Tips for Parenting Toddlers With Special Needs
Parenthood is a challenge, and caring for toddlers with special needs can be more bumpy. Here is a practical guide on how to help make your parenting journey smoother.
Parents to toddlers with special needs undergo bigger challenges during their parenting journey. These toddlers will require more attention and care, and this often surmounts to an upheaval of emotions for the parents.
What does “special needs” mean?
It is refers to children or students who are diagnosed with a physical disability including medical conditions, intellectual challenges or emotion issues such as deafness, blindness, dyslexia, learning difficulties and behavioural issues. In particular, it points to the educational requirements of these people.
They are also referred to as “persons with disabilities.” The Disabled People’s Association of Singapore notes that persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments. There’s also presence of barriers during interaction which may come in the way of full and effective participation in a social setting.
In 2011, there are approximately 7,000 preschoolers (aged zero to six) diagnosed with developmental delay or disability in Singapore.
Approximately 5-6% of children born here are diagnosed with some form of development issue. The top two most commonly diagnosed among toddlers and preschoolers are: 1) speech and language delays and disorders and 2) autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
How different are special needs toddlers compared to the rest?
According to Jayne Nadarajoo, Founding Director of White Lodge Kindergartens and Melbourne Specialist International School, children with a diagnosis have specific developmental delays and challenges.
As such, their growth and development may not be progressing as well or be in line with their birth age. They require additional help and support in achieving their developmental milestones.
Depending on the diagnosis of the toddler, a special needs child requires a different set of care on a daily basis. Undoubtedly, it will be challenging for parents and caregivers, too.
Due to the special needs toddler’s development, their physical, mental, emotional levels differ from that of a similar-aged peer. Toddlers with special needs are at a different pace when it comes to motor skills development, too, so daily activities such as self-feeding may be difficult for them.
Likewise, parents need to understand their child’s condition and seek assistance from medical experts, family, or speak to friends in a similar situation. Stress will build up and may inevitably cause relationship issues with your partner, family and others in your social circle, but these can be managed with the right parenting mindset.
15 tips for parents of toddlers with special needs
Jayne shares that there is a huge success when parents are ready to accept the diagnosis and move on. Working collaboratively with specialists, teachers and family members help the children attain more success as all are in sync and working towards a common goal.
Here are 15 helpful tips to parents of toddlers with special needs:
#1: Manage your emotions and reactions
When presented with the news of your toddler being diagnosed with a special need, it is normal to go through a wave of emotions ranging from denial, guilt, fear, helplessness, disappointment, resentment to rejection.
There will be plenty of questions flooding your minds: “Why us?” “Why my child?” and “What did I do wrong to deserve this?”
It’s important to acknowledge these thoughts and, better yet, share them with your partner, family or even a counsellor. Not all parents go through the constellation of emotions, but essentially, identify with all of the potentially less-than-positive feelings that may arise, so that they will know that they are not alone.
Psychologists agree that the emotional ride which these parents go through is unmistakably more stressful, and advise that there are many constructive actions including sources of help, communication, and reassurance which parents can take.
While parenting toddlers with special needs (“Terrible Two’s”, anyone?) may be tough, experts discover that there are in fact a plethora of positive psychological effects on the parents – such as the role of maturity and selflessness, these parents embrace a bigger purpose and being an inspiration to fellow parents by creating a positive psychological sense in the community!
#2: Talk to your partner and family
Communication between husband and wife is always essential. If one partner is undergoing a wealth of emotions or feeling uncertain, it’s best to speak to your partner about your feelings.
Being open with that helps you acknowledge your thoughts too, and having a listening ear to share the worries halves the load in your hearts and minds, and have emotional support.
#3: Seek information and advice from professionals
When in doubt, ask. And the experts are there to address your query.
With unfamiliar terminology or phases encountered, it’s good to find out more by doing your own research through reliable sources to better understand things.
Before the doctor’s appointments or periodical checks for your toddler, put down the questions or problems that you face and take the opportunity to speak to the professionals.
Keep medical reports, diagnosis, tests, and other relevant information organised in a neat manner, so it makes it easy for you, your partner or a caregiver to retrieve them when needed.
In Singapore, early intervention is available for children below six to assist in the different areas of development of the child. Parent support and training are available too.
Our local government is also taking steps to provide medical attention to special needs children, by encouraging early detection and intervention at various centres in Singapore.
#4: Seek assistance and accept help from other parents
Family and friends know it can be stressful and tiring looking after toddlers with special needs, so asking for help is entirely normal.
Fellow parents who have toddlers with similar conditions would also be more than glad to offer practical advice and insights on what they have gone through, and sharing of experiences help all parties to learn and grow to better manage things along the way.
If you have another child, it is essential to spend time with your other child while caring for your special needs child. However, asking for help is perfectly fine, and you will realise that having extra help can help go a long way for you and the family.
