A smile. A laugh. A hug. Children with Down syndrome (DS) are seen as cheerful, affectionate, and sociable. Positive interactions with others is a common strength for little ones with DS, but they can also have unique social-emotional challenges.
Sociability as a Strength and a Challenge
Interacting with others, as many children with DS avidly seek to do, can be highly beneficial when it comes to learning. As a parent or caregiver, you can harness your child’s desire to interact by focusing on activities that help him strengthen skills. What’s more, focused interactions can increase your child’s attention (something children with DS tend to struggle with).
On the other hand, situations where interaction isn’t appropriate (during quiet time at day care, for example) can be a challenge for little ones with DS. They may react with displays of dissatisfaction such as stubbornness, hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and tantrums.
Difficulty with Emotional Literacy
All little ones struggle with identifying, understanding, and managing emotions, but it can be especially difficult for those with DS, mainly due to cognitive and language delays. Feelings around typical toddler struggles (like frustration with a difficult task, not getting what they want, or sharing toys) can be especially pronounced.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
• Children with DS often have a hard time communicating that they’re confused, or asking for help. Stay tuned-in to your child, notice if he seems unsure of what is expected in a situation, and step in with guidance.
• Use pretend play to act out difficult situations and how to handle them.
• Teach him about emotions and feelings, and model appropriate ways to respond.
In an effort to be a positive force in the world of a child with DS, parents and caregivers may be slow to set boundaries and reinforce them. But discipline is necessary for all children.
Here are a few strategies that are helpful for all children, but especially those with DS:
• Give choices. If your child is refusing to let you put clothes on him, hold up two options and let him choose which one he wants.
• Use “if, then” scenarios. If your child does what you need him to do, then he gets to choose what’s next.
• Embrace distraction. Since children with DS are often easily distracted, you can harness that to shift their attention away from an unwanted activity.
• Be on your best behavior. Model an appropriate way to handle a situation to help your child pick up on the best response.
• Understand that ignoring can be bliss. A child with DS craves interaction. If your child is doing something inappropriate, instead of reacting, don’t immediately respond to the behavior. He may give up to get your attention again!
Children with DS have unique social – emotional strengths and challenges. When it comes to challenges, you can offer sensitive support, guidance, and limits to help your child feel successful navigating social and emotional difficulties. As in any area of development, enlisting the help of professionals who are trained to work with DS (especially if your child’s behavior challenges are interfering with his functioning or the functioning of the family) can offer valuable guidance.