Whether your child is self-conscience about his acne or worried about being awkward in front of the popular kids, anxiety or panic attacks can be very real for children. Many kids are able to work through their anxiety by finding a circle of trusted friends, being active in special interest groups like Scouts or sports, or talking to a trusted adult.
Other kids may have anxiety or panic disorders, post-traumatic stress, or depression for which they seek medical or therapeutic care. With attentive friends and family, many of these kids have access to avenues where they can express their feelings and concerns while overcoming their anxiety, learning to adapting to ever-changing situations.
But what about a child with autism, Tourette syndrome, or ADHD? Or a child who is handicapped or disabled? Working on coping mechanisms or finding a group of sympathetic peers may be a tall order to fill, leaving parents to ask, how can I help my child cope with anxiety if they have special needs?
What would be considered “Special Needs” ranges in different diagnoses and definitions. For a child who is high-functioning autistic, a parent might have to point out social queues. For a handicapped child, their anxiety might be brought on by watching their friends surpass them in gym class. A stutterer may experience a stomach ache every Thursday at 10 am, when their French orals are recited in front of the class.
No matter what the cause of their anxiety, children with special needs may feel that they already are at a disadvantage. And while parents can help, they shouldn’t be expected to hover like helicopters as their child yearns for more independence or autonomy. What’s a parent to do?
One thing parents can do in school is speak with teachers and special educators to secure a individual education plan (IEP). IEPs are formal educational plans that play to a child’s strengths by re-evaluating processes to achieve similar outcomes. Some IEPs provide for extended time on tests, modified or shortened workloads (with the same learning objectives as mainstream classes) or physical accommodations, such as keyboards, scribes, or audio books. IEPs are re-evaluated throughout the year and may accompany your child through college. The advantage for the child is that they remain in mainstream classes, participating at their own pace as part of the class.
One Bite at a Time: Helping with Executive Function
Children with anxiety who also have special needs may find it hard to prioritize tasks, meaning that everything is important or nothing is. Too many tasks at once may leave an anxious child with special needs feeling overwhelmed or paralyzed. For example how would you ask your child to clean her room? Here we may recall the adage, “what’s the best way to eat an elephant?” The answer, of course, is “one bite at a time.” Children with special needs who suffer from anxiety might require help with their executive function skills, prioritizing what is important and where to start. Instead of “clean your room!” start with, “Your room needs to be tidied up. Start with picking up the dirty laundry on the floor and put it in the hamper,” then stand by to guide the process. When the clothes are picked up, move on to the Lego pieces. Helping your child set realistic goals in pursuit of a larger goal will permit a sense of progress and accomplishment and reduce the “all or nothing” feeling that fuels anxiety.
Determining Your Happy Place
Gracie, a severely disabled 16-year old, finds solace by putting her favorite silky scarf over her head. Her gleeful laugh is indicative of a haven that is free from the physical therapy and medical treatments she must undergo every day. Some special needs kids who are more mainstreamed might need protection from triggers such as shrill or loud noises. Parents might be prepared to bring earmuffs to a concert, or politely ask to be seated in the back of the room. Determining your child’s happy – safe – place might take some trial and error, but allowing your child that time to take deep breathes and regroup or avoid known triggers, might be the fuel your child needs to get back on track and eventually overcome that trigger.
Baby It’s a Wild World
A mother bird knows when it is time to nudge their babies out of the nest. But we are not mother birds, and sometimes the nest is the best place for a special needs kids with anxiety. For example, as much as you want to rent out the ice rink for your daughter’s sweet sixteen, you know that a sleepover with her two best friends and favorite cousin will make her special day more memorable and manageable.
Helping your special needs child navigate growing up while trying to manage their anxiety may not be easy. After all, one size does not fit all. The concerns and questions you have as a parent about your child’s physical, mental, and behavioral health are both valid and important, as no one knows your child better than you do. Children’s Health Care of Massachusetts (CHC Mass) can help be a trusted partner when it comes to the complete care of your children. Contact your preferred CHC location in Newburyport or Haverhill to schedule a comprehensive health consultation today.