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4 Strategies for Parenting Children with Special Needs in a Digital World

parenting special needs

It seems that everywhere we turn, there is another article written about children and their use of social media. Conversations swirl about what we, as parents, should or shouldn’t let our children do and see. It’s challenging, to be sure, and we worry about our kids. We worry about what seems to be their inability to sustain real conversations. We worry about their use of correct grammar, spelling and punctuation in a world that increasingly recognizes texts and tweets as valid forms of communication. And we worry that this digital world is not preparing our children to have significant and lasting social relationships.

To complicate matters further, most parents are “digital immigrants” (people who were born before the existence and/or widespread adoption of digital technologies) raising “digital natives” (people who have known such technologies since birth). Many of us are doing our best to immerse ourselves in the online world so that we can guide our children through its complexities; but we are learning as we go, and the world continues to change rapidly.

So what happens when you add a child’s learning issues or disabilities into this mix?

 A fifteen-year-old young man with Aspergers syndrome shared with me that Facebook helped him to improve his social skills. This platform eliminated the challenges that he faces in trying to read facial expressions or body language and it gives him the time needed to think through an appropriate response. (Interesting, this is the exact reason why he does NOT like the fast pace of Twitter.) Facebook allows him to engage at his own pace, reducing his anxiety and enabling him to enjoy the benefits of social relationships, a challenging arena for many children and teens with autism spectrum disorders.  

It’s fascinating to consider that the very tools which we worry will interfere with our children’s ability to develop interpersonal relationships may, in fact, help those who otherwise struggle in conventional social settings. There are many other advantages, too. However, we must be prepared to guide our children’s use of social media thoughtfully and intentionally.

1. Diligently monitor content

All children need supervision; no matter their age, no matter their need. I learned some great advice from a veteran teacher: “This is middle school. You may think your children are ready to be independent, but they need you now more than ever. Resist the urge to let them go.” This applies all the more to social media. Know where your kids are, who they are interacting with and do not be afraid to connect with them in these same spaces. You are still the parent. You are not spying.  It is your responsibility to watch your children.

2.  Make your children aware of dangers

Talk to your children about online predators. Talk to them about online bullying.  Open the lines of communication. Encourage them to talk to you about anything suspicious they encounter and do not be afraid to cut them off if you notice something inappropriate. You are still the parent. It is your responsibility to watch your children.

3.  Set limits

Even if these tools help your child to socialize and/or build relationships, it is not healthy to spend hours upon hours a day staring at a screen.  Just as you might limit the amount of television your child watches or the amount of video games he or she plays, you should also establish limits on the use of social media. It’s ok, you are still the parent.

4. Trust your gut

You know your child best. If something feels off, it probably is.  Trust your instincts and don’t second-guess yourself. You have to decide if an online presence is safe and beneficial for your child. And you have to decide when it ceases to be. You are your child’s greatest advocate and it is your responsibility to guide, support and teach your child to advocate for him or herself.  If social media can help, use it.  If not, avoid it. You are still the parent.

Photo Credit: Paul Walsh

Do you have any suggestions to this list? Tell us about them in the comments section below!

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