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I can’t say “no” to him…

Maria Mora is a freelance writer and single mom fueled by coffee, questionable time management skills, toaster oven waffles and the color orange. She lives in Florida with her two young sons. If you see her on Twitter, tell her to stop p...

Disciplining kids with special needs

The parent of a child with special needs faces challenge after challenge, and unique ones at that. It can be tempting to slack on discipline when stressed and confronted with challenges. Learn how to avoid this parenting pitfall while maintaining compassion and gentleness.

Children with special needs often thrive on routine and structure. After putting together solid routines and working to stick to them, parents may be overwhelmed with small day to day discipline moments. It can be hard to say no when you’re already tired, when you feel like your child deserves positivity, or when you’re not sure your child will respond appropriately to discipline. Learn why “no” might be the best thing you can say to your child with special needs.

Understand that no isn’t negative

Saying no can make parents feel like the bad guy. What many parents don’t understand is that children rely heavily on the structure of rules. “They are not emotionally or developmentally equipped to make major decisions, rules or to self-regulate,” says Lori Freson, M.A., MFT. “That's your job.” Freson encourages parents to set limits and stick to them, regardless of tantrums or other retaliatory behaviors. “Your child will feel safer and more secure, which may even alleviate some of the negative behaviors that so often come along with the special needs.”

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Pick your battles

If your child has had a long day and she wants extra television time or a reasonable treat, it may not be the best time to practice saying no. On the other hand, if your child is stepping outside of boundaries you’ve set or she’s ignoring expected behavior standards, you need to provide structure. There are no universal tools for disciplining young children. When a child has special needs, discipline can get even more complicated. Work closely with your child’s doctors and therapists to come up with an individual behavior plan for your child. This often includes an escalation of warnings before a reasonable consequence. It’s crucial to remain firm and consistent. Kids are observant. If you back down on discipline for any reason, you’ll undermine your own authority.

Practice prevention

When creating structure for children with special needs, it’s important to help prevent situations that can contribute to negative behaviors. “Prepare yourself and your child for what is coming next. Whether it is simply transitioning to a different task, or getting ready for a dinner out in a restaurant, there are steps you can take to help ensure an easier time,” says Freson. Give your child a heads up before it’s time to stop a fun activity or before it’s time to clean up. Understand what sets your child off, whether that’s a bad night’s sleep or physical discomfort. Do what you can to help your child avoid situations that trigger bad behavior. Always discuss behavior rules in terms of expectations, even if the expectations seem obvious to you, such as not yelling in a restaurant or not throwing toys.

Think about evaluating your discipline techniques >>

Discipline peacefully

Saying no to your child doesn’t mean losing your temper or yelling. In fact, if you yell or behave in a way that escalates a situation, it’s unlikely your child will react with anything but fear, resentment or anger. Parents of children with special needs often find themselves on edge. It’s especially important to give yourself space to calm down and attend to your own needs so that you can discipline through peaceful methods that benefit your entire family. Discipline can be subtle, such as gently encouraging your child to regulate his own behavior or seek out soothing behaviors to help derail negative behaviors. When you say no, don’t elaborate. Your child needs the structure, not the explanation.

More on discipline

How to discipline toddlers, kids, tweens and teens
Avoiding power struggles: Parenting without bribes or threats
Positive discipline: Why timeouts don't work

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