Today’s article is brought to you through the generous support of our friends at the Jockey Being Family Foundation, who share our vision to provide education and support to strengthen families.

Parenting adolescents is not for the faint of heart. They are naturally individuating from their parents, which sounds a lot prettier than it is. It’s typical for our kids to seek independence and explore new experiences. During this stage, we necessarily shift how we support them. However, for kids who have had prenatal exposure, supporting them during the transition to adolescence and beyond requires additional layers of scaffolding and resources from parents.

Primary Impacts of Prenatal Exposure

A child who has been exposed to substances prenatally usually experiences several key impacts of which you are already aware, especially if you’ve parented this child for many years. Here are a few to help you understand what we are talking about:

  • Behavior challenges – impulsivity, lack of discernment, short fuse, short attention span, easily frustrated or demotivated
  • Learning delays – slower processing speed, language delays, motor skill challenges, reading and math fact delays
  • Academic challenges – delays in executive function skill, delayed understanding of cause and effect, struggle with memorization of necessary facts

For more detailed information on the direct impacts of prenatal exposure children experience, check out this podcast with Dr. Mona Delahooke.

Secondary Impacts of Prenatal Exposure

Many kids who struggle with the primary impacts of prenatal exposure will also battle with secondary impacts. These secondary impacts are often less tangible but no less critical to understand as our kids grow. Our kids with prenatal exposure need continued care and sometimes even additional support for these impacts as they enter adolescence and adulthood.

1. Self-esteem

Feeling the struggle to achieve, keep up, or be included can wear down our kids’ sense of self. The desire to succeed might be strong, but when their ability to rise to expectations doesn’t match the desire, frustration with oneself can harm their sense of worth.

2. Anxiety or depression

When a child has had prenatal exposure, they often feel like a square peg in a round hole as they become aware of societal norms. They struggle to achieve the expectations and milestones of their age and stage, which leaves them feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed. Commonly, kids struggling with self-esteem will also feel rising anxiety or depression.

3. Continued or escalating behavior issues

When one’s self-esteem is continually battered, challenging behaviors can worsen dramatically. The hormones and moods typical of puberty can add layers of challenge to their behaviors. For example, defiance and extreme sullenness are not uncommon when a tween or teen is struggling with the impacts of prenatal exposure.

4. Social skills challenges

When our kids’ behaviors are challenging, their social circles may change or reject them. It’s not uncommon for cliques to develop in the tween to middle school years. But our kids with prenatal exposure might be on the “outside looking in” when they behave differently than their peers.

Relationship milestones like dating, parties, and hangouts with friends can become a source of frustration and anxiety for our kids. This frustration heightens when they become aware of the “norms” they are not achieving.

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

5. Academic stalling

Kids who experienced executive function impacts earlier in their academics will often struggle with higher-level thinking skills needed in secondary education. Those skills include the following:

  • metaphor and imagery
  • symbolism
  • inference
  • cause and effect
  • prediction
  • interpretation

Literature and higher-level math classes can be particularly frustrating for tweens and teens with prenatal exposure. Our kids can quickly check out, plateau, or fall behind if we are not supporting them to acquire new levels of these skills.

6. Typical adolescent milestone delays

In addition to the changing dynamics of peer relationships, adolescents with prenatal exposure can struggle to achieve many other typical milestones that their tween and teen peers experience.

For example, your 16-year-old might not be ready to handle the privilege and responsibility of drivers’ training. Her motor skill delay and slower processing speed could put her and others at risk of grave danger if she were behind the wheel of a car. One can understand then how the emotional impacts of anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem can be so weighty for our kids with prenatal exposure.

Another example of a typical adolescent milestone is cell phones and the internet. There is way too much damaging and dangerous content at our kids’ fingertips regularly as it is. Teens with prenatal exposure who struggle with impulsivity or delayed prediction skills might be wholly unprepared for that kind of access. Add in the layers of challenging social skills and delays in executive function, and your child can easily be at greater risk than typical teens on the internet.

Practical Supports During Adolescence

As your child approaches the late elementary or early middle school years, there are several things that you can do to support him during adolescence. Remember that a child who struggles with cause and effect and judgment or discernment might not take what he’s learned in one terrible experience to future, other experiences.

