Helping your teen navigate the troubled waters of adolescence is a difficult job, and if your child has special needs it is even more challenging.  Relating to peers, resisting peer pressure, driving, developing independence and a stable and positive sense of self-worth can all be more difficult.  Anything that makes an adolescent stand out—or anything that makes an adolescent feel like he stands out—can be magnified during this developmental stage, when peer acceptance and peer friendships are of the utmost importance.   Hormonal, physical and emotional changes that occur during adolescence have an impact on any child’s ability to objectively process and interpret social interactions; these changes only serve to compound the processing difficulties that a child with special needs may have.

The Importance of Peer Relationships

Peer relationships are particularly important during adolescence, as children increasingly rely on their relationships with individuals outside of the home.  During this developmental stage, acceptance by peers is important for the development of self-image and to provide support to cope with negative influences and/or experiences. Peers’ opinions or thoughts about your child often carry more weight with him than your own opinions or beliefs.  During adolescence, peers become the “testing ground” for children who are trying to determine who they are and who they want to be. 

So, if your child has difficulty understanding social cues and knowing how to interact in a positive way with peers, how can you support the development of strong peer relationships that will provide him with these valuable experiences?  It may be important to discuss relationships, social cues and social expectations in concrete terms so your child will understand what is expected of him in different situations.  Role playing particularly difficult situations can help your child feel more competent and confident when dealing with peers in the real situation.

If you are concerned about how your child is handling peer pressure to engage in more negative behaviors, talk with him about the situation, help him think about how he would act in the situation and then identify the consequences of his actions in the situation.  If your child has engaged in negative behaviors due to peer pressure, it would be useful to encourage him to think about what led him to succumb to the pressures and what he might be able to do next time in that same situation; simply administering a punishment will not be a learning experience.

Discuss relationships, social cues and social expectations in concrete terms so your child will understand what is expected of him in different situations.

Parent Involvement Is Important

Even though it is developmentally appropriate for children to be more interested in peers, parents need to continue to be involved in their adolescent’s life.  Demonstrating an interest in your child’s friends and his activities may foster open communication between the two of you, as will having an “open door policy,” where your child feels that you want him to come talk to you about whatever is on his mind.  If your child has difficulty verbally expressing his thoughts or feelings about a situation, finding other ways for him to communicate with you, such as through art or music can be helpful.

Planning for Transition

Adolescence is a time of life when most children begin thinking to the future and setting goals, and often this includes the idea of college.  If your child has special needs, it is even more important to determine how to help him transition to this next stage of life. When you or your child first begin to think about colleges, it is important to keep in mind that a current psychoeducational evaluation (within the past three years) is needed for him to obtain accommodations at college. Even if your child has a current IEP and accommodations at high school, he will need updated testing in order for these accommodations to carry into college.  This evaluation should be completed prior to the application process so that all necessary information is available at the time he is applying.  Organizational coaching is one intervention designed to help children develop organizational skills to lead to greater independence in the academic environment, which is particularly helpful at a time when they desire less help from their parents.

Because adolescence is a time when all children are working on developing independence from their parents, your child may be more resistant to your help.  If he has difficulty remembering when assignments are due or what he needs to bring to school the next day, you may worry about backing off from some of the organizational structure you are used to providing.  Finding an outside professional to meet with your child to help him develop strategies and structure for completing assignments and remaining organized can help him become more successful and more independent, which is an essential component to a successful college experience.

Getting Behind the Wheel

Driving is another important rite of passage, and many adolescents look forward to the day they can sit behind the wheel; this desire is related to the desire to achieve independence.  If your child has special needs, reaching the goal of being an independent driver may be harder than it might be for his peers without special needs.   Talking with your child about what parts of driving may be more difficult for him could be a proactive way to helping him think through the process of obtaining a driver’s license. Driving instructors may need to be informed of specific processing difficulties your child has so they can provide instruction in a way that he will most easily be able to process, learn and retain.

Developing a Positive Self-Image

To foster the development of positive self-image, it is important to keep your child involved in activities he enjoys and feels competent in, despite more time intensive academic demands in the high school years.  The time devoted to these activities is one way to help your child learn to develop a balanced lifestyle, as well as enhance his self-esteem.  Your child can also be encouraged to expand activities he has enjoyed to foster a broader sense of his competencies.  Perhaps being involved in volunteer activities will help your child feel positively about what he has to offer in the world.  Engaging in a variety of activities also provides him with the opportunity to meet other adolescents with whom he might be able to develop friendships.

The challenges a child with special needs experiences can be magnified during adolescence because the development of self-image is so key to this developmental stage.  It is therefore of vital importance for parents and other individuals important to the child provide the foundation for a positive self-esteem, highlight the child’s positive qualities and strengths, and nurture a self-image that will carry him forward into a successful future.  With the proper support, all adolescents can develop the relationships, skills and self-esteem to achieve this positive outcome.


Lisa Lenhart is senior psychologist and director of The Testing and Tutoring Service at TLC—The Treatment and Learning Centers (ttlc.org), a nonprofit community service organization founded in 1950 and based in Rockville that offers multiple services for individuals with special needs.