Many adoptive and foster parents must decide while waiting for a child whether they feel capable of raising a child with the risk factors of alcohol or drug exposure. However, many others find themselves parenting a child and seeking help for behaviors and symptoms that are challenging to live with, and they suspect prenatal substance exposure. Still, others are reeling from a recent diagnosis of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), and they are fearful about the lifetime of struggle they foresee for their child. No matter where you fit in this experience, there are things you can do to save your sanity and help your family thrive.

Raising Kids with Prenatal Substance Exposure is Hard Work!

Raising adopted, foster, or kinship children with prenatal substance exposure is not for the faint of heart. The impacts of drugs and alcohol on a developing baby’s brain can be long-lasting and touch all aspects of that child’s life. As challenging as it is to be a parent raising a child with prenatal substance exposure or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), it’s also tough for our kids.

It is important to remember that FASD is a spectrum disorder. Your child might experience a wide range of symptoms, and you will need a wide range of support and resources. It is also important to remember that you aren’t alone! Many other adoptive, foster, and kinship families have walked this path and are willing to help. We’ve gathered some “best advice” from several parents raising kids with prenatal substance exposure and FASD to help you preserve your sanity and find joy in raising your kids.

5 Tips to Save Your Sanity While Parenting Kids with Prenatal Exposure

1. Ditch the Blame Game.

Inconsistency is a hallmark of children (and adults) who live with prenatal substance exposure and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). For example, they seem to understand a concept today, but tomorrow they won’t know what you are referring to or need from them.

It would be easy to assume that they are intentionally doing that thing that you’ve asked them to stop, that they are not trying hard enough, or that they are ignoring what you want.

Don’t blame the child.

The fact is that these inconsistencies result from prenatal exposure or are part of FASD. Your child is probably trying their hardest and feeling frustrated by their inability to retain information. Blaming the child for what they cannot help may lead to anger, frustration, short fuses, and thus more challenging behaviors. Instead, try to see your child and you as a team, and figure out how to work together to overcome the impacts of prenatal exposure.

Don’t blame the parents.

While you are thinking about blame, it will help if you can work out how to move beyond blaming the child’s birth parents. Whether you have a relationship with their birth mother or not, try to remember that no mother sets out when pregnant to hurt her child. She may have been uneducated, naïve, or struggling with the disease of addiction. Blaming either birth parent for the conditions during pregnancy doesn’t serve your child well. It only diverts your mental and emotional energy from finding ways to help your child.

What is it Really Like to Raise a Child with FASD?

2. Set up Routines & Structures.

In addition to inconsistency, unpredictability is another struggle for children with a history of prenatal substance exposure or FASD. Their brain and internal state often feel erratic. Feeling out of control is scary for our kids and can lead to more challenging behavior.

Providing consistent, predictable routines in your child’s environment can help them feel more in control and thus safer. Your days together should follow a predictable pattern.

  • Morning: get up, brush teeth, make the bed, eat one of 3 good options for breakfast, and get in the car.
  • After school: eat one of 3 acceptable snacks, play for 30 minutes, do homework starting with the hardest first, 1 hour of TV or video game.
  • After dinner: shower or bath, pack the backpack, read for 30 minutes, and lights out at 9.

While this structure may feel rigid and boring for you, it will give your child a sense of safety, trust, and freedom.

In addition to a structured daily routine, it’s helpful to maintain a regular weekly rhythm in your home. Consider posting this schedule as either a picture story (for younger kids) or a written calendar to provide additional prompts for your kids. However, plan for regular reminders to keep your child on track. For example, before karate class, give a 1-hour, 30-minute, and 5-minute reminder before leaving.

Another helpful tip for the struggle with unpredictability is to keep things in your house in the same location whenever possible. Teach your children where shoes belong, where to store backpacks after school, and which drawers hold shirts, pants, etc.

3. Find Your People.

A general rule of thumb is that kids with prenatal substance exposure or FASD may function at about half their chronological age in many areas, though not all. For example, your 12-year-old may be reading on grade level and have the expressive language of a 16-year-old. However, they may not be able to understand most of what they read, have no concept of time or money, and have the emotional maturity and behavior of a 6-year-old.

These differences in your child’s experience can create situations where casual observers see an articulate, well-read 12-year-old. But they don’t see the tantrums, scattered thinking, disorganization, or vulnerability to unhealthy peer pressure. They may not understand your parenting style. You might find that they assume you are a hover mother afraid to let their child grow up or a parent who feels overwhelmed by managing their life.

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You should find a community of people who understand your daily life. Surround yourself with folks who get what you are experiencing so you don’t need to defend your parenting decisions. Remember that often these people may not be your parents or extended family. If you can find an online or in-person support group for parents raising kids with prenatal exposure or FASD, that’s even better!

4. Have Fun Together!

Raising kids is complicated, often unrewarding work. Parenting children with prenatal substance exposure is even more challenging. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the task and turn your life into a massive project. You can avoid this pitfall by making room for enjoying life in your family routines.

Fun for the Family

Plan something fun for the whole family weekly. Choose an activity everyone can look forward to and won’t have to be strong-armed into joining. Whether you do regular game or movie nights, the key is for everyone to enjoy themselves together.

Fun for the Parents

Plan one thing daily that you enjoy. Make it manageable and accessible, especially if this practice is new. If it feels like “too much” (work, effort, time, money, etc.), it’s less likely to happen.

Instead, think about life’s simple pleasures: taking a walk alone, an uninterrupted cup of coffee or tea after the kids leave for school, or 20 minutes of being alone with your spouse after dinner.

5. Tell Yourself: “It’s Brain Damage.”

Prenatal substance exposure is no joking matter. But coping with humor is a valuable tool! That’s even more valuable when you can grab hold of the facts of your child’s prenatal exposure and find the humor.

One mom who shared her family’s experiences said she put sticky notes around her home with “BD” in red marker. It was her light-hearted way of reminding herself that her child’s challenging behaviors were caused by Brain Damage due to prenatal substance exposure. The reminder also helped her not take the child’s behavior personally, boosting her empathy for their daily living.

Tell us in the comments: what saves your sanity while parenting a child with prenatal alcohol or drug exposure?

Image Credits: RODNAE Productions; Kampus Production; jonas mohamadi