special needs teensAdolescence is a time of physical and emotional growth, developing independence, and developing an identity, whether your child has special needs or not. The timing may be different for kids with special needs, but the process is the same. They need opportunities to overcome obstacles, handle responsibilities, and face consequences. In short, special-needs kids must learn the life lessons that will prepare them for the future. 

Whether they have physical, emotional, or developmental challenges, teens with special needs have to be fully engaged in life—not sitting on the sidelines. As you assess your teen’s ability to contribute to your family and community, here are some things to keep in mind.

1. Your teen may be ready before you are

Your teen may be asking you to acknowledge him as an adolescent, but you haven’t progressed to that phase yet. It happens because your protective instinct runs high; you don’t want your child to be hurt or disappointed by his abilities or inabilities. Shift your focus from the negative and think about how much your child needs this acknowledgement, socially, behaviorally, and emotionally.  

Close your eyes and think about the image you have of your child. Do you still see your cute little boy running around with his Thomas the Tank Engine tucked under his arm? If so, take a good hard look at your teenager, close your eyes, and imprint that current image in your mind’s eye. Next time you think about your young man’s capabilities, make sure you see the latter image.

2. Set rules and stick to them

Have your rules and hold to them, too. If you’re unsure what those rules should be, ask your children to identify them and to create the consequences. I assure you that their consequences will be far harsher than yours. 

Hold your teen to the same rules as every other family member. Doing so will bolster her self-esteem and help her to feel like an important and equal member of the family.

Give her responsibilities—>


3. Give her responsibility

You may think, “My teenager doesn’t have the will or the ability,” but every teenager needs a sense of responsibility and accountability. Gradually increase your teen’s responsibility level and encourage and support her. This may be tough for you, but curb your tendency to protect. By not giving your teen responsibility, you subtly give her the message that she can’t do the task at hand. That’s a message you probably don’t mean to convey, but you may be.

Start small with little responsibilities, little chores, and add as your teen shows she’s able to handle them. These responsibilities also encourage her ability to problem solve, plan ahead, sequence, and complete a task. Not only are you helping your teen to begin to develop a sense of self efficacy, but you’re helping her to develop executive functioning skills.

Attach privileges or allowance to completion of chores. Giving your teen chores is giving the message that she’s a valuable member of the family whose contributions help the household to function. 

4. Set your standards high

Sadly, standards for teens with special needs are sometimes not set as high as they can be. Expect more from your child. The less you expect, the less your child will accomplish. Conversely, the more you expect, the more he is able to accomplish with your encouragement, support, and cheerleading. 

You want your teen to be an independent person, don’t you? Well, then, expect it. Give your teen choices and let him follow through with the outcome. Don’t spell out how things may happen if he chooses option A vs. B. Just say “OK,” sit back, and watch. Obviously you’re not going to let your teen engage in potentially harmful behavior; however, take note of the process, and talk about the outcome. Ask him these questions:

  • Are you satisfied with the outcome?
  • If yes, what did you like about it?
  • If no, what would you do differently?
  • How do you think you might handle a similar situation in the future?

In essence, you’re encouraging real-world thinking, not theoretical thinking. Best of all, you’re not doing the thinking for your child; rather, you’re allowing him to rise to the challenge. 

5. The time has come

Every teen, with special needs or not, needs life experiences to develop critical skills for the future. Your worries and fears are legitimate, but don’t let them hold your teen back from growing. Instead, focus on what your child does well and provide more opportunities for positive growth—for both of you.

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Dr. Liz Matheis is a clinical and school psychologist in Parsippany who provides psychotherapy, assessment, consulting, and advocacy for children and families managing autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, and learning disabilities She also contributes to several magazines. Visit her website.