Parenting a child with a disability is often challenging, especially when your child’s additional needs are complex and time-consuming. Children with additional needs benefit from support with their learning, development and wellbeing. Working together as a family and getting support from relatives, friends and professional services is really important. The following suggestions may be helpful to assist with these challenges and promote family wellbeing.
Suggestions for families
There are times when you might need to advocate for your child by letting others know about your child’s need(s) and promoting positive change to work towards having these met.
- Share your experiences with educators and health professionals to support your child’s development, mental health and wellbeing.
- Encourage opportunities to enhance your child’s social and emotional skills.
- Talk about and express emotions with your child.
- Provide opportunities for children to develop friendships and support these as needed.
- Support and acknowledge siblings as they may sometimes feel left out (eg organise special one-to-one time to do something they enjoy).
- Access support or information that will help you look after yourself and make decisions for your child (eg the Better Health Channel).
- Remember that self-care is important. For more information on looking after yourself refer to positive mental health for parents and carers.
Suggestions for creating a supportive environment
To create a supportive and inclusive environment for children with additional needs it can be helpful to consider factors that can influence an environment, including:
- attitudes and beliefs about additional needs
- fears about being able to support and include children with additional needs
- information from health professionals and support organisations so you are able to be informed and plan for children with additional needs
- children’s feelings of isolation and vulnerability
- physical barriers (ie size and structure of a service)
- amount and impact of sensory stimuli (eg noise levels and lighting that can influence children)
- support from peers to build an inclusive environment (ie colleagues or other family members)
- opportunities to create a positive learning environment
- beliefs that all children have strengths and capacities
- providing reinforcement to children through things that personally motivate them, such as following their interests (eg making time to read a favourite story book together) and positive statements (eg ‘Tommy looked like he was really happy when you gave him a turn with the train.’).
Be an advocate for your child
Being an advocate for your child involves letting others know about your child’s needs and working with them to ﬁnd ways to have them met. You can be active in this by ﬁnding out what kinds of additional support is available for your child and making sure this is provided. This can be hard work at times, so gather allies to help you. Supportive allies may include family, friends, school staff or health professionals who understand your child’s abilities and difﬁculties and are committed to meeting the child’s needs. There are also a number of disability advocacy groups who can provide valuable support.
Work collaboratively with the school
Discuss your child’s needs with school staff and work with them to develop strategies for supporting your child’s learning and their social and emotional development. Talk with school staff about ways you can collaborate to actively support your child’s involvement in school life so that it is a positive and enjoyable experience. For example, you might write a letter to introduce your child to the class. Make sure to communicate regularly with your child’s teacher so you can share information, provide updates and continue to work together effectively. One strategy is to use a booklet for daily or weekly communication between home and school. Another approach is to set up regular telephone or meeting times to talk about how your child is managing socially as well as academically.
Teach social and emotional skills
Social relationships can sometimes be difﬁcult for all children. Parents can help by supporting the development of social and emotional skills. Extra help may be needed by children with disabilities if they have been absent from school due to ill health and have to re-engage with others, or if they face intolerance or bullying behaviour. For some children, the nature of the disability may mean that learning social skills is difﬁcult and therefore requires lots of guidance and practice. For more, have a look at our information on social and emotional learning.
Provide opportunities for developing friendships
Inviting classmates over to play can be a good way to strengthen a budding friendship. Help your child to choose activities or games that they can do conﬁdently with friends. With younger children, or if your child’s social skills are limited, ensure you are available to provide support if needed.
Be open with siblings about the challenges that affect their brother or sister with a disability. Provide important acknowledgement by showing you appreciate their help, but also ensure that they have time and space for themselves. Listening to their feelings and experiences lets them know you are there for them too. Setting aside some regular time to spend with your other children, even if it is brief, helps to maintain positive family relationships.
Get support for you
Parents have needs too. There is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ or ‘super’ parent. It’s important to set realistic expectations of what you can and can’t do. Take some time out. Spend time with friends, your partner, or alone doing something that you enjoy. Asking friends, family or respite services for help when you need it is a really important coping strategy for families. Talking with other parents or carers of children with disabilities can be very helpful.