Parenting a child with FASD or prenatal exposure to alcohol might often feel like a frustrating and overwhelming challenge. You know you might be biased, but you know that your child has some incredible strengths and talents. Figuring out how to unlock those and setting your child on the path to success feels like an impossible ideal. How can you adapt your parenting style to be the best possible parent to kids with FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorder)?
As with most parenting challenges, being able to shift your parenting to best meet your child’s needs, in this case, a child with FASD, starts within you. (Hey, we never said these parenting tips would be easy, did we?)
Start with Self-Reflection
Start this process by carefully reflecting on how your parents raised you. If your family of origin was pretty laid-back, empathetic, or emotionally-attuned, this shift might not be a big one.
However, for many of us who grew up under authoritative parenting models, this shift might be more foundation-rocking. Traditional parenting values will very often bump up against the realities of parenting a child who is FASD-impacted. You might recognize those old-school mores:
- “slow obedience is no obedience”
- kids should be “seen and not heard”
- prizing the outward displays and verbal responses of unquestioned respect
Regardless of the parenting style you experienced, thoughtful reflection of that style should help you pick out what could be harmful and helpful in parenting your child with FASD. It’s not necessary to wholly discount how you were parented. Instead, open your parenting plan to the idea that some of those practices might work for your child’s unique challenges – and some might very well not work.
Think in Terms of Can’t vs. Won’t
The next step in shifting your parenting style to meet your child’s needs best is to think about where you are assuming disobedience or opposition from your child as a “won’t” instead of a “can’t” or even a “not ready yet.” This shift takes the responses you are receiving from your child out of the “ill intention” realm and helps you stop assigning rebellion or defiance to his motives.
Instead, you are taking responsibility to accurately assess his abilities and skills to accomplish the tasks you are requiring. You are choosing to slow down and think about what you need from your child and what he needs to meet your expectations. Very often, this internal shift will also lead to a lowering of your expectations as you realistically assess what your child’s capabilities are.
Learn more about the impacts of prenatal alcohol exposure on brain development.
Implement These Practical Tips
Once those two foundational shifts occur, there are practical tips you can implement to set your child up for success. You might even find, as you are scaffolding your child, that you are also feeling more satisfaction and success in your parenting skills.
1. Observe and identify.
Take a beat or two to name the emotions and gut reactions triggered within you each time you are trying to correct, discipline, or further understand a struggle your child is experiencing.
2. Question yourself.
When your child struggles to accomplish a task or comply with a request you are making, ask yourself these questions to help you target his developmental ability, and maintain realistic expectations of him:
- What does my child’s brain need to do to accomplish the task I am asking of him?
- Is his brain capable of processing those steps to be able to succeed at this task?
- If his brain is not (yet) able to do this, how can I adjust what I am asking him to do?
3. Be a student of your child.
Invest time and effort to learn what your child’s passions, interests, and strengths are. Then create ways to equip her to try those things. Provide new or additional opportunities for your child to check out activities about which she is curious. Create space in your routines for her to experience success in those things where she can shine.
4. Speaking of routine.
Create a structured, predictable routine for your home and specifically for your child impacted by FASD. Scaffold his brain development to taste success by providing the external organization of a regularly structured lifestyle. A few ways that you can do that include:
- Create visible schedules – pictures when the child cannot yet read, and words when reading skills have developed.
- Offer checklists for multi-step tasks, to foster both independence and reliance/use of external supports.
- As he grows, get the child’s buy-in to the process and ask him to create the supports with you.
5. Take the long view.
Be prepared to offer these supports and practical tools and repeatedly teach your child to utilize the supports – for as long she needs them or wants them, even into adulthood. As your child grows, brainstorm together about what resources she needs. Try a few out well in advance of her launching into adulthood.
When evaluating tools for her to use now and thinking about what she might need as she grows, ask yourself how to make her tasks more concrete (vs. abstract). Evaluate how the tools you are using do that. Recognize that you will likely have to repeat yourself often, especially when trying out a new kind of support.
6. Build up your tool kit.
At every stage of your child’s development, you should be looking for tools that make real-life issues more concrete. You will also need to find external organizational systems to put in place for your child to teach him how to use them and own the process.
Some resources to consider for your parenting toolbox:
- A cash envelope system for budgeting vs. an abstract debit card
- Time timers to help visualize the passage of time and develop time awareness
- Picture schedules with artwork your child creates
- Manipulatives (like puppets, building tools, etc.) to teach social stories and life lessons
- Apps on devices (with your supervision) that support and scaffold planning skills
- Books on target with their developmental age to explain real-life experiences
7. Less is More.
Keep your verbal instructions and directives short and sweet. Use fewer words and more visual cues. Because kids who are FASD-impacted struggle with sequential steps and oral guidelines that move faster than their brains can run, it’s going to require that you slow it down, write it down and speak less.