Parenting Neurodivergent Kids With Mental Health Disorders: 8 Lessons

When our older daughter recently turned 20, I congratulated my husband on surviving two decades of parenting. Being a parent is hard. Add a dozen diagnoses around the areas of neurodivergence and mental illness, split between two very different kids, and parenting has sometimes felt overwhelming.

For twenty years my husband and I have parented our way through anxiety and depression; eating disorders and learning disorders; panic attacks and meltdowns; and more IEP meetings than we care to remember.

There has also been much joy and plenty to celebrate and I am grateful every day for my family. I am also grateful for the wisdom I have acquired over the years, which I am sharing in the hope that it may help other parents as they navigate their own parenting challenges.

family laughing
Here are the lessons I’ve learned on my parenting journey. (Twenty20)

The 8 most important things I’ve learned on my parenting journey

1. Parenting is sacred work

I have done my fair share of crying, I have yelled, and I have prayed. I have apologized and asked forgiveness from my children for not handling situations as well as I could have. There have been days when I have wondered what it would be like to have “normal” children.

But here’s where I have landed–I have been granted temporary custody of two amazing and special souls, to care for, advocate for and guide, until they are able to care for themselves. That is a tremendous privilege and blessing and I take it very seriously. When I think of my children in this way it changes how I speak and listen to them, and parenting feels like sacred work.

2. People will judge 

For a long time I was hesitant to share my family’s experience out of a fear of being negatively judged. I would love to say that that fear was unfounded. But when I did start sharing, there was definitely judgment. People were critical of my parenting both behind my back and to my face.

At first, this judgment felt like daggers and it has left some emotional scars that have been slow to heal. But as I educated myself about what my children were dealing with and after spending some time with my own therapist so that I could start working through my internalized ableism (those feelings of disappointment, denial, anger, shame, or embarrassment that my kids are “different”) things began to change.

I learned to stand in the truth of my family, and feel confident that I was making good parenting choices. And over time, the judgment has felt less like daggers, and more like an annoying gnat buzzing around my face. I can’t control what other people say, but I can choose to ignore it.

3. Dig deep and find your courage 

It takes courage to admit that we are hurting; to ask for help; to loosen our grasp on how much we care about what other people think; to tell our stories. Finding my courage was the first step to getting connected with the resources that my family needed to start making things better and to get my kids the help that they need – not to “fix” them, they don’t need fixing- but to learn how to develop strategies and tools so they can more easily navigate a world that was not designed for them.

4. There is power in vulnerability

The more we are brave enough to talk about neurodiversity, mental health issues, or learning disabilities and the challenges that come with them the more we reduce the stigma that is attached to those topics. Less stigma means less judgment and less internalized ableism. Just by telling our own stories, we can help to be the change we want to see in the world.

5. Get your own therapist 

If your kid has a therapist, that’s great! But your kid’s therapist is there to focus on your kid. Having my own therapist gave me someone to vent to; help me figure out what questions I should ask my kid’s therapist; advise me how to approach certain conversations with my spouse and my children; help me separate my own anxiety from my child’s anxiety, and to encourage me to be taking care of myself. This resource was one of the most important reasons I have held onto my sanity.

6. Different does not equate to less than 

It can be hard to watch other parents celebrate huge victories like, “our kid just won a national science competition,” while your own kid is struggling to just pass chemistry. Our victories might look different but they are worthy of celebrating just the same.

Whether it’s “my kid with a learning disability passed algebra on the second try with help from a tutor,” or “my teenager with social anxiety was scared to make a phone call but they made the phone call anyway,” it has been great to see my kids feel pride in a hard earned “C,” or give themselves a pat on the back when they use learned strategies to manage a stressful or anxiety inducing situation. Victories come in all shapes and sizes and they all deserve to be acknowledged and celebrated.

7. It’s okay to “fail” and it’s definitely okay to ask for help

We also celebrate when anyone in our house realizes they have reached their limits and asks for help. It took me a long time to feel comfortable asking for help or admitting that I could not handle something by myself. Part of the reason I am now so open about my own experiences and the resources I have sought out is because I want other parents to see that they don’t have to do this by themselves.

It’s also okay (even if disappointing) when things don’t work out. When things go awry it’s an opportunity to retreat, restrategize, and make the necessary adjustments before moving forward again either on the same path with a new strategy or on a different path altogether. We don’t have to get everything right the first time.

8. There will be backslides 

I have learned the hard way that progress is not always linear. We might be cruising along okay for a few weeks and then all of a sudden my kiddo completely falls apart. Maybe something changed, maybe she just feels overwhelmed. With support, she has always found her way back.

Backslides are normal. Bad days/weeks are normal. Listen; support; allow space and time; cry if you need to. It’s okay to feel frustrated. None of this is easy. I can’t emphasize enough how much it helps to have people to call on, especially during backslides.

Despite having learned all of this, I still screw up. There are no perfect kids; there are no perfect parents. Sometimes I lose my patience or make things worse by projecting my own anxiety onto my kids. I’ve had to learn to give myself the same grace that I give to those around me and accept that I am human in all of this; always learning, always growing, and doing my best to care for, advocate on behalf of, and guide two amazing, special souls. 

More Great Reading:

My Son Has Autism and I’ll Take Care of Him for the Rest of His Life

About Meryl Paskow

Meryl Paskow lives with her husband, kids, and two cats in Northern Virginia. When she is not trying to make sense of the world through writing for her blog, theorangeinkblot, Meryl enjoys spending time with family and friends, watching movies, and playing board games.

Read more posts by Meryl

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