By Cinda Holloway (Leonard Wood)January 11, 2018
Many special needs have been identified and have specific diagnoses to help understand and formulate ways to enhance life opportunities. Yet, it seems that we sometimes miss other "obvious" challenges, which result from special needs. Often, being focused on daily care giving can leave caregivers feeling overwhelmed.
One such challenge is with the development of positive social skills. A child with special needs may struggle with having a lack of friends or fewer opportunities in life; these challenges have been known to result in anxiety and depression.
Identifying such mental health concerns in someone with special needs can be difficult. One key in identifying mental health concerns is to look for changes in your child's usual pattern of behavior. All children develop skills to understand and express their emotions, but this can be more difficult for the child with special needs. Caregivers can help them develop strategies for coping with difficult situations and find ways of channeling their energy appropriately. It's important to know what the usual behavioral expressions are for your child and to be aware of any significant changes such as:
-- self-harming behaviors
-- withdrawal from usual activities and interests
-- repetitive or unusual behaviors
-- disturbed sleep patterns
-- increased anxiety
-- weight changes
-- less concern with personal hygiene
-- increased physical or verbal aggression
-- restlessness or fidgeting
-- frequent tummy aches or headaches
In an article titled Mental Health Tips for Children with Learning Disabilities (2013), Emma Sterland addresses different ways to heighten awareness of our child's emotional well-being and to help develop positive skills.
Acknowledge and label feelings -- Help them identify what they are feeling, give the feeling a name, and support what they are feeling. Use words, pictures or any communication aids to identify that feeling.
Express emotions -- Encourage self-expression and the release of their emotions in ways that suit them --through art, music, movement, talking, activity etc.
Develop skills -- Help them to understand and express their emotions using pictures, signs and other communication aids.
Channel energy -- Offer ways to channel this energy appropriately -- through sports or banging a drum or doing an activity to release the energy. If appropriate, redirect aggression by allowing your child to use a punching bag or swing ball, so they can channel negative emotions in a safe way.
Don't discourage self-talk -- Encourage them to use self-talk to help process their feelings effectively. Use what they say to guide you in what they need you to do to assist.
Teach coping strategies -- Teach strategies for coping with difficult situations, such as deep breathing, counting to 10 or down from 10; utilize sensory calm devices such as weighted items or fidgets.
Break cards -- Allow the children to use the cards and let someone know they need leave a situation they find uncomfortable. Follow up to discuss coping strategies for the next time.
What works for you? -- Every child has their own unique way of coping. Find out what works for them.
Social stories -- Develop social stories about how to deal with challenging situations.
Encourage friendships -- Encourage them to develop positive relationships with peers. Having friends and close social relationships is very important and helps them to overcome loneliness.
Worry box -- A box to "house" the things they worry about so they do not have to "carry it around" with them. This can be especially effective if they have high anxiety levels. Ask them to talk about all the things they're worrying about and encourage them to put them in the box. Every now and then open the box and talk about each worry, how your child is feeling and share some ways to handle the worry.
Find the message --Know that every behavior has a "function or reason." Challenging behaviors are usually signs that your child is unhappy about something. Try and identify what that behavior does for them and provide coping skills or an alternative way of interacting.
Encourage meaningful choices -- Children often experience a lack of control over their own lives and/or difficulty in expressing their concerns. Help your child to identify their choices and support your child in making meaningful choices to maximize their independence and to achieve their potential. Allow them to make mistakes and guide them to better choices.
These tips can be used to help a family navigate stressful times. Sometimes it is the little things implemented that can help de-escalate negative behaviors. It is important to remember, when things appear to get worse or you truly fear your child is in danger, always consult your primary medical provider or emergency room for additional resources.
(Editor's note: Holloway is the Exceptional Family Member Program manager at Army Community Service.)