#5: Do not feel any less of a parent
It’s easy to undermine oneself, and feel less of a parent when comparing your situation to others.
Comparing oneself to others is a natural behaviour, but do not let that affect you in a negative manner. Acknowledge your emotions, and talk to someone about it. The key aspect is managing your emotions and not let it translate into a negative thought or action.
#6: Learn to deal with negative emotions
Negative thoughts can come from oneself or spoken by others. Dealing with negative words and emotions is part of the journey with a child with special needs.
Remember, your toddler needs you and how important you are to your dear child. It is crucial for you to keep level-headed and keep a positive mind because your child will be able to sense it.
#7: Maintain a positive outlook and attitude
Focus on the positive! There’s always positivity around but we often focus on the not-so-good areas.
Embrace the fact that although your child may be a special needs one, he is still able to shower you with hugs and kisses, or be thankful for the fact that he is physically healthy, despite certain challenges.
If your toddler has crossed a new milestone, celebrate it and keep the positivism alive, because your child knows and appreciates the support and encouragement from you.
#8: Keep routines simple
Toddlers like predictability and routine, and it makes things easier to manage for the caregivers too.
Keep daily affairs easy and you will be able to better manage any “surprises” or unforeseen circumstances should they arise.
#9: Stay in touch with reality and the rest of the world
It’s easy to hole up and duck away from the rest when the tough gets going. Caring for a special needs child need not mean that you should shun yourself from others.
With technology, it’s easier to stay connected too, and if a parent is the main caregiver, the other parent should take turns to care for their tot so the key parent can have some alone time, and time away from things for a while.
#10: Take care of yourself
Remember, your child and family need you, so taking charge of your own health is tops!
Depending on the degree of your special needs toddler’s condition, he might be entirely dependent on you or not on a day-to-day basis.
#11: Look for relevant programs for your toddler
Consider programs that are suitable for your toddler, and in Singapore, the Government has been working on providing childcare options and programmes, to aid in their development and abilities.
Lien Foundation and the Asian’s Women Welfare Association have come together to create the first inclusive preschool for our local toddlers with special needs, in a bid to encourage full-fledged education for the children. Toddlers from 18 months are able to attend school.
Alternatively, there are other programmes which assist with early intervention and individualised classes so toddlers with special needs benefit from learning.
Through an inclusive programme, “All children with special needs are given an equal opportunity to preschool education and they learn and play with typically developing children in the same environment,” points out Jayne. “This is a wonderful learning experience for all as children and teachers make extra efforts to accommodate each other’s needs.”
The Singapore Government is looking at ways to embrace an inclusive education system for special needs children. If your toddler requires Special Needs Education (SEN), it is helpful to find out more on this aspect, and how parents can help their child, how to decide on the best special needs school and application processes amongst other tips.
#12: Decide on how to deal with others and avoid toxic relationships
This journey may be tough, especially when others are unsure about how to approach the topics surrounding your child. There may be instances of anger, hurt and confusion which arise from remarks by others but do take a step back first.
Try to understand that these people’s reaction may be due to lack of knowledge and experience around a child of differences. At times, they simply do not know what to say or are afraid of the unknown. So take a deep breath, and avoid using too much energy by being concerned over undesirable remarks and responses.
If these are family or friends who constantly put you in a spot with such emotional waves, you might want to speak up about how you feel. If strangers or acquaintances are sending unsolicited comments, avoiding them is easier since they’re just random people that you meet.
#13: Remember: you are not alone
“No man is an island.”
These wise words are applicable to parents of toddlers with special needs, too – and always remember that support and assistance is available within the community.
As a parent, your partner plays an important role with you in this journey, so it’s good to keep healthy, opened communication with each other.
In Singapore, there are various services extended to the special needs community. For toddlers, there are short and long-term residential care, development support programmes, early intervention programmes, integrated child care programmes as well as rehabilitation and therapy for these young children.
#14: Join a support group
Support groups are available within the varying special needs community. Parents can join these groups to better understand how to parent their toddler with special needs, as well as learn from others on their challenges, coping measures and tips during this parenting journey.
#15: Love your toddler like no other
Your toddler is, after all, your flesh and blood. And you are what keeps him going too, no matter how difficult things may be.
Your tot’s development may be different from others, but do keep in mind that this does not make him less valuable, less human, less important, or in less need of your love and parenting.
Hold close that your child comes first; the disability is secondary.
If you know others who have toddlers with special needs…
Don’t show pity – that’s one of the biggest pet peeves that parents of children with special needs have.
Be mindful of your choice of words and be sensitive of the things you should not say to these parents. This handy guide presents a glossary of words and phrases that are acceptable to people of disabilities.
Are you parenting toddlers with special needs, too? Do share some insightful tips to inspire fellow parents!