Having a child with special needs is difficult for all caregivers but moms and dads seem to have different experiences with, and feelings about, having a child with higher needs. Mums know the ups and downs, understand what our kids need and when, even ‘get’ the terminology and what therapy is supposed to do. Most times, it’s mums who go to the therapy sessions; explain/discuss/address their child’s needs; advocate for them in school and everything else while dads either hear about it later or stay in the background unsure of what they can do to help. It’s really difficult, I know, because my daughter Jaimie’s daddy, Steve, has had it extremely hard.
There has always been something about Steve—maybe the pitch of his voice, his natural smell, the feel of his skin—that has made it almost unbearable for Jaimie to be around him for too long. It got to the point where she wouldn’t even let him get her a cup of juice because she couldn’t stand him too close. It hurt him tremendously and I was at a loss with how to help the two of them make some sort of connection. Despite anything, a father who wants to be part of his child’s life, and whose presence is positive and loving one, deserves to be. But how does one help bring a father who wants to be there with a child who isn’t able to handle his touch or other sensory stimulation from him?
What made things even more difficult was that Jaimie was basically non-verbal until she was almost three. Steve never knew what he did wrong or what she wanted/needed. All she did was yell, scream, hit him, throw things at him and cry. It was heartbreaking. I put Jaimie into Play Therapy, which not only taught her how to communicate with the rest of us through play and fun games, but also gave her a way she could finally connect with her dad. With play, they didn’t have to sit close or touch or even talk to each other (directly), if she wasn’t feeling safe. They could talk through stuffies or dolls or swing beside each other or some other fun activity.
Once we began SI Therapy (specific occupational therapy with an OT trained in SPD and sensory issues), we learned many ways Jaimie and her dad could still ‘connect’ in ways that gave her comfort, were fun as well as giving her the sensory input she needed at the time. We also learned ways to give her daddy confidence in trying to be there even when she’s resisting. Here are a few suggestions:
* Daddies need to remember they are needed. There were times when Jaimie told her dad, “NO! I DON’T WANT YOU! ONLY MAMA!” These words from your child hurt, even when you know in your heart she doesn’t mean it the way it’s coming out. (Jaimie, for example, was trying to say, “Mama knows me and knows how to do things the way it doesn’t feel bad to me. You don’t yet. Please let Mama do it for now.”) Dad, you need to remember that you are needed and you are wanted even during times when actions say the opposite. Staying positive and strong-minded will get you through those rough times.
* Daddies need to inform themselves as much as possible. Read the books, take in the suggestions/tips/advice from the OT or other therapists, and learn about your child’s specific form of SPD, or whatever his needs are. If you want to truly help, then you need to not only understand the condition but, also, how that condition affects your child. This was hard for Jaimie’s dad at first. I’m not sure he truly believed this SPD thing Jaimie dealt with was ‘real’. But after watching me with her, reading the materials we were given from her OT and seeing how she responded to me when I ‘worked’ with her, he wanted to do more for her. Knowledge is powerful, dads.
* Daddies need to find a common ground. What does your ‘sensational’ child like to do? Spin? Wrestle? Roll? Jump? Climb? Slide? Swim? Find a common ground then create a game just the two of you can play. Jaimie cannot STAND light touch but LOVES rough-and-tumble games. She and her dad made up a game called, “Daddy Crusher” where he chases after the kids then grabs, squeezes and spins them in his silly “Daddy Crusher” voice. Once Jaimie realized that dad could give the deeper touch her body needed, she was okay playing with him that way.
* Daddies need to be ‘in tuned’ with their feelings. Okay this is a toughie. What I mean by this is that you need to help your ‘sensational’ child learn to feel comfortable in her world. Mum can’t do this all by herself. What if she’s away or on a ‘Me Time’ date and your child goes into sensory overload or has a bad sensory experience? You’ll need to understand how to work him through it. And this means you not only have to be in tuned with your body and how things affect you but how you feel about those sensations. If your child sees you feeling comfortable in your skin and willing to talk about your feelings with him, he will too.
* Daddies always need to say, “I Love You.” This may sound a bit cheezy or strange but this is extremely important. In my book, Not Just Spirited: A Mom’s Sensational Journey with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), I shared some heartbreaking moments where Jaimie used to look right at her daddy, fear in her eyes, and tell him, “I don’t love you. I only love Mama. You are a bad dad.” Again, I’m positive she didn’t mean it that way. He just made her body feel bad and she didn’t know why so she thought he was bad. That’s what kids do. It took awhile but one night as Jaimie scooted past him to avoid him saying goodnight to her, he said, “I love you Jaimie. I know you don’t want to hear it but Daddy wants to say it. Daddy loves you and he always will.” Of course, this didn’t get a warm reception, and she still hasn’t said it back, but one day she will. What matters is that her dad says it to her and shows her he loves her. That’s so important.
* Daddies should always be on the lookout for ways to ‘connect’. If she’s playing with PlayDoh, grab a blob and play too. If she’s on the computer, check out what she’s doing and ask her about it. If he’s in his hammock swing, see if he wants to swing high or needs a light push. When she’s sitting in her quiet space, ask her if she needs a blanket/lap cozy/something else. Ask about his day. Tell him about yours. The point is you need to be a strong presence even when he resists. He needs to know that he can trust you, even if there’s something about you that may not always be sensory-safe for him. And, most importantly, he needs to know you’re there for him, even when he may not think he needs you. That was an emotional lesson for Jaimie’s daddy. Now, no matter what response he gets, he tries to connect in some way. Then she knows he cares.
Jaimie’s dad is one of the strongest guys I know because he never, ever gave up on her. She still resists his touch, his help and it still hurts. But there’s never a day that goes by that he doesn’t show her in his own way that he cares, understands and gives his support. And I know in her heart, it matters.