-needs family. Understand that   this is not selfish, it’s essential.

  1. Emotional  Needs: 
    • Talking with friends and/or joining a  support  group.
    • Put your worries into a box and burn  or bury  them.
    • Find blogs or book about how other  parents  cope.
    • Spending time with your spouse/partner  and  not talking about the kids!
    • Make a collage or list that represents  your  dreams (and do some soul-searching to remember what they  are).
  2. Physical  Needs:
    • Go outside for at least 5 minutes  every day  even if it’s in your car with the heat on and the windows rolled  down.
    • Redirect your worrying energy to clean  the  house, wash the car, pull weeds, cook, anything that keeps you  moving.
    • Meditate, pray or listen  to relaxation audios.
    • Go to bed   before 11  p.m. no matter what. Choose health with exercise, diet, and   supplements.
    • Ask for help when you need it—to give  a kid a  ride, take your dog for a run, or bring a meal. It is not a sign of  weakness to  ask for help, it is a gift to others to be able to  serve.
  3. Mental  Health Needs:
    • Download your brain: Create a place to  keep  the info in your head such as a binder or notes app to keep doctor  reports,  IEPs, along with logs of phone calls, emails, etc.
    • Make child-specific to-do lists  (rather than  one long, never ending to-do list) and set-up child-specific  folders.
    • Hold regular family meetings (or a  partner  meeting, or even by yourself) where you look back on the week,  celebrate the  successes and problem-solve issues.
    • Start a ‘blessings jar’ to help see  all the  good happening even when it feels like it’s all falling  apart.

My biggest lesson in learning how to balance a family full of  diverse needs  is that I have to actively choose, over and over again, to be a  parent first.  My other roles of manager, therapist, driver, cook, housecleaner,  accountant,  handyperson, (and more!) have to come second. I realized this when  I learned  how to see and treat my children and kids first and not the AD/HD,  depression,  medically fragile, slow learner diagnoses that they carry with  them.

When my kids were little, I spent a lot of time correcting,  diverting, doing  OT and PT and speech drills, and often forgot to be their mom.  I got resentful  of all the things everyone thought I should be doing and  finally, out of  exhaustion and frustration, gave up trying to be perfect and do  everything  perfectly. I thought I was failing but in giving up, I learned how  to surrender  to the unique, delightful beings each of my children are and find  a way to  connect to the best in them. I discovered that I didn’t have to be  something I  wasn’t any more than my kids did.

Related:  Teach your AD/HD child how to focus.

When they were in their early teens, we had a family meeting. I  said  that although I was still the boss, I needed a team to make our household   run smoothly. I needed (not as a favor but to fulfill a real need) them to  work  with me and each other to get all the chores done, issues   resolved, and events of life celebrated. They  listened and they  understood. Things didn’t magically change overnight, but  they get better  as each year goes by.

Danny still leaves his stuff around but has learned his own way to  organize  his things. He uses an alarm app on his phone to remember to feed the  dog. He  is still distracted and annoyed by his sister’s singing but puts on his   headphones and instead of yelling, goes and shuts her door.

Jesse moved through his depression by finding something he loves  to do—play  music. He still spends a lot of time alone but now we realize he is  an  introvert and requires a lot of down time. It doesn’t mean something is   wrong.

Samantha will always need help with homework, which we now do  right after  school. With her, we used children’s books about people with  special needs to  give her a safe way to learn about her own challenges. We talk  about  disabilities and what she needs to be successful. She has difficulty   understanding her brother’s AD/HD and we keep talking about how everyone needs   help with something. I make sure I talk to her about what I do to take care of   my needs, as well.

Related:  How to take the anxiety out of parenting.

Parenting several children with special needs includes everything  that  every parent with multiple children handles. We also get to experience an  exponential  factor of intensity, duration, and frequency just to keep it  more interesting.  The added work, worry and wondering does not make us  “special” or  super-parents; we are doing the best we can and handling  things we never  thought would be part of parenting. And I wouldn’t trade  it for anything. I  hope you find your way to enjoying the differences in  your household by first  taking care of yourself—emotionally, physically  and mentally—and then offering  those same skills and strategies to your  children. They deserve it and so do  you


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