It might be a strange idea to suggest that parents are ultimately involved in raising a 25 year old. There is so much work to do when you are raising a child who is atypical! No matter what your child’s diagnosis (or non-diagnosis), it often comes as relief to parents when they are reminded that while, yes, there is a lot of work to do, the ultimate goal is not to have a perfect 8 year old. Or 16 year old. The ultimate goal is for your child to be a grown up person. Our amazingly responsive and resilient brains continue to develop and to respond to interventions, both external and internal, throughout their development. The frontal lobe, the seat of our executive functions, that regulate, organize and problem solve, continues to develop through age 25 and beyond. In the interim, parents often feel that they have to be their child’s extra brain. And it’s true, at least partially. Parenting an atypical child takes longer than typicals because many kids are slower to grow into their own brains. This is not a bad thing but can try your patience at times.
OUR BABIES DO GROW UP…..SLOWLY
It’s so easy to lose sight of the fact that the goal of having a baby is not to ‘baby your baby’ but to raise a healthy adult who can function with ease in the larger community. When you think about it that way, it can help you shift your worried perspective from the immediate concerns of your unhappy nine-year-old to the ultimate goal of a raising a well-adjusted, resilient 25-year-old. The smile of an infant will melt your heart, but as children grow, their short-term happiness is not necessarily a good barometer of mental health or future success.
Think about what makes a five-year-old happy: a bag of M&Ms or a trip to Disneyland. Eight-year-olds delight in watching endless TV; teenagers love marathon Xbox sessions. There’s nothing wrong with down time, but it doesn’t do a whole lot to move children toward that ultimate goal. What does move them? While we cannot predict which colleges or careers will be most important when your child is 25, we can identify the character traits found in adults who are capable, healthy, and reasonably content.
8 SKILLS YOUR YOUNG ADULT WILL NEED:
1. Your child will need superior self-regulation. He will need to be capable of modulating his own emotions and working for the good of the whole rather than putting his own immediate gratification first. Superior regulation begins with small steps that slowly builds upon itself. Both your interventions along with your child’s brain development will continue to work in tandem with each other to develop these all important skills. Do not despair but also do not stop trying to help build these skills. Keep searching for the optimal intervention strategies, there are many options and will be discussed in later blog posts.
2. Your child will need to cultivate empathy and attunement. She will need to appreciate the feelings of those around her and genuinely care about them. Empathy does not necessarily come naturally to each person. Helping a child build empathy as they develop could include having pets, helping other children and modeling empathic caring behaviors. This will develop but for some, it takes more work than for others. Keep trying, it builds slowly. You may be interested in finding out more about social thinking or social skills groups.
3. Your child will need to know how to work hard. He will need to realize that the best rewards often come through hard work, focusing on a problem, and figuring out how to solve it. Doing your child’s homework for him or – having the hired tutor do his homework – does not help him learn these skills. Children who are atypical need to work even harder than the typicals to achieve those typical benchmarks. This does not mean to let them struggle. Be sure to give your child every opportunity for academic support but also don’t forget to have them do a few chores around the house, or teach them a non-academic skill such as woodworking, mowing the lawn or how to repair household objects. It’s easy to forget that atypical children, like typicals, need to learn to make their beds or throw out the garbage. A very bright dyslexic child explained to me, “I’m glad for my dyslexia because it makes me work hard. Other kids may not be used to working hard so they get more stumped when a hard task is put in front of them. But I am used to working hard and feel better off for it.”
4. Your child will need to know how to prioritize. She will need to understand that immediate needs are not always the most urgent needs; sometimes long-range goals are more important. Help your child learn to prioritize. Problem solve aloud and work together to find the best way for her to plan her goals. So many young adults have not yet learned how to prioritize and make goals. This can be taught to most children. Start with the daily planning calendar on the fridge. You can also model aloud how you prioritize your tasks, children learn what they observe.
5. Your child will need to know that he cannot always be the boss. Sometimes—perhaps most of the time—he will have to take orders from others, even if he does not agree with them. Teach your child from a very young age that he or she is not the boss of their universe. Offer them times to be the boss but definitely point out times where they cant be the boss.
6. Your child will need to know how to eat a healthy diet. She will need to recognize that only eating food she loves is unhealthy. She will need to accept that a balanced diet may include foods that aren’t initially appetizing. Start young and this will not be as problematic. Clean up your own diet and your pantry. Children do not need to be exposed to garbage food, and early exposure sets up lifelong habits.
7. Your child will need to know how to ask for help. Better yet, he’ll need to know how to ask for help before a full-blown crisis. Build strong lines of communication from a very early age. Be attuned to your child’s needs and help them verbalize what they are needing or feeling. Knowing when and how to ask for help is not a sign of dependence, it can be a sign of maturity and wisdom.
8. Your child will need to know how to give love as well as receive it. There is no replacement for love. Hug and nurture your child daily. While this sounds trite, it’s easy to forget that your child doesn’t automatically know how much he or she is loved and valued. Encourage your child to do acts of loving kindness in your family for giving love is as important as receiving love.
You know all this already, of course—that’s why you feel guilty when you watch your kid munching through a family-size bag of Cheetos while watching back-to-back sitcom reruns. The inner voice that says, “This is bad for her!” is at war with the voice that says, “But it makes her happy!” If you can shift your focus from the immediate happiness of your child to long-range goals, it’s easier to tolerate the growing pains (and howls of dissent) that come with teaching the eight life skills listed here. Children learn them slowly, but with your help, they do learn them. With your support, they will grow to become amazing 25 year olds. Keep up the good work!