Internet and Screen Use

Take advantage of the available apps and tools to monitor your child’s phone use and internet access. Supervise screen time. Talk about what your child sees and what is problematic.

Community and State Resources

Look for community or state-based programs in your region that teach life skills for developmentally delayed adults. Connecting your tween or teen into these organizations can help set up a network for their later, more independent adolescent and young adult years.

Many local colleges offer programs for students who have developmental disabilities. Resident halls and college staff who have special training and safe environments for our kids can be life-changing for them and how they view themselves.

Driver Training

As your child gets close to your state’s driver permit and licensing age, consider seeking an evaluation from medical professionals. Look for one who regularly evaluates patients who have had a traumatic brain injury or stroke to take the onus off you. In essence, you put the medical professionals in the driver’s seat. (Please excuse the pun. We couldn’t resist.)

Multi-disciplinary Diagnosis

Consider taking advantage of your state’s disability programming available to children who have official diagnoses of FASD or developmental disability. Your pediatrician or local children’s hospital can help you with the evaluations to start the process if you don’t yet have a diagnosis.

Many kids with prenatal exposure will benefit from staying in high school until age 21, especially if they struggle with essential life skills. However, again, they usually require a diagnosis to qualify. Your local school district can help you navigate the school side of things once you have the diagnosis recorded.

Basic Money Concepts

It will be critically important to equip your young person with the basics of money management in explicitly tangible ways. Kids with executive function challenges will often benefit from the cash envelope system to handle their money. They can see it and touch it. When the money is gone, the empty envelope reinforces the message. Debit or gift cards for spending money can be far too nebulous for kids who need concrete training and practice.

Find Your Child’s Niche

Your child needs the empowerment that comes from knowing her strengths. As she grows, she can follow her interests and dig into hobbies where she succeeds. For some kids, that will be art, sports, or music. Others will find their place in volunteering at the local animal shelter or a nursing home.

Wherever your child lands, and for as long as they are still interested and enjoying it, expand their experiences. Set them up for the taste of success and self-confidence one feels when one is excellent at something.

Practical Supports to Prepare for Adulthood

The advancement into adulthood brings a lot of extra challenges for a parent of a child with prenatal exposure. It can feel like you are parenting many ages in one adult body. Make sure you continue to take care of yourself to be present and resourceful for your adult child.

Seek independent living gradually and with supports.

Many states offer financial aid or in-home support for young people who cannot live independently. The supports could include bill-paying help, house-cleaning services, grocery shopping help, transportation, and so on. Again, a diagnosis is usually required to access those resources.

Look for job training programs.

Your adult child will need support to enter the workforce. When you find a job training program that fits your young adult’s needs and interests, it can empower and affirm their self-esteem and skills.

Consider self-advocacy training programs.

Many excellent organizations around the country offer classes to teach young adults with developmental disabilities how to take care of their needs. Learning to speak up for oneself at work is not a natural skill for many young adults. Our kids with prenatal exposure need specific, concrete tools to advocate for and protect themselves.

Keep up with financial skills training.

Help support your young adult’s growing independence by teaching him budgeting and shopping skills that he needs to live. Even if he is not living independently, he can learn to purchase his clothes and groceries within his budget.

Shine a light on the strengths.

Your young adult will still need your support and encouragement to highlight her strengths. At this stage, their area of excellence might not be their job, so facilitating this can get more challenging. However, their niche of accomplishment still offers opportunities for confidence-building and self-empowerment to be worth it for you both.

Be the Constant Presence Your Young Person Needs

The impact of prenatal exposures to alcohol and drugs is not something that our kids outgrow. Their transition into adolescence and adulthood can be tricky. Our ideas for supporting your child with prenatal exposure into adolescence and beyond are certainly not exhaustive. There are many other creative ways to scaffold your young person impacted by prenatal exposure.

Navigating community and state resources can be challenging. Exploring the resources and supports available to your tween, teen, or young adult can feel overwhelming. But when you can be the constant, comforting presence through the process of his development, you are building trust and setting him up for success as he grows.

Tell us in the comments: What have you done to prepare your child with prenatal exposure for the transition into adolescence, young adulthood, and beyond? Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


Image Credits: Atom Ray; Barrett Anspach; State Farm; William Clifford