What You Don’t See: Raising a High Needs Child


I’d like to tell you about my son Blake. He’s a clever little guy who loves trucks, dance parties, and riding his bike. He’s a sensitive soul who deeply wants to connect with others. He cheers his little sister up when she’s sad and he has the best belly laugh in the world. I’ve never loved anyone more fiercely than I love this boy who made me a mom. Then there’s what you don’t see.

Blake also hits people sometimes. And pinches and pushes people. And oftentimes, this is the side of him other kids get to know. They don’t know how loving he is, or how creative, or how funny. They don’t know about his heart of gold, because he’s unpredictable and they are understandably afraid of him. I used to think kids like Blake came from abusive homes, because I assumed that they learned to hit people by being hit themselves. But now I realize it’s much more complex than that. Kids like Blake have all sorts of physical and emotional reasons for aggressive behavior. And everyone has their own story.

We met Blake when he was one week old. In that week, and in the nine months before that, he went through more trauma and hardship than many of us experience in our lifetimes. He spent a week fighting for his life in the NICU, without any family to hold him and love him. Fast-forward four years, and Blake is now in preschool. He’s very connected to me and my partner, and it’s a struggle for him to leave me for the three hours he goes to school in the mornings. For my part, I spend those three hours trying to make the most of a desperately needed break, with my mind often drifting toward wondering whether he’s having a good day or a bad one. I hold my breath as I walk into school to pick him up, until I hear the verdict. Did he hurt anyone? Did a parent call the school to complain about him? Will he still be able to go to school there, or is today the day they’ll tell him not to come back?

Having a child who may get expelled from preschool any day is a whole different level of stress than what I expected going into motherhood. I worry about him developing a self-identity as a “bad kid,” about him having no friends and not understanding why, about him bouncing around from school to school and lacking the stability that he needs to improve or thrive. It’s emotionally taxing to constantly try to come up with new ways to promote positive behavior, to figure out which types of therapy might actually help him learn to control his impulses. I worry that his sister is learning it’s normal for a boy to hit her, and fear that he won’t have a happy life no matter what we do.

For you moms who have a kid like Blake… I see you. This is hard stuff. You are bending over backwards every day to help your child feel safe and loved, to teach them how to be kind, to help them understand the impact of their actions on others. You probably read every book about behavior that you can get your hands on. You are likely losing sleep, thinking about when things might get better, and how, and if there’s anything you can do to speed the process. You might be afraid people view you as a failure, or that you are a failure.

For you moms of the kids who are afraid of Blake… I see you, too. You are worried that your child is being bullied. You might assume that the bully is from an abusive home, or at least that his parents are not so great at parenting. You may be wondering why the school can’t just expel that kid so your child can avoid dealing with this. You might call the school to complain about this four-year old boy with unpredictable aggressive behavior, and I don’t blame you for that. I would do the same in your position.

What you don’t see are the parents behind the child who is too young to have much self-awareness or self-control, the parents who are up nights worrying and strategizing about how to help their child be successful. What you don’t know is the complex story that created this child and the village that will be required to help him become a kind and caring citizen of his community. What you cannot see is how loving and creative and funny he is. I wish you could see his heart of gold. My hope is that we can all rise up and support children like Blake as they try to navigate this complicated world.