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Parenting a Child with Special Needs During Social Distancing

April 22, 2020
by Signy Peck

“Is it night time?” my 4-year-old daughter asked at 10 am last week — or was it the week before? — as she watched cartoons (does PBS count as screen time?) while I tried to get some work done. Laughing, I reminded Gracie that it was day time, but we were home and not at school because of social distancing, not the easiest concept to explain to a 4-year-old, one who has needed extra support with social/emotional development at that)

Fast upon my laughter, though, came guilt-tinged thoughts. She’s watching too much TV, too much screen time, I need to do some of the school activities with her, some OT and PT exercises, set up a virtual play date but I need to get some work done. ‘Not-doing -enough-itis’ thoughts I’m sure many parents are currently experiencing, perhaps exacerbated by having a child with special needs.

When I first began to understand that schools and daycares would most likely close, I was hit by a sense of sadness over losing the social support from these institutions, support provided both to my daughter, and to her father and me. Social/emotional development is one of my daughter’s key areas of support, so the idea of losing this felt doubly hard.

Gracie also loved the rituals that went with school days. Being the first pick up for the little yellow bus every morning, we’d dubbed Gracie the “welcome kid.” This designation helped her get past her worries about being the first child on the bus and seemed to give her a sense of pride and enjoyment at the important job of welcoming the other children. She’d come to love the bus, her driver, and the other children on the bus, so even not taking the bus seemed like a large loss.

With schools and daycares now indeed closed and Gracie, her father and I home for the foreseeable future, we are slowly starting to figure out some rhythm to our days. I continue to worry that Grace will lose some of the social growth she’d accomplished, particularly with now needing to emphasize and explain that she can’t go up to others, interact ,and say hello.

We are lucky to have support services outside the school that have been able to continue (albeit virtually). The school is providing remote teaching and the videos and assignments from her teachers help to provide some sense of connection. Out of desperation or creativity, Grace is making up pretend play scenarios where her father and I are given the roles of other children. We have connected with a few peers by Facetime and Zoom, and although these have been fun, they do not fully replicate the nuanced interpersonal interactions of being together.

On April 1, I was trying to explain April Fool’s Day and what an April Fool’s joke would be. I gave a few examples we could try on Daddy that morning. Later in the day Gracie said, “Mommy, I’m going to school tomorrow…April Fools!” Wow, I thought, she gets it (and seems to be understanding more than I realized about the situation we are in)! A sign we are maybe getting some things right or, hopefully, at least good enough.

Signy Peck, LCSW, is a clinician and administrator for the ACCCESS-Mental Health program at Yale Child Study Center. She has worked with children and their families in many roles for over a decade at Yale Child Study Center. She also works in private practice in Westport, CT.

Submitted by Jill Max on April 20, 2020