Coming to terms with the fact that your child is wired differently can be hard, says a parenting expert

Society favours children and adults who conform. We are quick to judge those who present differently. If our children behave inappropriately we often believe the behaviour is a reflection of our parenting.

The notion that our children may be less acceptable for being different breaks our hearts and being judged by others can be one of a parent’s biggest fears. It is something I experience often, as I am the parent of a child who is different.His sensitive, intense and impulsive temperament meant that at home and at school his behaviour was problematic. So problematic that by the age of seven he had been excluded from his third school in so many years. His self-esteem was shattered and his educational prospects were effectively written off.

He was diagnosed with so many three-letter abbreviations he became known as the alphabet kid

I sensed that Sam was different from an early age, at playgroups when the other kids would be getting stuck into messy play with sand and mud and finger paints, Sam would be disengaged and wandering off to do something else. He hated having foods touching on his plate and would complain vociferously if the ketchup touched his chips. Hair washing elicited such screams  that the neighbours would be forgiven for thinking we were sticking hot needles in his eyes. Instead of wearing a coat and trousers in Baltic winter conditions, he would leave the house electing to wear shorts, earning me many disapproving looks.

We bought into the parenting myth that what he needed was good old-fashioned discipline, so we nagged, repeated instructions, cajoled, bribed, threatened and punished. I quickly became a shout-aholic. We had no idea how to get the best out of him as we didn’t understand his needs or his temperament and very quickly our sweet boy became labelled as ‘the naughty one.’

Our son’s needs were varied and complex and although we now know he is severely dyslexic, he was diagnosed with so many three letter abbreviations he became known as the Alphabet kid. First it was Autistic Spectrum disorder (ASD), then Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). The professionals then threw in a bit of Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) for good measure and when finally we were told that our son had Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA)  I came home and cried.

Parents’ observations of their children are usually astute and I often tell clients that they are the expert on their child. It may be that you don’t know what the problem is but you sense something is not right. You may have started to catastrophise as you know the stakes get higher as they get older. We all want to ensure our children are happy and successful and that they enter adult life as resilienct people, able to cope with whatever life throws at them.  

We sensed our son was a good and capable boy with a strong moral compass. On many occasions he couldn’t help what he did. When we asked him why he had thrown my prized Jo Malone candle on the floor, he said “I don’t know. I just could not help myself.” He was impulsive and lacked self-control but that did not make him a bad person. Sam was a child with an ‘orchid’ temperament, meaning that he needed special care to nurture his  growth, whereas his sister was a ‘dandelion’: robust and resilient, who seemed to thrive anywhere. Our children are born with a temperament that provides their default position for interaction with the world, but biology is not destiny. Parents play a vital role in unlocking their child’s potential and, through positive parenting and understanding, there is hope.

If you have a child who is wired differently what steps can you take to support him?

Build strong self-esteem

Children behave better, take more responsibility, try new things and are more resilient when they have good self-esteem. Approve and affirm them by commenting on what they are doing well, rather than focusing your attention on the more challenging behaviour. Criticism is de-motivating and lowers self-esteem.

Be your child’s emotion coach

How your child feels influences how he behaves. We need to help our children recognise and manage their emotions. This means accepting all their feelings and letting them know we understand. It doesn’t mean you permit poor behaviour.

Realise that all behaviour has a cause

When we understand what is causing bad behaviour we can remain calm and help children learn. It can be very simple – they’re tired, bored, hungry or unwell – or it could be more complex. They could expressing an emotion, their brains are immature, they have a different agenda from ours, we are inconsistent or perhaps we are modelling poor behaviours.

Don’t punish

Punishment is often delivered in anger and with criticism, and it makes children feel badly about themselves. No learning can take place when a child is afraid or feels resentful and it often results in rebellion. Problem-solve with your child and teach consequences. When a child whines, instead of criticising and scolding them, try to say:  “It’s hard for me to hear you like that. Please use your strong voice and that way I can listen.”

Two key factors for us were getting our son into the right educational environment and doing positive parenting courses. We experienced such transformational results that I retrained as a parenting coach. Now I’m a director of The Parent Practice and have a new sense of purpose to my life, helping parents understand their children and  guiding them to maximise their strengths and unlock their potential.

Learn more about The Parent Practice here