You love your funny, busy, and spunky kid – they keep you on your toes, and it’s a moment of pure joy when they conquer a new skill. You are committed to scaffolding and supporting them with the tools they need to succeed as they grow. When raising a child with prenatal substance exposure or FASD, the tools you use to help them often look different than those their peers are accessing.
FASD is a Spectrum Disorder
Whether your adopted, foster, or kinship child has been diagnosed with FASD, it’s critical to understand the symptoms and markers for the disorder. It’s equally vital that you remind yourself that this disorder has a range of severity, and each child is impacted uniquely. Keeping this in mind can help you focus on building up your child’s strengths while offering support specific to their challenges.
Here is a review of the symptoms of FASD:
Several physical traits can be seen early in a child’s development. Doctors will look for:
- thin upper lip
- lack of a groove between the nose and the mouth (the philtrum)
- small head circumference
- small eyes
However, please remember that these characteristics are only present in 10-15% of children with prenatal alcohol exposure and only if the mother drank heavily during the first trimester when the baby’s facial features are forming. These features become less pronounced with age and are harder to detect in certain ethnicities or races.
Specialists will also look for behaviors that result from damage to the developing fetus’s brain. Those behaviors often come in “clusters.” They are magnified when the child enters a school setting where they must behave according to norms that are challenging for them to maintain.
- Difficulty soothing – especially as an infant
- Sleep issues
- Feeding challenges – suck-and-swallow reflexes, reflux, frequent spitting up
- Sensory issues – over-stimulated or under-responsive to stimuli
- Difficulty with change, transition, or new experiences
- Insecure, anxious attachment
- Gross and fine motor delays and irregularities
- Speech/language and cognitive delays
- Uneven developmental milestones
- Extremes in “on” days and “off” days
- Memory challenges, difficulty retaining skills already mastered, or lessons learned from previous mistakes
- Attention differences, hyperactivity, impulsivity, lying, stealing, inappropriate sexual behavior
- Immature social skills, difficulty making and keeping friendships
- Executive function delays (organizing, planning, understanding abstract concepts, completing tasks)
Practical Help for Raising Your Child With FASD
Raising a child with FASD or prenatal alcohol exposure is daunting. The good news is that you are not alone! There are excellent resources available to help you navigate this journey. FASD United has numerous Tools for Parents and Caregivers to help you navigate daily life.
Here are several practical tips to help raise your foster, adopted, or relative’s child with FASD.
1. Start with the ½ their age rule.
Many FASD specialists recommend that you target your parenting to half the child’s age when raising a child with FASD or prenatal exposure.
For example, when your 6-year-old has frequent tantrums before dinner, handle the meltdowns as if they are 3, not 6. Three-year-olds need frequent re-directs, closeness to Mom, and help to regulate big emotions. Restructure that hour before dinner to include playtime with toys they are especially fond of, breaks for a quiet reset with a book, and a designated space close to where you are working to prep dinner.
2. Maintain consistent supervision.
In addition to keeping your child with FASD close by during challenging times, consistently supervise them throughout the day. When they sense your presence, even if you aren’t directly interacting with them, you provide guide rails that help them stay on track. Additionally, you can prevent unacceptable or dangerous behaviors from their impulsivity, curiosity, or lack of understanding of consequences.
It’s wise to inform their teachers and support staff at school of the need for supervision too. Many troubling incidents at school can be avoided when the team keeps an extra eye out for your tween or teen’s impulsivity or hyperactivity.
3. Catch it early.
Stay tuned in to your child’s behaviors with prevention in mind. It will help to learn their triggers and warning signs for big emotional reactions, boredom, rising curiosity, etc.
For example, your little one always scrunches his nose when trying to figure something out. He’s eyeing that shiny faucet in the tub. You can step in and re-direct him to another activity altogether. But you can also step into that curiosity with him and help him feel and hear what happens when you turn on the faucet. Your supervision and early intervention work together to satisfy his curiosity, help him see cause and effect tangibly, and even have some fun splashing – without the bathroom floor turning into a lake.
Keeping an eye on your child with FASD to prevent dangerous behaviors is one reason to try catching their signals early. You can also learn attunement to their moods and respond to build felt safety and confidence. They may have a meltdown over an activity they typically enjoy simply because they crave your attention and don’t know how else to ask. Responding early to their signals teaches them they matter, their voice counts, and you are with them for whatever they need.
4. Give them time.
Kids with FASD or prenatal substance exposure struggle to process events, words, and expectations. When you are patient with them and give them time to think and respond, you build life skills they can use to counter their impulsivity. Use familiar scripts each time you need them to stop and think. When you have a question, please give them a heads up that you’d like to talk about it, but they can take some time to process it before they answer. When you need to leave the house by 7:30 a.m., give your teen plenty of time (and gentle reminders) for how to do that successfully.
