Today’s Table talk is by my friend Brandy Butler. She’s super fun. She’s hilarious. Which serves her well. Because we all know that a little laughter, just might keep us from crying. Especially when you have kid that has their own special definition of the way life works. Brandy wrote this post for one of our church’s ministries to moms. Special needs touch so many families and boundaries/discipline can be challenging. So whether it hits home or close to home, I hope her word, that she sweetly agreed to let me share, bless you. Be sure to check out Brandy’s blog: followingbutterflies. (Seriously – she has another great one on adoption and yet another that will have you busting a gut.) You will be super glad you did!

Thanks Brandy! … and thanks for walking the road with me.

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“Lord, does she get what I’m saying??”

“Father, why is he doing this?”

“Jesus, please help me know how to help her!”

“Lord, I am lost. I have no idea what to do.”

Do any of these prayers sound familiar? Maybe you’ve prayed them recently. Maybe you’ve prayed all of them today. Within an hour. While eating cookies. Hypothetically, of course.

Parenting a child with special needs is messy and beautiful and hard and courageous and rewarding and exhausting all at the same time. The highs are mountain tops and the lows can be lower than you thought possible. Parenting these kids blows our categories of who He is, and opens up understanding of His sovereignty and provision, of His grace and strength, and sets up on a path of truly having to rely on Him in ways we didn’t know before. So, there are a lot of rewards…but I won’t sugarcoat it, it’s also really really hard. One of the most confusing aspects can be the issue of discipline.

The scope of special needs is wide, ranging from extensive physical disabilities to severe mental disabilities to emotional disturbances to spectrum disorders to mild behavior or learning differences. Because the range is so wide, no method is going to be effective with each child, but I hope that I can share some ideas that have helped in our family with our kids.

Every child has needs

Sometimes we put people into categories and so we can put kids into a “special needs” or “not special needs” category. That may be helpful for some aspects of life, but in parenting, it has helped me to think more like each of my kids are their own category.

We have three kids, but only one would be considered to have special needs by most people. However, each of my kids has their own special needs. My oldest has severe asthma. When he isn’t feeling well, his energy is low and when he takes steroids, he is extremely emotional and sensitive which leads to him snapping at others. Our youngest was adopted at 18 months from Ethiopia, and there are times that some of his behaviors stem from things he learned before he came home. Our middle daughter has ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder.

So while most people would look and say that discipline has to look different for our daughter, in truth, we have to alter our strategies for each child, based on what they need in that moment. The reason I think this is an important distinction to make is that it changes our motivation. If we are focused solely on behavior , we miss connection and heart change. (ours, not just theirs)

Don’t underestimate your child

So many times I have guilt for thinking “I don’t think she can handle that” either because I don’t want to see her fail, or if I’m honest, because I don’t want to take the time to walk through a situation with her. In my house, it starts with small things- letting my daughter skip out on chores, cleaning up after her instead of making her do it, allowing her to break the “small” rules, avoiding places or situations that would be challenging for her.

In my head, it feels compassionate. It feels like I am protecting her, and giving her grace. And of course, there are times that is true and it is appropriate, but there are also times when I lower my standards when I should be raising them.

My daughter can do anything her brothers can do…it’s just much harder for her. My son can be kind to others…even when he feels bad.  Think of it this way- if you have high expectations for your child and they fail, you have the opportunity to teach about how their identity isn’t wrapped up in their performance, but if you have low expectations all the time, what you are saying is that you expect that they are going to fail, so why bother trying?

Consider developmental age versus real age One of the most difficult things for me to remember is that there are aspects to my daughter’s difficulties that should be addressed as though she was younger than she is. In evaluating her for different therapies, they were able to help me determine what age she was functioning in for these areas.

This has helped me so much with my patience level.  If I am looking at an eight year old girl but remembering that in a certain area she is functioning at a much younger age, it helps me set my expectations more realistically. (side note- this is especially difficult sometimes when dealing with other people, because all they might see is the age your child really is. Having that conversation with family or close friends, community, etc, might be helpful for them to know how to love you and your child better.)

Remember your ultimate goal!

The greatest command is “Love the Lord with all your heart and mind and strength” and “Love your neighbor”, it is NOT “Make sure your child doesn’t throw a fit in Target”. I chant this to myself multiple times a day “Connect. Heart. Action.”  Many times we reverse this- we react to a behavior, we give a consequence for that behavior, then we maybe address their heart and many times forget to connect with our child. I think this is important for any kid, but especially these kids that struggle.  A lot of these kids struggle in their relationships with peers and siblings and teachers, so reinforcing our love and connection to them is vital.

This is the way I could do it-

“Selah! Why are you screaming and throwing Legos at Malachi?? That is not nice. Go sit on your bed and you are going to apologize for that!”

This is how I want to do it-

“Selah, come here.(pull her onto my lap so we are at the same level and have some skin contact). Hey, you and me, let’s breathe deep together just relax for a second to calm down. Can you tell me what’s going on over there with your brother? It sounds like you are really frustrated. You know what- when mommy gets frustrated, sometimes I want to yell too, but you remember that God tells us that a soft answer turns away wrath? Do you think you were giving Malachi a soft answer? Do you think maybe you were being selfish and wanting your own way? Sweet girl, I love you and I want you to learn to be generous and think of serving others, so for the next 30 minutes, I’d like you to practice serving your brother by playing whatever game he wants to play without whining or complaining. I also want you to apologize and ask for his forgiveness.”

Yes, it takes much more time. No, you can’t do it every time. But my goal isn’t changing her behavior; it’s training her heart to love.


Parenting a kid with special needs can be very isolating and lonely, especially if you have a child whose needs are not obvious.

The value of having support, both in friendships and relationships with other moms of kids with special needs can’t be overstated. You.need.help. You need a break, you need adult conversation, you need prayer. Your kids need it too.  This is their first taste of community and the benefit of having it. It brought tears to my eyes when I overheard my daughter explain to one of her friends from our community group that she was sorry that she hugged her too hard. She said “I’m sorry, sometimes I don’t know how hard I’m hugging” and her sweet friend just shrugged and said “It’s okay, I’ll just remind you to be gentle next time.”

If only we could show each other that much grace! If you are in community with someone with a child with special needs, one of the most loving thing you can do for them is love their child. Spend time with them, learn about their need, and babysit for them.

Take a deep breath and give thanks

I say this with gentleness, because I know that for some of you, the idea of being thankful for your child’s struggle is not only laughable, but maybe really painful. No one wants their child to suffer. No one is patient all the time. And for those sisters who are crying at night after an exhausting day, those who sift through mountains of paperwork to figure out therapies and doctors, those who don’t think about tomorrow because the next hour is hard enough, those whose marriages are hard and suffering because of the stress, those who wonder if God cares and wonder how a loving God could allow a child to suffer…let me say, I get it.

You are loved and prayed for. But I will say that in my spiritual journey, the number one avenue for spiritual growth has been my marriage, but my number two avenue has been parenting my special needs child. Because of her, my God is bigger and more merciful and more powerful than He ever was to me. Because of her, I have much more compassion and mercy and grace. Because of her, I am slower to speak and quicker to listen. Because of her, I have come into contact with countless lost people who desperately want something to bring them hope and I get to share what gives me hope.

Because we are all just a bunch of wounded, weak, special needs kids walking around, in need of the One who saves and redeems.

Brandy Butler

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