How much is enough? Parents of teens with disabilities may wonder about the best way to help these youth through adolescence. Sticking points may include what to expect, when to do more, when to back off, and how to balance the needs of other family members. Keeping these issues in mind and taking a positive approach are the keys to success as children with disabilities enter the teen years.
A "disability" means one or more permanent, major, life-altering conditions, which may be progressive or sudden and which may result from disease or injury. Disabilities include such a wide range of conditions and severity that each case must be handled individually. Yet, for all but the most severely disabled teens, a few tips can help parents deal with the challenge of a child's disability along with the rapid changes that affect all adolescents.
Putting It All Together
A teen with a disability is still a teen. Teen life is complex�"a time when children experience physical and emotional changes, an urge for independence, a new and expanded social scene, and sexual awareness. A child with a disability probably has the same interests and feelings as other youth in her age group.
You can welcome teen traits as a sign of normal growth. However, disability carries added physical and emotional hurdles involving the ability to participate, acceptance by peers, and self-image. Teens with disabilities may become stressed, depressed, frustrated, or angry with their circumstances. They may resent being ignored one minute, and then be angry if someone tries to help them the next.
It's easy to be overprotective�"after all, you're a parent. To avoid being too controlling, talk with your teen about his experiences and feelings and how much help he would like as you work together to address problems. You also can find advice and personal stories at the library or on the Web.
You may be angry or even feel guilty about your child's disability. These feelings are normal, but they will not help you or your child work through a challenging and crucial time of life. If you can't set those feelings aside, talk with someone who can help you�"a friend, relative, or counselor.
Aim for as much of a typical teen life as your child's disability will permit. You may have to overcome qualms about what your teen can do or should try. Give your approval to social activities and be ready to tackle dating issues.
Help a teen with a disability to project an upbeat image�"open and confident. Build on a teen's strengths�"encourage her to develop her interests and to join activities that draw on her talents. Help her excel, but don't limit her activities only to special classes for kids with disabilities. Be ready to step in on your teen's behalf. Ensure that teachers, youth group leaders, and caregivers treat a teen with a disability as a normal person. Promote self-advocacy. Coach a disabled teen to stand up for her rights. Start by having her talk directly with doctors, caregivers, and counselors.
Guiding your teen with a disability toward a normal, active life is great, but use the same caution that applies to other youth. Make sure your teen isn't "trying too hard" socially or being taken advantage of. Don't ignore sex and substance abuse as important issues for a teen with a disability. Be a good listener, but also ask questions, get to know his friends, and let him know what you expect of him.
As with all teens, be attuned to the mental health of a teen with a disability. Talking with a caring relative or with a faith or youth group leader can help a teen work through issues and feelings stemming from a disability. However, be prepared to enlist professional help.
Keep in mind the needs of the brothers and sisters of a teen with a disability�"they can feel ignored, jealous, or stressed. Involve them in helping and caring for a teen with a disability, but try not to overdo it. Limit siblings' tasks and give them a break. Provide one-on-one time with them�"that's important!
What do you like best about yourself?
What do you think is your greatest ability?
What would you like people to know about you?
What would you like to try to do that you haven't had a chance to try?
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