By Heather Miller, Courier & Press, February 24, 2015 –

“None of us are born knowing how to be a special needs mom. I’m still trying to figure it out and am just stumbling along.” These words were written by a mother of a child with spina bifida in response to my email asking for advice about how to navigate the world of individualized education programs (IEPs), needed therapies and a host of other things related to parenting a child with special needs.

Although I had experience working with children with special needs, I realized being the parent of a child with special needs was an altogether different experience. My youngest son was noted to have developmental delays at age1.

I remember feeling lost at first. How would my son be successful in school? I am happy to say he is excelling, although at age 6 he continues to struggle with fine motor skills and communicating clearly. He is enrolled in a regular kindergarten room but is pulled out for services.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 6.4 million children ages 3-21 were served in United States schools under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 2010-2011. While this represents nearly 10 percent of children enrolled in public and private schools, parents of children with special needs often feel overwhelmed and alone.

I have found the following five tips useful when helping my child with special needs:

1. Communicate. View your child, yourself, teachers, and service providers as a team working toward the common goal of your child’s success. Ask for progress updates and ideas to help your child meet goals at home. Be mindful of the fact that teachers and service providers receive numerous emails and phone calls daily. Allow a reasonable amount of time for a response to be received.

2. Listen. Teachers, psychologists, and service providers have experience educating and helping children with special needs. I often was initially uncomfortable with a suggestion such as allowing my son to ride a bus to pre-K. I learned that stepping outside of my comfort zone and listening to ideas presented by those working with my son allowed him to grow in ways that I would have never imagined.

3. Prepare. There will be times when you disagree with your child’s teacher or service provider. Creating a plan for dealing with disagreements ahead of time will better allow you to remain calm and maintain the team relationship necessary for your child when the time comes.

4. Advocate. Parents know their children best. If you feel a need is going unmet, discuss the situation with the teacher, administration or service provider. Ask questions about items you do not understand. I found the use of acronyms confusing. Asking what something means is important to meeting the needs of your child.

5. Acknowledge. Acknowledge the fact that educating yourself and advocating for your child with special needs can be challenging. Be attentive to yourself and practice self-care. Additionally, acknowledge providers that often go the extra mile to help your child.

Youth First, Inc. can provide parents with information about Youth First programs and community support groups for parents of children with special needs. Please contact your school’s Youth First social worker or visit our website for more information.

By Wendy Lynch, Youth First Social Work Intern, Courier & Press, February 17, 2015 –

Does your child have trouble navigating relationships? Do you feel confident in your ability to help your child sort through their conflicts?

Being available and willing to listen are the building blocks to establishing the necessary trust to help your child get through relationship conflicts. When open communication is established between parent and child, it empowers the child to carry those communication skills over into future relationships. Most children, like adults, really want to be listened to and understood.

Children learn and parents teach through modeling, often unaware they are engaging in either. If you yell, your child will be more likely to yell. If you respond to someone in a negative manner, your child will emulate this behavior. Conversely, if you engage in positive behavior, your child will behave more positively, and so on.

By modeling desired values and guiding your child, you can significantly increase the chances of them absorbing positive relationships skills. As your child develops healthy relationship patterns, they will be much more likely to self-regulate their own emotions — especially when relationship conflict occurs.

Sharing emotions, feelings, and thoughts is imperative in navigating life’s challenges. The next time your child is dealing with a relationship problem, invite them to come to you and freely express themselves. This will allow you to bond and communicate in a healthy way.

Practicing open communication from an early age will help them connect with and understand others in the future. Parents can have an enormous impact on their child’s happiness by just being present.

According to a 2001 study on parent/child communication by Dr. Susan Ennett at University of North Carolina, African American families tend to talk more openly about alcohol and tobacco use with their children than do Caucasian parents. According to Ennett, having those open discussions is vital to the parent-child relationship and explains why African American youth have lower alcohol and tobacco use.

Boundaries are also important in all relationships; therefore, it is important to help our youth recognize the importance of them. Setting boundaries is essential to taking care of self.

According to Dr. Margaret Paul, if you are going to set a loving boundary, instead of saying “You can’t treat me that way,” you will say something like, “I don’t like being treated this way, and if you continue, I will leave this conversation (or get off the phone, or leave the house, or leave the relationship).” What you choose to do in the face of another’s unloving behavior is what you DO have control over.

So parents, be proactive. Work on opening the communication between you and your child by making a concerted effort to be as present as possible. Listen and model the behavior you wish your child to emulate, and help them learn to set and respect appropriate, loving boundaries. These adaptations of trust building will improve your child’s quality of life and help them improve their relationships. After all, the quality of your child’s relationships is the most direct link to the quality of their happiness.

by Parri Black, Courier & Press, February 10, 2015 —

At this point in my life, nothing gives me greater joy than my grandchildren. The feelings I have for them are almost indescribable. It’s a combination of deep affection and perhaps an even deeper connection.

They link my past, present, and future, and God willing, they will carry a part of me into a time I will never know. Like most grandparents, I only want the best for them, but I am not ultimately responsible for them.

Fortunately, my grandsons are in good hands with two terrific parents. They also benefit from having two sets of grandparents and even four great-grandparents who love and adore them.

The bond between grandparent and grandchild can be one of the most significant relationships in a child’s life. Grandparents can be great playmates, encouragers, and guides without the burden of being the primary caregiver, provider, and disciplinarian.

Though we may worry about our grandchildren, typically, grandparents don’t have to raise them. We have other important functions in the family system, according to Arthur Kornhaber, M.D., founder of the Foundation for Grandparenting.

He has identified 11 special roles that grandparents play in the lives of children. They are:

  • Ancestor — a link to past generations and a living example of survival and resilience.
  • Buddy — a trusted pal and confidante.
  • Hero — an inspiration and even a rescuer in times of need.
  • Historian — a witness to the value of belonging to the family unit.
  • Mentor — a cheerleader who boosts dreams, growth, and self-worth.
  • Nurturer — an emotional and social safety net, especially when the family is in crisis.
  • Role Model — an example of how to behave, interact, and care for others.
  • Spiritual Guide — a compass for developing morality, principles, and beliefs.
  • Student — a willingness to learn from the younger generation and empower their leadership.
  • Teacher — an experienced instructor sharing knowledge, skills, and life lessons.
  • Wizard — a friend who enjoys imaginative play and turning the simplest tasks into something magical.

Many grandparents experience a fun phenomenon: grandchildren somehow make us feel more youthful. We have the time and the freedom to view life through the lens of a toddler and enjoy every minute of it.

On the other hand, the parents of the same preschooler may feel too stressed and stretched by life’s circumstances. If the situation reaches a breaking point, the grandparents may have to step in and take on the role of parenting their grandchildren.

Research affirms the protective role of grandparents, especially when a family is in crisis. A University of Southern California study (Silverstein & Ruiz, 2006) looked at 2,280 grandchildren with mothers who exhibited symptoms of depression.

The grandchildren who were less connected with their grandparents were more likely to have their own symptoms of depression. The grandchildren who were more integrated with their grandparents did not follow in their mother’s footsteps.

The study concluded that the following factors create a strong grandparent-grandchild relationship:

  • The child feels a sense of emotional closeness to the grandparent.
  • The child has regular contact with the grandparent.
  • The child views the grandparent as a source of social support.

When I hear my grandson call me “Nana” and I see the huge smile on his face, my heart melts, and I believe the feeling is mutual. It is amazing to realize that the bond we share passes from generation to generation, from my grandparents’ grandparents to my grandchildren’s grandchildren and beyond. The role of grandparent is truly the role of a lifetime.