Many adoptive parents are faced with the decision of adopting a child that has been or may have been exposed to alcohol during pregnancy. Many others are in the midst of parenting kids that have been prenatally exposed to alcohol. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) can be a devastating diagnosis that strikes fear in the hearts of parents and can cause a lifetime of struggle for the children.
It is important to remember that FASD is a spectrum disorder, which means that children (and adults) can have a wide range of symptoms, and there are definitely things parents can do to help. It is also important to remember that you aren’t alone—other adoptive parents have walked this road before you and can help. We spoke with a panel of moms who are parenting children with FASD to get their best advice.
Tips for Parenting Children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD)
- Don’t Blame
One of the hallmarks of children and adults with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders is inconsistency. They appear to understand something one day, but haven’t a clue the next or even later the same day. This inconsistency makes it easy to assume that they are intentionally doing the thing that you’ve asked them to stop or that they are not trying hard enough. In fact, this inconsistency is likely part of FASD. They are probably trying as hard as they can and are as frustrated as you are at their inability to retain the information. Being blamed for what they cannot help may lead to anger and acting out. A better approach is to view your child and you as part of the same team working as a unit to overcome the impact of their disorder. And while we are talking about blame, it’s helpful to get past blaming birth parents (or yourself if you are the biological parent of your child). No mother sets out when pregnant to hurt her child. She may have been ignorant or naïve or addicted. Blaming her will not help your child and will only divert your energy from where it needs to be—finding ways to help your child.
- Set up Routines & Structures
Everything in a child’s world with FASD is unpredictable, including his brain. Providing structure in his environment allows him to feel more in control. Have your day follow a pattern: get up, brush teeth, make bed, eat one of 3 acceptable things for breakfast, and get in car. After school: eat one of 3 acceptable snacks, play for 30 minutes, do homework starting with the hardest first, 1 hour of TV or video game, dinner, bath, and reading before bed. What feels rigid to you will actually provide your child with freedom. Keep a weekly and daily calendar. Plan on providing lots of reminders 1 hour, 30 minutes, and 5 minutes before a new event. Keep things in your house in the same location whenever possible.
- Surround Yourself with People Who Understand
A general rule of thumb is that children with FASD will function at about half of their chronological age on most things, but not all. For example, a 12 year old may be reading on grade level and have the expressive language of a 16 year old, but not be able to understand most of what she read, have no concept of time or money, and have the emotional maturity and behavior of a 6 year old. This creates a situation where a casual observer of your child sees an articulate, well read 12 year old, but doesn’t see the tantrums, inability to organize her time, and susceptibility to peer pressure. They also will likely not understand your parenting style assuming that you are either an over controlling helicopter parent or a parent who is having a hard time letting her child grow up. Surround yourself with people who understand so you do not always have to defend your parenting decisions. Keep in mind that these people may not be your parents or extended family. If you can find a support group for parents of kids with FASD all the better!
- Have Fun
Raising kids is hard and sometimes unrewarding work. Raising kids exposed to alcohol in pregnancy is even harder. If you aren’t careful, your family and your life can become one big “project”. Avoid this pitfall by:
- Planning something fun for the whole family each week that everyone looks forward to. It can be anything from a game night to going to the movies. The key is that everyone enjoys themselves.
- Planning one thing each day that you enjoy. It doesn’t have to be big—in fact, it shouldn’t be too grand or time consuming because it is less likely to happen. Think simple pleasures: taking a walk by yourself, a cup of coffee while watching the morning news uninterrupted, or 20 minutes of one-on-one time with your husband each evening after dinner.
5. Remember: It’s Brain Damage
I loved this advice given by one of the moms on the Creating a Family show we did with a panel of mother’s kids raising kids with prenatal fetal alcohol exposure. She put post-it notes throughout her house with “BD” written on them to remind her that her child’s behavior and difficulties were caused by brain damage due to prenatal alcohol exposure. That subtle reminder helps her not take his behavior personally and gives her a boost of empathy for what he lives with daily.