Fostering Healthy Relationships Part 3: Seven Tips for Empowering Kids for a Resilient Future
Empowering Kids for a Resilient Future
As parents and family members, we have felt more than once like we’d like to wrap our kids in bubble wrap to help them fend off the disappointments and heartbreaks that are bound to happen as part of life. Things like not making the sports team, being excluded in dances or social events and the constant reminder that the kids who we love are the square pegs in a world of round holes. As a parent, it can feel like death by a thousand paper cuts. It was hard to keep my fierce “mama bear” in her cave with the sense of foreboding that my kids were heading into something that might end up hurting them.
Here’s what we know: Helping kids manage the events that don’t go their way can provide them with some valuable lifelong skills. As hard as it may be, sometimes the best strategy to protect our kids is to give them some advocacy strategies and step aside. This month, as part of Parenting Special Need’s series on fostering healthy relationships, we are sharing seven tips that you can begin now, to help your child manage future life challenges and prevent abuse.
Tip #1: Sometimes you need to put yourself first
Some kids seem to naturally view the world revolving around their orbit, but others seem to always be the ones who make sacrifices for the benefit of others. Although we want our kids to work collaboratively with others, especially if they are likely to need paid support for personal care, it’s important that they recognize their own self worth. While there may be others in their life who are very important to them, and to whom they have intense devotion, ultimately, our kids are in charge of letting others know what they need to keep themselves content. Each child should recognize that they matter and that their contributions mean something.
Tip #2 Make Person Centered Practices a Habit
Disability self advocates coined the phrase, Nothing About Us, Without Us. As family members who participate in conversations and meetings while our kids are present, we need to make an honest effort not to speak about them to others as if they are not there. In our experience, even kids who struggle to communicate using words, or don’t easily sit at a table and make eye contact value being included or at least acknowledged in a conversation. This also sets an expectation on the part of others that our child is not invisible. Other Person Centered Practices encourage us to avoid artificial and clinical language frequently used in professional jargon, and to avoid referring to someone’s “functioning level” as a characteristic that describes them. When describing your child to others, always mention the personality characteristics that others like and admire about them, before you disclose their diagnosis. For example, “My daughter is a hard worker, funny, and thoughtful. She also has down syndrome.”
Tip # 3 Make a request with them, not for them
As family members, we need to start early at insisting that our kids speak for themselves even if situations may be uncomfortable. We might need to “prime the pump” a little by mentioning that our child has something that they would like to address with another adult prior to their conversation. But, our desire to protect our kids from having uncomfortable conversations may be inadvertently disempowering them and removing an opportunity to try out some self advocacy skills. Then, praise them for being brave. My son participated on a sports team in high school, but during competitive games, the coach never gave him an opportunity to compete. This confused him because he worked hard and always received praise from the coach in practices. At every game, he waited on the bench with anticipation, but his name was never called. As a parent, I was crestfallen for him. To have addressed this with the coach myself would have prevented him from speaking up on his own behalf, and disempower him to negotiate these necessary conversations in the future. Kids are constantly soliciting buyers for raffle tickets, entertainment books, chocolate bars and cookie sales, which provides them a safe and non-confrontational opportunity to approach adults and practice their communication skills. Don’t take it away from them by asking for them. When a parent approaches me to buy something for the benefit of their child, I pledge to be a great customer when the child contacts me directly, but will not make purchases from family members.
Tip #4 Everyone Deserves Respect
Many children are taught to be respectful of others and defer to adults. Although that is generally a strategy for successful relationships with adults, it’s important for a child to recognize and report incidents that are not respectful to them. When we asked people with disabilities about what respect means to them, they can easily recite rules that they have been taught about how they should respect others. But it’s important for our kids to know that they also deserve respect, and it is not healthy for them to feel pressured or coerced into potentially uncomfortable situations by anyone. It’s a good idea to establish one person in your child’s life to whom they can disclose anything that makes them feel uncomfortable without judgement.
Tip #5 If someone makes a mistake, they still deserve love
Children can be very frustrating and as family members, sometimes we need to set limits and address behaviors that are harmful to others or dangerous. Sadly, a lot of abusive behaviors are excused under the guise of punishment and kids are bullied into believing that they are so bad that they deserve to be hurt, neglected or exploited. A good way to communicate in this situation would be that you are disappointed or angry about their behavior, and not ready to forget the event yet. Adding the word “yet” allows the child to know that things will eventually be okay, but that you need some cooling off time, and removes the shame and blame which can erode self esteem.
Tip #6 Your family members are not saints
You know the look. Frequently, when we mention to someone that we are family members of a young adult or child with a disability, we are responded to with a pitying expression of sympathy followed by a well meaning comment about how patient we are, or how there’s a special place in heaven for us. Although the thought is usually expressed with nothing but good intentions, it implies that our family member is a burden, and overlooks the possibility that happy, healthy families include those who have children with disabilities. Likewise, those who work to support children with disabilities are often nominated for sainthood. A good response to hearing, “You must be so patient” is to respond, “Why do you say that?”
Tip #7 Determine a code word
If a child feels uncomfortable in a situation because they are bullied, pressured or worse, abused, it may be very difficult for them to disclose it. Perpetrators of abuse are very clever about silencing their victims or a child may not want to lose face around their peers. To practice a phrase or word that means “I don’t want to be here” or “Get me out of this” can be very handy. You can try a very ordinary phrase, like “I forgot to feed the cat” or designating one word that can be used in a sentence. For my daughter, the word was pineapple. She could ask, “Will you buy some pineapple yogurt?” and that was my sign that I needed to demand that she come home ASAP. We agreed that the code word could be used with no questions asked unless she wanted to disclose the details. For children who don’t communicate with words, practicing a gesture or sign with a family member can provide the same purpose.
As much as we would like, we can’t prevent our kids from life’s difficulties, just as our families couldn’t prevent the disappointments that we experienced. But we can provide them with some easy and practical strategies to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and then remind them how proud we are of them for their efforts.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Molly Dellinger-Wray, MS Ed. and Parthy Dinora Ph.D are part of The Partnership for People with Disabilities at Virginia Commonwealth University, a university center for excellence in developmental disabilities. Together with the VCU School of Social Work, Molly and Parthy developed an evidence based project to teach adults with intellectual disabilities about healthy relationships called LEAP: Leadership for Empowerment and Abuse Prevention. They are both moms of successful children who benefitted from special education services.