Person-Centered Thinking for Parents

Parents of a child with a disability or special health-care needs dedicate much of their lives to making sure that important things are taken care of. Things like doctor’s appointments, therapy, food, clothing, school and daily care routines.

Getting help with the important things isn’t always easy. It might be a challenge to get your child to help with picking out their clothes and even harder to get their help with making medical decisions. Building strategies for understanding what your child wants and needs helps reduce the stress for everyone, makes things go more smoothly and avoids conflict.

Person-centered thinking offers ways to approach the things that are important in the life of your child. It applies to how care routines are set up, finding activities that bring them joy as well as choosing medical treatments and making decisions around school.

Learning about person-centered thinking forms a foundation for better person-centered plans and can bring you, as a parent, into the process.

What is Person-Centered Thinking?

When making decision or plans that effect your child, person-centered thinking provides ways to put your child at the forefront. It’s a way of supporting your child so that they have as much power as they can to decide things for themselves. This is called self-determination.

Person-centered thinking has 3 parts:

  • Learning what’s important TO your child.
  • Listing out what’s important FOR your child.
  • Balancing these 2 things so your child can have a better life.

Things that are important TO your child make them feel happy or fulfilled in their life. These might be:

  • Getting their sensory needs met (like having the right texture of clothing, noise levels, or lighting).
  • Eating food that tastes good or has the right texture for them.
  • Feeling comfortable.
  • Having fun.
  • Having friends.

Things that are important FOR your child keep them happy and safe. Here are some examples:

  • Getting their medical needs taken care of.
  • Practicing good daily care.
  • Eating foods that are good for them.
  • Learning social skills.
  • Getting the right accommodations or modifications at school.

During those times when your child starts acting out or refuses to participate in those things that you know are important, you can often find that something about the “important to” and “important for” has been thrown out of balance.

Let’s take the example of when your child might just refuse to eat vegetables. You know it’s important for them to have a healthy diet. But it might be really important to them that they avoid certain tastes or textures. It may relate to their gag reflex or hit another sensory issue. Trying to force it might cause a conflict, and giving in might not keep them healthy.

There are options when you look at trying to bring balance to the “important to” and “important for”. You may change the cooking method so that your child can handle the texture and taste better. Or you may give your child the missing nutrients through supplements. You may have your child prepare their own vegetables the way that they like them. Or you may have a speech therapist, occupational therapist work with you on a plan that helps include more vegetables.

These all can help bring that balance back to “important to” and “important for”.

Discovering What’s Important to Your Child

Sometimes it may be easy for you to determine a few of those things that matter to your child. You know them the best; how they like to draw a lot or play with animals. Or that they are happiest around certain people or family members. You know that these are things that are “important to” them.

It’s not always easy to figure this out, though. They may not be able to tell you with words but they can tell you with their behavior. Behavior may be the only way for some children to tell you when something is wrong. Sometimes they get upset and don’t understand the reason themselves.

There are a few exercises you can use to find out what’s important to your child.

One is an exercise called Good Day/Bad Day.

After a good day, ask yourself:

  • What happened that made it a good day for your child?
  • What did they like or look forward to doing?
  • Who did they like seeing?
  • What gave your child extra energy to deal with a hard situation?
  • What kept your child happy or interested in their day?

After a bad day, ask yourself:

  • Why was it a bad day?
  • What threw off my child’s day?
  • What made my child frustrated or bored?
  • What took the fun out of my child’s day?

Of course, you may also ask your child for their own description of why they had a good day or a bad day. These questions all can provide clues and add to what can become an on-going discovery process.

Let’s use an example where your child may have good days if they are the ones where there is gym or music class, but you find that these are not the days when there is art in their schedule. By remaining curious and exploring further, you find that there is a lot of moving around in music and gym but with art, much of the time is spent being still. Your “good day / bad day” exploration helps you learn that it’s important to your child to be regularly active.

Person-Centered Thinking in Action

By taking these steps to better understand those things that are “important to” and “important for” your child and the ways that behavior can serve to communicate these things, you’re using person-centered thinking.

There are also some tools to support your child that you might create using person-centered thinking:

Person-centered thinking may be a new way for you to explore what’s happening in the life of your child. The exercises described here can be viewed as skills. Many parents have found that, through practicing them and advocating for their use by those who spend time supporting their child, they are better able to create and direct valuable care plans that lead to positive control in the lives that they choose.

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