Special Needs Parenting :: What My Daughter Called Me Today - by Carey Nelson Handley

Today, my daughter told me I was overprotective. Since superlatives are lost on her and often magnified, I asked her if she meant that I was “protective”. She said no - that I was overprotective.

You have to understand that as a parent of a daughter with Special Needs, the lines between protective and overprotective can get blurred. I’ve been accused of being overprotective before but by other parents and not by my daughter. There’s a huge chasm in her understanding of human nature as her chronological age nowhere near mirrors her developmental age. There’s a reason all of her jobs are in sheltered workshops or very well-supervised businesses. There are reasons for the decisions all parents make for their children and why those of Special Needs parents are sometimes lifelong.

When she accompanies me to networking events and sees me hugging or shaking hands and talking with many people - some she knows, some she doesn’t - it’s hard for her not to generalize this and comprehend why she can’t do the same in a grocery store. People aren’t always who they present themselves to be as most of us have learned throughout our lives. Because of her challenges, she’s ill-equipped to discern the difference. Not everyone who is well-dressed and smiles is a nice person. I can’t take the chance of her being too nice to the wrong person.

I asked her why she felt I was overprotective and she gave two reasons: I won’t let her wander away from me in stores and I won’t let her watch most Lifetime TV movies.

The last reason, the one about the Lifetime TV movies, started when she watched the movie about Elizabeth Smart, the young girl who was abducted from her bedroom some years ago. She endured horrific abuse by her captors for the next nine months. Naturally, learning this through the movie (which I had not given her permission to watch and did not know she had watched it until later), gave my daughter nightmares and she questioned whether she would be safe in her own home. I find that many Lifetime TV movies have themes that are not appropriate for her developmentally, so we have a blanket rule except during the holiday season when they air many Hallmark-type movies.

Because of the rise of human trafficking and even general stranger abductions, I am, perhaps, overly cautious about leaving my daughter unsupervised, even for a short time. That’s all it can take sometimes - a minute – before something catastrophic can happen. This is a conversation I had never wanted to have with her but I found myself explaining trafficking, abductions and abuse. There’s a fine line between wanting to make her aware and making her afraid to leave the house. I expressed without emotion but made sure she understood that this is the reason she can’t walk around by herself in Walmart.

Having other parents tell me I’m being overprotective is particularly hurtful. Whether it was the parent of a neurotypical child or those who also have children with Special Needs, it is not helpful to voice that opinion. They don’t live in my home, know my daughter’s history or capabilities. And, not all children with Special Needs have the same developmental rate. There are many of my friends who have shown an interest in learning more about my daughter and the decisions we make for her and those who make assumptions based on how they parent their own children. Parenting isn’t universal. Although my daughter is in her upper 20’s, her developmental age is a decade and a half younger. Whatever decisions we make, however protective or overprotective we are, it’s all based on her developmental age, not her actual age.

It doesn’t bother me that my daughter thinks I’m overprotective although it did sting for a moment and I had to re-evaluate if we’re making the right choices for her. Standing in court 10 years ago, we had a judge declare her permanently disabled and granted us full Guardianship. That decision was based on her test scores through the years, a neuropsychological battery of tests, reports from her neurologist, court investigator, Attorney Ad Litem and the judge herself.

To me, being overprotective in her situation means we are doing our jobs as parents. We know her best and that’s all that matters.

To those of you who, like me, have second-guessed yourself, remember this saying, “Don’t let anyone who hasn’t been in your shoes tell you how to tie your laces.” They are your shoes.

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