It’s also important to teach them HOW to process with the time they’ve been given. Some kids will benefit from a laminated task list of how to do homework. Others will need you to sit with them and walk them through setting up and focusing on the whole task. Offer them a short break between subjects until all the work is done. It sounds elemental, but you are helping them think about how to think when you offer them time to process.
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5. Put a spotlight on their strengths.
Let’s face it – our precious kiddos with learning challenges and behavior struggles often get more negative attention than positive. Try a strengths-based approach for your child with FASD. Of course, you should consistently continue your calm, matter-of-fact structures to support their struggles. However, when you notice an accomplishment or see a character trait you admire, shine that spotlight for all it’s worth! You can take it up a notch by providing extra opportunities for those strengths to grow and blossom.
For example, your tween with FASD loves animals and is a gentle, nurturing soul. You’ve just heard that the local animal shelter needs sheets, towels, and volunteers to exercise the puppies. That sounds like a win-win! Help her make flyers asking friends and family to donate used towels and sheets. Schedule her to serve once a week at the shelter – join her in the fun – and help her expend the puppies’ energy (and hers!).
6. Set up an environment for success.
Your child with FASD benefits more than an average child from structure and consistency. Please support them with a daily schedule, whether in picture form, a checklist, or an app on their phones. Keep your days predictable as possible. When changing the routine, give them ample time and space to process and prepare for the transitions.
The hypervigilance of always needing to figure out their space can trigger challenging behaviors. So, keeping your home spaces predictable and orderly is also helpful. Clutter-free zones help reduce their distractibility and sense of inner chaos. Being able to move easily in their spaces and find what they need brings them comfort and confidence in their abilities to manage their day.
7. Teach and model self-regulation.
Big moods and big feelings are common for kids with FASD. They need your practical help learning how to regulate – and they need to see you practicing it too. This is another situation where reliable scripts are helpful tools. You can narrate your own emotional state and practice with them.
“I am feeling angry that the clerk overcharged me for this shirt. My face feels hot, and my hands are shaking. I need to take a few deep breaths and plan what to say when I return to the store. I’m going to practice asking nicely for a refund.”
Then, have your child be the clerk and role-play the refund process. Try switching roles. Have fun with it, and then talk about what “angry” feels like for your child.
When you see your child’s big emotions rising, offer your presence and a choice of the tools you’ve practiced in the past. “I can see you are feeling really frustrated with your brother right now. I’m going to sit with you and help you calm down. Would you rather we do deep breathing or push-ups to help calm down?”
8. Make self-care a priority.
All these practical tips for raising a child with FASD or prenatal exposure require added layers of vigilance and intention. That puts you at increased risk for parent burnout and secondary trauma stress. Try to take care of yourself with the same effort you spend on supporting your child with FASD. Maintain a regular schedule of doctor appointments, counseling sessions, and other supports that keep you functioning optimally. Take time each day to refresh yourself – even if it’s only 15 minutes to stretch, meditate, or journal. Find small acts – like flowers at the grocery store – that refuel you. Plan for more significant events or activities that refuel you, such as a retreat for caregivers or a weekly spin class.
If you are married or in a committed partnership, prioritize your relationship with time and attention as regularly as you can manage. If you don’t already have a circle of friends or family who can support you with childcare help, please consider how to create that for yourselves.
Success is Attainable!
As you guide your child with FASD with these parenting tips, remember that they can achieve their dreams and goals. Launching them to young adulthood and beyond from a platform of your presence, intention, and practical tools gives them the confidence to shine. They can go on to thrive wherever life takes them, in their unique and beautiful way, because they know you’ve got their backs and will support them on the way.
Tell us how you have implemented one of these practical tips in the comments!
CreatingaFamily.org is pleased to announce our recent acceptance as an FASD United Affiliate. This membership will enhance and deepen our knowledge of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, increase our access to resources, and strengthen our ability to support families raising children affected by prenatal alcohol exposure. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) Awareness Month is observed every September to raise awareness about the risks of drinking alcohol during pregnancy, highlight prevention and support efforts, and encourage individuals to learn more about FASD and its impacts. September 9th, the ninth day of the ninth month, was chosen to highlight this issue to remind women to abstain from alcohol for all nine months of pregnancy, providing a safer, healthier future for their unborn child. To learn more, visit fasdunited.org.
Image Credit: Tatiana Syrikova; kenan zhang; Keira Burton; Pixabay