Raising a Kid Who Thinks Differently Than You

By Mari Peterson and April Brown

As the neurodiversity paradigm continues to gain attention, we have have been researching and reflecting a lot about how this relates to our own family. Different-thinkers, people who see the world in unique and rainbow-esque ways. Our families have always been here. Life has just been harder and confusing because most everything is designed to support neurotypicals (average thinkers). 

And when members of our families don’t fit in, we are often treated as outcasts and further isolated and marginalized: not invited to neighbor’s celebrations, rejected in our churches and community organizations, and talked about in hurtful ways when we aren’t around. Trying to make friends and find a community of support is difficult for everyone, especially those who think and behave in different ways. Rejection sucks.

So it’s not a surprise that learning to parent when you are neurodivergent and living in a small, christian-centered midwest town is not easy. Especially when people expect you and your family to fit in a box. Although the struggles were most definitely real, my mom managed to support both of her kids in ways that came natural to her. Kids who needed different things and saw the world in different ways.

I credit a lot of this to her being an an advocate for kids and her authenticity. But I also credit her out of the box thinking and background in special education. My mom believes her acceptance of us stems from my grandmother. She accepted my mom for who she was as a child and supported her the best she could (as she raised nine children).

Preparing to write this blog, we asked ourselves these questions: 

  • How can we support and parent our kids when they see the world in a different way? 
  • How can we embrace our differences and teach our kids about the power of neurodiversity?

So fellow parents & caregivers, here are some tips from my mom about raising a kid who thinks differently than you: 

Talk about your differences. I knew my son from the get-go.  His way of reacting to things and his tendency to be very verbal and academically oriented was familiar.  So was his way of not knowing how to socialize with other children. He had a lot of anxiety regarding social situations with those his own age which mimics mine. My daughter, on the other hand, was quite different from me and I have had to learn and re-learn her way of thinking and socializing. 

I learned a lot from my sister, who tackled her issues with her second child directly.  After speaking with me and learning how I noticed the differences in my son and daughter and their thinking, she realized that she and her oldest child often believed that the way they thought was correct. This caused her middle child to be left out because of her different way of thinking.

So my sister sat down with her middle child and discussed how they viewed the world differently than each other.  She explained that neither way was correct and that each viewpoint was valid. This opened her daughter to accept herself and understand that all of our brains work differently.  Talking to our kids about differences opens the door to acceptance and positive self-image.

Find role models who get and love your kids. It’s not possible to be everything for our kids, nor is it healthy. One of the most precious gifts we can give our kids is a community of caring grownups who love them and help them see their potential. Family and friends are essential. I have always felt that the more people that love my children, the more blessed I and they are. These important role models can also offer insight in regards to understanding your child’s needs, love language, and other important aspects about their “whole” self. 

Hold family gatherings for connection. Family gatherings can build connection and support healthy communication, but they need to be held with respect and rules. Here are some tips to get started:

  • Set expectations. By setting ground rules from the get go, no one can talk over others and decide that someone else’s feelings are “odd” or “wrong” (e.g. gaslighting). 
  • Let go of power. Make sure all members of the family [especially kids] know that they can hold a family gathering, and strive to connect at least 1x per week.
  • Listen. Start a tradition of holding a talking stick (e.g. a tangible item that is held by the person expressing themself). Set a time limit unless someone gets the approval to continue their thought. Encourage family members to feel safe enough to express a family situation or person in the family who is being unkind, or makes them feel sad or upset. Provide sentence frames such as:
    • I feel _______ when you ________ because _______. 
    • I’m having a hard time with _______. I need support.
    • When _______ (enter situation) happened, I felt ________.

Tune into your child.  Once you notice the difference between you and your child, you can observe them. This includes their social, verbal, musical and other talents.  Watch how they relate to you and others and learn their language of love. If you feel a lack connection, ask your child what they need for the love connection to flourish. If they aren’t able to communicate what they need, observe them in their joyful state and reflect on what it is about that moment that brings your child happiness. Here are a few questions you can use to tap into your child’s needs:

  • I noticed you really enjoyed _______. Would you enjoy doing that with me?
  • What are some of your favorite things to do with me?
  • If we could go anywhere together, where would we go?
  • If we could do anything together, what would we do?

Advocate for yourself and your kids. As parents, it’s important that we protect our kids, keep them safe, and support them in understanding their worth and value. If our kids are neurodivergent or otherwise atypical, we want to support them so they are not taken advantage of, or bullied, in and outside of our homes. The first point about talking about differences is incredibly important. This will support family members in understanding that everyone experiences the world in different ways and needs different things to be happy and healthy. Unfortunately, family members can often be their child’s first bully. And communities can further marginalize parents who don’t fit into a neurotypical box. If you or your child has dietary, sensory, and social needs, try to find a community (online or in person) to support you in living your best life. It’s not always easy, but the online space is a wonderful resource. 

A few places to check out for community:

These tips are by no means exhaustive, and we could go on for days. We are still learning as we navigate our relationship as adult mother and daughter. I suppose cultivating connection can be thought of as a lifelong journey opposed to a destination.

The most important gift we can give our kids is the openness to try to understand the world from their eyes.