As an occupational therapy assistant (OTA), I find myself doing my best to help parents through tricky times in their lives. You read my blog….I, obviously, don’t have all the answers all the time. But I do find myself giving out these five tidbits over and over again. No, they don’t have to do with fine motor development or bilateral coordination, like some may think. They have to do more with self-care, reassurance, survival, and sensory integration. Here are my top 5 most repeated pieces of advice for parents:
- “You’re the Mom. You know your child the best.” I stand by this, maybe because I am a Mom of a child with special needs. Yes, practitioners may know tricks and methods of helping your child that you did not know. But you are the one that truly knows what makes your child tick. The connection I see again and again between the parents that come into our clinic and with their special-needs child is one that has no limits. It’s amazing what the parents sense and know- they’ll catch a cold before it actually happens, they’ll realize that the new behaviors are tied into something more and will take them to the GI specialist even though their regular doctor won’t listen. They see the signs of a meltdown before anyone else does and they innately know what will work to keep their child grounded. If you see a professional that brushes off one of your concerns, trust your gut and go get a second opinion!
- “Be mindful of your breathing.” This may sound a bit new-ageish to some of you. But it works. When your child is having a hard time, you most likely start to feel like you are having a hard time as well. You tense up, your breathing gets a bit more shallow or you may even be holding it. Your child is an open system and is taking in all those cues from you. No matter how tense you are, be mindful of your breathing. Make it a point to take deep breaths and soon your child will *magically* start mimicking your breathing pattern. If your child is so entrenched in crying try using the following breathing pattern: 2 sharp inhales and 1 long exhale. It’s the pattern we all naturally do after a good cry-fest as we try to compose ourselves. Your child will need to go through that breathing pattern before he can take deep breaths. I’ve been doing this so long with Brian that I only need to take one deep breath and he instantly begins breathing easier.
- “Provide the sensory diet and the calming techniques BEFORE they’re in meltdown.” Lots of times, when parents are new to the sensory diet game they’ll try to provide their child with sensory input after they are already in meltdown mode. That is not most-effective. Yes, altering the environment and applying deep pressure can help at times but the most effective way is to make sure you are always aware of their triggers and providing them with movement and deep pressure throughout their day. This helps them to feel regulated and the more regulated they feel, the less likely they will be to have a meltdown.
- “Limit electronics.” Okay, so this one is a “do as I say, not as I do” piece of advice. Listen, I’m a mom. I am incredibly guilty of letting my children have way too much time on electronics. I am not judging you AT ALL for letting your kids go on electronics. But I do know what the research says and I do know that my kids are definitely more likely to act heathenish when they have binged on too many electronics. Parents always tell me, “But that’s the only time of day they are quiet and stay in one spot and I can get anything done!!” and I say, “Amen, I know all about that.” However, research is showing that electronics induce the fight-or-flight syndrome, putting your child’s body into a state of stress. They may seem so calm while watching their show or playing video games but they are being overloaded by the constant flux of sounds and lights. And then later on we see the effects by an increase in behaviors or aggression. I’m going to work hard this year to cut back on electronics, care to join me? I challenge you to just take a couple of days of no electronics or stick hard to a “1-hour” rule and then see if you see any changes in your child. You may be pleasantly surprised!
- “Take care of yourself first.” Again, this is under the “Do as I say, not as I do” category. Parenting is hard work. Special-needs parenting is a whole other category. Research shows that parents with children with special-needs (particularly those with higher levels of behavior problems) have the same stress level as combat soldiers. Stress like that combined with fatigue (because most of our kids don’t sleep) is not good for you physically or mentally. You can’t be the parent you want to be if you don’t take time for yourself every now and then. As I said before, your child will feed off of your energy (and suck you dry of energy, ha) and you’ll both feel better if you are able to pamper yourself every now and then.