My first ten years as a parent, I was miserable. Let me be clear: I love my kids. More than anything. But there was always a “but.” But it was hard. But it was frustrating. But it was lonely and isolating and terrifying.
When my eldest was just two weeks old, the screaming started and it didn’t stop. As other kids passed childhood milestones, mine struggled to master simple life skills. Instead of sleepovers and after-school activities, she went to vision therapy and occupational therapy. Instead of having a chance to form lasting friendships, she changed schools again and again. My child carried the heavy, lonely burden of not just one life-changing diagnosis, but many: ADHD, anxiety, and learning disabilities on the one hand, and severe allergies with additional medical concerns on the other.
As parents, we want to carry it for them. I wanted to pick her up and make everything better. Knowing that I couldn’t – that was one of the most painful, difficult learning experiences of my first decade as a parent of a “complex” kid.
Equally challenging was the incredible isolation. It seemed like parents of other complex kids found each other. It was as if they had radar and could seek out others who struggled, just as they did. Sharing the load – talking about challenges and solutions and just making contact – makes it that much lighter. I felt like I was completely off the radar, that even among complex kids, mine was more complicated.
I was desperate for community, for help. My daughter, thankfully, had a great therapist who provided her with guidance and support. Honestly, I couldn’t help but think: “What about me?!” I knew something needed to change. I just had no idea what.
Something Had to Change – And It was Me
You can’t help your kid – or yourself – build a strong, healthy life if you start with a shaky foundation. I needed to strengthen my foundation and parent from a place of hope and optimism, not fear and anxiety. When I began to realize that my child could have a fulfilling life, that she could thrive, I saw a way out of my panic.
What prompted this change? For one, I was diagnosed with attention and learning issues after age 40. Suddenly, my whole life made sense! At the same time, I had two powerful allies on my side: a nutritionist who taught me that small changes could make a big impact, and a coach who – finally! – offered me the support and connection I so desperately craved.
Full of hope and purpose, I went back to school and earned my coaching certification. Why? Because coaching permanently improved my life and the dynamic in my family. I wanted to provide that same compassion, understanding, and light for all those other parents who were “off the radar” too. I often refer to it as my Scarlet O’Hara moment; when I raised my hands to the sky (yes, literally — a little drama keeps things interesting, right?) and declared, “As God is my witness, no parent shall ever have to go through what I went through those first ten years.” Parents would have a community; they would never have to feel as alone and desperate as I did.
Is parenting still difficult? At times, sure. Do I still worry from time to time? You bet. Are there days when I’m exhausted? Yes. But there’s always a “but.” But I know it’s manageable. But I know I can handle it. But my family is thriving. But I can make the difference.
We asked Elaine several questions about complex kids and how parents can nurture their child and provide them with all they need to thrive. Read on to learn how to find resources that can help both you and your child navigate the challenging moments of childrearing.
What do you consider a complex kid?
A complex kid struggles with some aspects of life, learning or both. Maybe there’s a diagnosis or chronic medical condition to navigate, or perhaps life’s circumstances are complicated, requiring nuanced support from parents and caregivers.
What motivated you to start working with parents of complex kids?
My first ten years as a parent, I was miserable. I loved my kids and being a mom more than anything. But there was always a “but.” But it was hard. But it was frustrating. But it was lonely and isolating and terrifying.
When my eldest was just two weeks old, the screaming began and it didn’t stop for months. As my friend’s kids passed childhood milestones, mine struggled to master the basics. Instead of sleepovers, my kids went to vision therapy and occupational therapy. Instead of forming friendships, they changed schools again and again. One of my kids carried the heavy, lonely burden of not just one life-changing diagnosis, but many: ADHD, anxiety, and learning disabilities on the one hand, and severe allergies with additional medical concerns on the other.
I was desperate for community and help. I needed more than five minutes at the end of a child’s therapy appointment. I needed support that focused on what I needed to do differently to parent my quirky, fascinating, fabulous and challenging kids. And when I couldn’t find the support I needed, I created it. I was heading back to get a Ph.D. to support other parents when I discovered coaching, and I’ve been coaching ever since!
Why does it take so long for parents to acknowledge that they have a complex kid?
There are many reasons, depending on many factors that are influenced by a parent’s life experience. Some parents feel shame or embarrassment. Some parents want to wait to see if their kids will ‘grow out of it.’ Some parents don’t want anything to be ‘wrong’ with their children. Many parents don’t have enough perspective to figure out if there’s a cause for concern, or if their child is ‘within the range of normal’ developmentally. It’s fabulously confusing to raise any child, so it’s hard to tell if your kid is complex or not, especially when everyone else around you is more than willing to give you their opinion!
What does a complex kid need most?
It may sound trite to say it, but love, understanding, acceptance, compassion and encouragement. Complex kids need the same thing that all kids need. They just need more of it. And they need it most of all when they’re struggling to meet the expectations placed on them!
