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Becoming a Neuro-Parent: 5 Ways to Shift Your Thinking to Help Your Child with Special Needs Thrive

6 min read

What is a neuro-parent? It is a term we coined to get you thinking differently about your role as a parent to a child with special needs. It embodies the same qualities as a typical parent while encouraging you to look at your child through a new lens: that of your child’s neurology.

As you begin to focus on what is possible, let’s explore five productive ways to look at your child and help him or her.

Focus on the neurology, not the symptoms.

When you suspect that your child is different, and a doctor or therapist confirms your suspicion, the recommended treatment usually entails some aspects of therapy and managing the symptoms. Managing symptoms does not address, and will never solve, the underlying neurological reasons for the disability, nor does it provide a remedy. It merely serves to make the symptoms less evident.

Our principle—and your role as a neuro-parent—is to focus on the neurology. We don’t want to treat the symptoms; we want to look at the brain and how it functions. If the brain is happy, things happen one way; if it’s unhappy, another. If you look at the output function of the child and the part of the brain it controls and something isn’t right, that’s where your time and attention should go.

Therefore, it is essential to understand the root of your child’s symptoms, the degree of neurological organization, and to assess current abilities to determine where the child is in his development.

This is precisely why we use the term “brain injury.” We choose to define this as the brain got “hurt” somewhere along the child’s development, and that hurt is compromising their ability to progress and thrive.

Managing symptoms is, ultimately, not moving you toward healing from the inside out. With the proper therapeutic stimulation and opportunity, you can begin to heal your child’s brain and promote neurological growth.

Focus on the diagnosis, not the prognosis.

When you sought the opinions and evaluations of professionals, you may have received a prognosis that your child will never walk, never graduate from high school, never have a family, never do this, or do that, and so on. That kind of stark feedback is not only fundamentally unscientific—because the brain can heal—but it is also professionally irresponsible.

A proper neurological diagnosis is about identifying and explaining which areas of the brain are injured and the extent of the injury. Get a solid diagnosis. Assess and determine what is now happening in your child’s brain and what areas need attention. Avoid setting limits or timetables on how poorly or well your child will progress. Whatever neurological plan you follow, measure its progress by using a valid measurement tool. This way, you will always know the pace of your child’s development and adjust accordingly.

  • Focus on neurological growth, not chronological growth. For every parenting article or book you’ve read, and in every chat you’ve had with doctors or parents, you have probably focused on your child’s age and what milestones she should be reaching.

However, a chronological developmental chart can’t measure children with any special-needs diagnosis—their abilities must be measured neurologically. That means every child must be viewed according to the independent skills and abilities he or she consistently demonstrates. For children with special needs, chronological age and neurological age, by definition, are not in sync.

The ultimate objective is to have the neurological age catch up to the chronological age. That takes a scientific approach, a dedicated family, an innovative neurological team, and then the time and effort to consistently implement a tailored plan. Since every child is different, treatment must follow a program targeted to the specific areas of the brain that will actively promote neurological growth in that child.

Don’t apply your energy toward where you want to be; direct your energy to where you are now, and then build toward where you want to be.

  • Remember that labels are for cans, not for children. The therapeutic community devised labels as a handy but inaccurate and unscientific way to categorize groups of symptoms. These labels/descriptors also helped facilitate diagnostic coding, but they change almost every decade.

For some parents, labels often provide closure. Most concerned and anxious parents who know something is not right with their child, but don’t know what the problem is, feel a sense of psychological closure—albeit temporary—once their child gets a diagnosis and a label. That label also puts us in “knowledge mode,” whereby we can proceed to research the condition, read books, seek appropriate organizations, join a parent support group, and explore treatment options, because “now we know.”

Labels can also be broad and inclusive of many symptoms and manifestations. But children and adults are not their labels, and labels do not define who they are or how they can heal. A package of symptoms doesn’t identify the cause or location of the injury. Further, most medical professionals will differ slightly about how they perceive these packages of symptoms. That is why a child might be given different diagnoses from different professionals. This is confusing for parents.

We don’t use labels because they are irrelevant and not scientific. They only serve to deter us from getting to the source of the neurological problem and formulating a solution.

  • Focus on abilities, not disabilities. Instead of getting derailed by the label or the disability, we want to teach you how to identify and measure your child’s unique abilities in each of seven critical neurological categories: seeing and reading; hearing and understanding; sensation and tactility; locomotion and mobility; communication and speech; manual and writing; emotional and social.

Because of our science-based practice and decades of experience, we know your child has a full range of human potential in their grasp currently blocked in large part by a brain injury. The goal is to begin healing the whole child by starting from the inside and staying focused on healing parts of the brain rather than eliminating a multitude of symptoms.

When the focus is on disabilities, the tendency is to mask, suppress, and/or manage the symptoms so that the child appears functional.These types of approaches do not consider the brain’s natural ability to form and reorganize synaptic connections. Once you assess your child’s abilities, you can work to develop and increase their progress toward normal progression. The focus is on building on what your child can do today. This is a neurological paradigm shift and an essential principle to understand.

Matthew and Carol Newell, authors of Healing Your Child’s Brain: A Proven Approach to Helping Your Child Thrive, have dedicated their lives to helping children with special needs and brain injuries. As founder of The Family Hope Center in Greater Philadelphia, they have assembled a dedicated team of doctors and therapists and developed neurologically based therapy programs for thousands of families. Over nearly 40 years, Matthew and Carol have lectured and initiated child development programs which have helped families from more than 35 countries.

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