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SNN Presents: Supporting your child with special needs through the teen years

As the saying goes: “tough times don’t last, but tough people do.” The teenage years are notoriously tough for both parents and children. While adolescence presents difficulties for “typical” children and parents, when your child has a disability or additional needs, the challenges associated with puberty can be even more daunting – and it always feels too early!

On Wednesday 25 May, 2022, SNNHK was delighted to welcome Angela Watkins, head counsellor and psychologist of Red Door Counselling and mother to an autistic child, to deliver an online briefing on practical tips and advice for supporting your child and getting through the teen years.

Angela described the neurological changes happening to teenagers, including both physical changes and the mental health challenges today’s teens are facing. However, she reminded us that with every challenge there is a learning opportunity! So, how can we plan for a positive outcome for our children with special needs?

The most important things to keep in mind? “You need a LOT of patience, and you need to do a lot of listening,” said Angela. “Sex hormones cause significant changes in the brain, which affects their moods and behaviour. It’s like having a Ferrari with a toddler at the wheel – and not road tested!”

One thing to remember is that disabled children can be more different from each other than neurotypical children and should not be considered a “homogenous” group: their experiences will be vastly different, depending on voluntary vs involuntary control, verbal vs non-verbal, levels of mobility and the type of education they are receiving.

Teens with special needs may get left behind their peers, and friendships with “typical” children may start to fall away. This is part of growing up but can be painful for your child. Remember ALL children have strengths, and finding what they are good at is very important. Keep talking to them, even if they are being difficult and moody. In her counselling, Angela uses an assessment model called RADAR which can accurately assess learning and academic changes happening to your teen, and what level of intervention and support they require. It’s a simple tool that you can use at home.

Socio-emotional and behavioural changes can be among the major challenges during the teen years. Social skills may be impaired in children with special needs, and bullying may occur. Helping your child to understand the difference between private and public spaces is important, and what behaviour is appropriate when in public, particularly around touching of themselves and others, and understanding consent. Mental health concerns must be kept in mind, too. Diet, exercise and sleep must be closely monitored. Children with special needs can be more vulnerable to victimisation or being “tricked” into delinquency, particularly online, without realising what is happening to them.

Despite the challenges, teenage years can also be an opportunity. Teenagers are very funny and entertaining, if you can support them and be there for them, keep your patience and build trust, it can be very rewarding. These years don’t last forever!

To maximise possible outcomes throughout the teen years, Angela recommended a variety of strategies. Find their strengths and expand on these, and find like-minded individuals to spend time with – if the group you want to join doesn’t exist, start one! For example, Angela started the Voc-abilities choir, Hong Kong’s only choir for singers with special needs.

Encouraging independence is vital to boosting self-confidence. Angela shared a grid of 5 layers to explain different levels of independence, according to your child’s needs, starting with relatively simple tasks such as brushing teeth, to more complex skills such as travelling independently.

Vocational planning is a good idea. Parents need to accept their child will become an adult, and they need to allow them to. Brainstorm ideas and explore what opportunities exist in Hong Kong (job openings for young adults with special needs and disabilities sometimes seem limited to the F&B industry, but there are some others – check out SENsational Foundation and The Nesbitt Centre for ideas).

After the presentation, attendees had the opportunity to ask Angela’s advice on sensitive topics, including "how do I cope if my teenager with special needs is displaying violence?” Angela explained it is important to stay calm, de-escalate the situation, use “active listening” and acknowledge their feelings, for example: “wow, you sound really angry,” as a starting point. Another member asked “how do we get our teenage kids to listen?” Angela explained that most teenagers actually want to talk. It’s all about building trust and staying calm, and being there when they are ready to talk rather than forcing a conversation. You need to build trust by “creating enough little moments so that when the big moments happen, they matter.”

Another important question is “how do I get my special needs child to understand boundaries?” Angela said boundaries must be “Rigid first, elastic later.” For example, telling your teenage son that he is not allowed to touch a girl – until he understands that boundaries and consent are key. We start by explaining, for example, that we do not touch a girl’s hair. Once that is understood, we can then ask, is she a friend? And, if she is a friend, remember to always ask if we can touch her hair, and respect her answer.

Angela recommended a list of books and resources for parents:

  • The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults by Frances E. Jensen MD and Amy Ellis Nutt