4 Strategies to Create a Sense of Control for Kids with Special Needs

4 Strategies to Create a Sense of Control for Kids with Special Needs February 7, 2019

A sense of control is essential to kids. My grandson, who will soon turn 4 and beginning to outgrow daily napping, demonstrated his need for control this afternoon. His mother announced it was nap time, and he threw what can only be described as a tantrum. He’s really good at tantrums.

As his mother carried him to bed, she said, “You have to lay down and rest. You can get up after you wake up from your nap, or until after you lay down quietly and listen to two story time podcast episodes.”

The tantrum ended, perhaps because his sense of control was met when his mother gave him the power to choose between two options. The options were developmentally and age-appropriate because he doesn’t need to nap every day, though he does need to rest.

source: istock

Medical conditions, pain issues, behavioral challenges, and developmental delays can make finding ways to offer control tricky. But if a sense of control is essential to all kids, then it’s essential for kids with special needs, and we must offer them appropriate choices, too. Here are 4 ways to do it.

  1. Watch what you say. Kids with special needs have more medical appointments, therapy sessions, and hospital stays than most. When it’s time for an appointment, phrase questions so the child has two viable options. Don’t say “Are you ready to go?” because if the child’s answer is, “No,” he still has to go. Instead say, “Do you want to wear your dinosaur shirt or your firetruck shirt to your appointment?” Those choices, inconsequential as they seem to adults, are powerful control boosters to kids. Depending on your child’s age and developmental level, the viable options will change. The important thing is to always offer two options.
  2. Provide choices when life is tough. Hospital stays, medical procedures, and therapy sessions are not fun. Parents may not be able to make them fun, but we can meet their need for control when stuff gets tough. We can give them a choice between red and orange popsicles after surgery, let them be in charge of the remote control during a hospital stay, or allow them to pack a duffle with toys and games to play with in the waiting room or during day-long drug infusions.
  3. Offer positive reward choices. This strategy is similar to the previous one. It gives kids something to look forward to after completing something difficult. Let your child choose something fun to do after an uncomfortable medical procedure, a grueling therapy session, or missing time with friends. You can set a time, distance, and dollar limit. Other than that, the sky’s the limit. A few suggestions are ice cream, choosing a trinket from the Dollar Store or Target dollar bin, thrift store shopping, a new video game, a trip to the library, laser tag, or whatever your child enjoys most.
  4. Grow your ability to offer appropriate choices. Parenting with Love and Logicby Foster Cline and Jim Fay is packed with ideas about how to offer choices to kids. They have other titles specific to early childhood and teens. Best of all, Foster Cline teamed up with Lisa Greene to write Parenting Children with Health Issues. I implemented many of their ideas while raising our children and during my career as an educator and found them to be effective.

By offering choices to kids with special needs, we not only create a sense of control for them, they become better choice makers—a skill they need to practice often on the road to adulthood.

Jolene Philo is the author of the Different Dream series for parents of kids with special needs. She speaks at parenting and special needs conferences around the country. She is working with Dr. Gary Chapman on a book about using the five love languages in special needs families will be released in August of 2019.


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