Raising Confident, Optimistic Kids with Special Needs
How to encourage children with special needs, despite the obstacles and pressure.
By Lisa C. Greene and Foster Cline, MD, authors Parenting Children with Health Issues
When times are tough or when children face tough times, it’s natural for everyone to feel discouraged. However, both encouragement and discouragement are the most contagious of emotions. Effectively showing encouragement will help your children better cope with their special needs as well as build hope for the future.
The opposite of showing encouragement is generally the showing of frustration. Frustration creeps in as children grow older and parents start to realize they can’t control their children’s responses to their special needs but somehow still think they should! And when parents feel frustrated, their words typically become less encouraging and more demanding or critical.
Our words carry great power- the power to build or the power to destroy. Verbal persuasion, as psychologists label it, is an important pillar in a child’s development of self-concept and belief in him or herself.
When parents think of using positive language with their kids, most think of praise- words like “Good job!” or “I’m proud of you.” But praise and encouragement are very different. The better the parent/child relationship, the better praise works, but praise can be used to manipulate both sender and receiver. Praise is basically another person’s judgment about how good another person is doing. If the person receiving the praise is not in the mood to be judged then praise can backfire.
And when adults are accustomed to using praise, they can easily fall into the trap of false praise- that is praising a child for a mediocre or poor job in the hopes that it will make him or her feel better about the poor job because it makes the adult feel better for the child. This can lead to disrespect as the child eventually learns that mom or dad doesn’t really tell the truth.
This reminds me (Lisa) of a time when I was helping out with the three-year-olds at Sunday school. The kids had colored some pages. At the end of class, there were two kids sitting at the table waiting for the parents to pick them up. One little girl had done a nice job of coloring her page and was pretty careful to stay in the lines. Another little boy had just scribbled all over the page. When his parents came to pick him up, he showed them the scribbled page and they were full of praise saying, “Great job!” and “What a beautiful picture!”
And, I’ll never forget the baffled look on the little girl’s face as she looked at his picture, then at hers and looked back at his again. She was clearly very confused about the situation and she was so cute I really had to try hard not to laugh. Finally, after the little boy had left, I said to her, “I noticed that you worked very hard on this picture and I think it’s my favorite one. You were so careful to stay in the lines! Can we hang it on the wall so everyone can enjoy it?” And she seemed quite relieved that someone knew what a “beautiful picture” really looked like!
So, wise parents use Encouragement instead of praise. When we use encouraging questions, it puts the task and results directly on the child. Questions promote a high self-image and allow the adult to express both joy and disappointment while encouraging the child to think.
Some examples of encouraging questions are:
- “Wow! How do you manage to always remember to take your medicine with your food?”
- Are you proud of the way you are working so hard on that project?”
- “How do you come up with all those clever ideas?”
Children need outside feedback. Adults provide a mirror for the child to see him or herself in and this is an important process of development that basically happens over a lifetime. We are all seeing ourselves through the reflections of other people- even as adults. But as adults, we have a choice about whether to accept or reject the feedback we get. Children don’t yet have the experience to be able to discern whether or not the mirror that is doing the reflecting is cracked!
Kids take criticism to heart. So, it’s important for the adults in a child’s life to give him or her an accurate, loving assessment of his or her strengths and be very careful about criticism- even when it's well intentioned. And, rather than using praise, it is more effective to use descriptive phrases. This helps children focus on and evaluate their accomplishments, decisions, and results rather than provide the child with outside judgments which again, resistant children can easily negate for a number of reasons.
“I notice that…” is a good way to begin a descriptive phrase. Then describe how you feel and give a short description of the positive strength. This is what I did with the little girl’s coloring at Sunday school. If I would have said to her, “Your picture is beautiful, too!” she might not have known quite what to think!
So use encouraging words, descriptive phrases, and keep your frustration from showing. Your children will feel good about themselves and optimistic from the inside out rather than needing your approval to feel successful and encouraged.