Does it change as they go through adolescence?
Yes and no. On the one hand, adolescents need the same thing as all kids. On the other hand, they need parents to pay attention to fostering a sense of ownership and buy-in. Slowly and steadily, teens need their parents to let go of control enough for the kids to start taking it on, one step at a time.
What is the hardest thing about being a parent of a complex kid?
As parents, we want to carry their burdens for them. We want to pick them up and make everything better. Knowing that we can’t – that sometimes their struggle is part of their journey — is one of the most painful, difficult learning experiences for a parent of a complex kid.
Equally challenging is the incredible isolation. It often seems like other parents have no trouble finding a sense of community as a parent, and parents of complex kids struggle to find other parents like them. Sharing the weight of it all – talking about challenges and solutions and just making contact – lightens the load, but it can be incredibly hard to find. For me, I felt like I was completely off the radar, that even among complex kids, mine was more complicated. Knowing that you’re really not alone is key, but not always easy!
What is the first thing you tell a parent of a complex kid when you start working with them?
It depends, of course, on the parent, because I want to tell them what they need to hear most, and it’s not always the same! And yet, there’s one concept that often rings true to many parents: Up Until Now.
Often, parents feel guilt or remorse about what they have or haven’t done before we’ve met, or they’re worried that it’s too late, or that they’ve screwed things up, or that they have failed as a parent, or that they can’t be the parent their child needs them to be, or that their child may not be able to make it, or… you get the picture. I believe that these three words can change their lives: ‘Up Until Now.’ I might say something like, “Up until now, you did the best you could with what was available to you. You may not have always had or known what you needed, and yet you kept trying. You’ve tried so many things. And yet, judging your past performance based on what you know now is not fair — it’s a kind of self-abuse. There’s nothing you can do to change what’s happened up until now. No “woulda-coulda-shoulda’s” will make anything different. It’s in the past. Done. From here forward, you’ll have new information, and new awareness, and with that you can make different choices. You can change how you respond in the future. You can do this. It might be counter-intuitive, but truly, the change you want for your kiddo starts with you, right here, right now.” (For more on this topic check out Episode 053: Up Until Now: Making Peace with the Past to Move Forward).
What is the last?
Two things. First, parenting is an ongoing practice. Even after parents have left Impact, it’s up to them to keep practicing. I encourage them to continue to find a way, a structure, a process to continue to be conscious about how they’re parenting and how they’re communicating. Which leads us to the next thing: just when you think “I’ve got this,” something will change. Your kids will hit a new milestone, or something is going to change that upsets the apple cart a bit. That’s normal and to be expected. For now, you have what you need to move forward, to build your relationships and move consciously through the world with a coach-approach. And at some point, if something happens that throws you off kilter, know that we’re always here. We all need help from time to time, so remember to ask for help when you need it!
What is the biggest mindset or skill set that needs to be brought in when parenting a complex kid?
This is really hard to answer, because what I teach is a coach-approach, a way of being with and communicating with our kids that is empowering and deeply respectful. In a macro sense, the mindset is to recognize that, no matter their age, they are a separate, unique individual and our job as a parent is to cultivate their sense of self, to play to their strengths and learn to overcome their challenges. In the long run, our job isn’t just to get them to follow our instructions, it’s to guide them to create direction for themselves. That is a slow, complicated, and nuanced process, especially for complex kids. Many skills work together to overcome these challenges, and perhaps one of my favorites is: Ask, Don’t Tell. Instead of telling them what lessons you think they should learn from any given life situation, ask questions to guide them to figure out what they are learning — because that will stick with them in ways that no lecture ever will!
What do you do if you meet a complex parent(s) with a complex kid?
At least 50% of parents of complex kids, statistically speaking, have complex issues themselves. Maybe it’s identified, more often it’s discovered, along the path of a child’s diagnosis. Something like, “wow, I’m reading about my child and it sounds so familiar!” or “there’s nothing wrong with my child, he’s just like me!” I approach all parents as if they have complex issues — because whether they do or don’t personally, if they’ve got a complex kid then it makes their parenting complex. And everything we do at ImpactParents is designed to pass the ‘does this work for complex parents?’ test — because I’m a complex parent myself. I have both learning and attention issues that were diagnosed in my 40’s. As a result everything I do passes the test of, “Could I process this information?” or, “Would I get too bored to manage this?” or, “Am I providing enough different ways to get support so that it works for everyone?” There are outliers, of course, but for the most part, complex adults have the ability to access support in a way that works for them. As an added bonus, neurotypical adults are afforded the same luxury!
What are some of your favorite resources for dealing with complex kids?
