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How can parents help youth with special needs to become adults?

Jonah Berger Owner & Director of Operations The Rhythm

There comes a time in the path of raising a child when parents must consider letting go. This is a process every parent goes through. However, with a typical child, this happens more organically. When it comes to a child with special needs and gifts, parents must force this process.


Do embrace your child's adult status

When it comes to children with special needs, odds are you have had to care for them in greater depth and over a greater period of time than with your typical offspring. This tends to lead to the misconception that these children are less needing of their adulthood.

Caring for a child--no matter what age--is synonymous with youth. Therefore, parents of kids with special needs must embrace their child’s adult status, as well as their typical desires and stature. Parents don’t intentionally deprive their kids of this birthright. They simply are in the habit of caring for their kids' needs, so parents forget that their children are becoming adults.

Do find other "village members" to help with your kids

Even the simple act of removing yourself from the caregiver role can bring many important developmental shifts to the child, especially when it comes to males. Seek out young adult males to become influences for your sons. This can go a long way to reminding your son that he is more than just a male--he is a dude.

Do hold your child accountable to act like an adult

You must make the shift at some point to start treating your child as an adult. And a major part of this is to encourage kids to act and behave like adults.

Many young adults with needs still watch Disney and react to challenges like young children--even kids who are developmentally age appropriate. But they are never exposed or encouraged to delve into more adult behaviors and interests, such as music, movies and books. This is another area where outside influences can be key. The important point is to model adult behaviors as much as possible, and call out youthful behaviors when they arise.

Do admit your bias

As parents, you have been with your child from day one. You have seen your kids grow and evolve. You have cared for practically every need. And most importantly, you have completely lost your objectivity.

For many kids, parents are the largest obstacle to their evolution. Not because of intentionality, but because they are too close to be effective at seeing what needs to be focused on and challenged. This is where a strong outside influence can go a long way.


Do not talk to your adult child like a kid

At a certain point, no matter what your children's developmental age, you need to treat them as an adult. Or at least closer to it. This includes the words you use with them, the inflection in your tone when you speak to them, the gifts that you buy them and the developmental category you see them in.

Do not help your kids when they don’t need it

This is a tough one. You have to begin the habit of asking yourselves with each and every thing you are doing for your child: "Am I doing this because they truly need me to? Or am I doing this because I am in the habit of doing it?"

Just as with your typical kids, you have to chose a few basic life activities and go through the "fumble phase" where you teach a new practice; watch bravely and patiently as your child fumbles through it, giving only needed pieces of support; and enjoy as your children swim the waters of their own abilities.

Do not always believe you know what is best for your child

Most of the time, parents do know what is best for their child. But be open to the moments when you don’t. The role of parenting a child with special needs brings with it a lot of pride and belief that you are the only ones who truly get it. But a fresh pair of eyes and a fresh perspective can isolate a problem or solution far faster than the weathered eyes of a parent.

Do not overlook the need to be open to input from others

Be open to the input of your trusted supports. Seek outside opinions from the right professionals. And really listen to what they have to say. There is a certain level of letting go that is required by parents and kids in order for real “growing up” to take place. Is this easy? Of course not! Is is vital? You bet!

Jumping cartoon

The parents of kids with special needs are tough heroes who climb uphill every day in honor of their kids and their rights. And the parents who are able to let others in and let their kids truly grow up, get a reward in the end that is of the greatest value. Good luck on parenting your kids thoroughly and then good luck on letting go.

More expert advice about Caring for Teens and Adults with Disabilities

Photo Credits: Fixer Jade Clement by The home of Fixers via Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Jonah BergerOwner & Director of Operations

Masters in Special Education, Owner of The Rhythm Within; therapeutic mentoring program, Director of Operations for Tall Tales Ranch, previous Program Director for Easter Seals of Colorado summer camp, Author of “He Walks Like A Cowboy; One Man’...

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