What we offer at ImpactParents is the perfect place for most parents to start, because it’s all about getting your head around what it is to raise a complex kid. I’m not kidding when I say that the change you want for your kids starts with you — for real!
a ton of free resources to get parents started — an extraordinary blog, a podcast, and a host of free parent guides (all easy to find at ImpactParents.com).
easy ways to invest in support for yourself — which is where the magic really happens — programs, training, coaching, support and more (from both ImpactParents and other professionals we trust) in the Programs & Resources sections of the website. (Sanity School® is a game-changer for every parent!)
my newest book, The Essential Guide to Raising Complex Kids with ADHD, Anxiety, and More. I wrote it as a typical parenting book for kids who aren’t so typical. I truly believe that it’s the single best book for parents raising any complex kid, or any kids in complex circumstances. It wasn’t there when I needed it, and I know that, above all, we parents have got to get our head around this parenting thing!
There’s lots of information out there, and it’s really useful. But information is not enough. It’s what you DO with the information that really turns the tides. So I encourage parents to step beyond information to support implementation!
How do parents get it wrong?
Parents think it’s all about their kid. Truth is, parenting is really all about the parents. Funny enough, parents tend to take things personally, which can make it harder to support their children. Sometimes kids need direct support, like speech or occupational therapy, or reading remediation. But quite often, there is too much focus put on ‘fixing’ a child, and not enough attention to creating an environment that supports that child and gently invites them to take ownership of their lives. The bottom line is this: parents tend to think that if they’ve got a minute to spare or a dollar to spend, they should spend it on their child. The truth is that if they start with themselves, they’ll be better suited to provide the appropriate support when their kids are ready to accept the help that’s offered to them!
What haven’t we asked that would benefit this community of parents?
What else do parents of complex kids really need to hear? Parents get a lot of mixed signals and information, and often well-meaning but not very good advice — from friends, family, and even the professionals in their life. I want parents to know that they can trust their instincts, learn how to tackle any complicated situation that comes up, and learn to trust themselves, to believe in themselves.
I want parents to adopt what I call a “Bring It On” attitude, to know that instead of only tackling immediate challenges, my goal for them is to learn to navigate whatever ‘comes at them’ as a parent. There’s always going to be something to navigate! I want to go beyond ‘teaching them to fish.’ I want to set them up to be able to plan an entire fishing trip! That takes some tools, concepts, time, self-awareness, and some guidance. It takes stepping in, asking for, and accepting help. It takes a willingness to do some deep personal work. It takes more than other professionals have asked of them before, because this is not about fixing your kids. The change you want for your kids — undeniably starts with you!
With a lifelong passion for politics and community, Elaine Taylor-Klaus has always been a vocal and dynamic advocate for change. When she was presented with the life challenge of raising complex kids, she did not stand still. She sought support and help. And when she did not find it, she created it. While there are support systems in place for children, parents are often left to fend for themselves as they figure out how to navigate life with complex kids — those with ADHD, anxiety, autism, learning challenges, and so much more. Elaine blended her coaching experience with her parenting need and co-created ImpactADHD® — now ImpactParents.com — a groundbreaking resource for parents like her – and you. Since 2009, she has shared her expertise with national and international audiences at live and virtual conferences and events, and has been widely published in many publications including Attention and ADDitude magazines, and Kids In The House. Elaine offers trainings, presentations, coaching, and support for parents and professionals around the globe. A Wesleyan University graduate (Connecticut) and CORO Fellow (New York), her passion for community, coaching, parenting, and politics has led to a lifetime of civic engagement and innovative programming. You can read more about her work and Impact Parents here.
Her initiatives include:
Co-founding ImpactADHD®, the first virtual coaching and training resource designed specifically for parents raising children in complex circumstances
Launching Touchstone Coaching, a leadership, executive, and personal coaching practice, and pioneering the Touchstone Method to help clients overcome obstacles and develop strategies for change and growth
Founding one of the largest political action committees in Georgia
Founding a “Breakfast Club” for mothers and daughters, designed to facilitate effective communication between generations
Curating a Speakers Series to support service providers and caregivers of kids with a wide range of complex needs
Working with the NYC Commission on the Status of Women, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and on the Governor’s Council for Maternal and Infant Health (Georgia)
Teaching couples labor and delivery classes, as well as pregnancy and postpartum yoga classes
Completing CTI’s Co-Active Leadership Program, a leader in coach training
Certification by Coach Training Institute and the International Coach Federation, earning the credential of Professional Certified Coach (PCC)
Sharing expertise about parenting as a contributing author for The Huffington Post, Kids in the House, ADDitude magazine, Attention magazine, and many other publications and anthologies.
Speaking and exhibiting at the international conferences on issues such as ADHD, Learning Disabilities, PKU, Tourette’s, and more.
Serving on the Chapter Quality Network ADHD Executive Review Committee for the American Academy of Pediatrics
International Dyslexia Association article: Parent Training and Coaching Treatment Strategy for Complex Children. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Winter 2021. https://dyslexiaida.org/perspectives/