As a young adult with a disability, I often find myself reflecting on my upbringing with an increasing appreciation for the effect my parents had on my life. During life’s hardships, they challenged me to adapt and persevere, which ultimately forced me to learn invaluable life skills. And when I majored in disability studies in college, I gained an even greater, more profound understanding of their influence. My coursework taught me about the specific challenges individuals with disabilities face, especially during their transition to adulthood. The concept of transition readiness resonated with me. Transitioning to adulthood is important for ensuring that youth with disabilities have the skills necessary to become independent in this new stage of life. Looking back, I can see how my parents were able to do this for me.
It is important to recognize that military families who have a child with a disability face stressors beyond those most typically associated with military life. Some stressors may include navigating new or unfamiliar systems (e.g., educational, healthcare) during times of transition, or a lack of control over competing demands (e.g., military responsibilities, family life). Parents of children with disabilities often do everything to ensure their child’s needs are met (e.g., scheduling medical appointments, staying informed regarding the nuances of their child’s disability, collaborating with support professionals). Amid adversity, parents can be their child’s greatest advocate.
As children with disabilities grow, it is important for parents to allow them to become independent. Parents may wonder, “How can I help my child work towards transition readiness?” Below are some strategies for supporting military-connected youth with disabilities during their transition to adulthood.
- Allow youth to speak up for themselves. Encourage your child to voice their concerns (e.g., explaining their needs to a service provider, asking for help, educating others about their disability). Learning and practicing self-advocacy is essential for individuals with disabilities as they navigate the world.
- Teach youth their rights. People with disabilities have civil rights and are entitled to reasonable accommodations. It is important that they are informed about their rights and taught why they matter.
Create reasonable goals
- Success in adulthood will look different for each individual. Assist your child in defining what success means to them. Set a long-term or “dream” goal with your child, one that aligns with their capacity for independence. Perhaps their dream goal is to obtain a driver’s license, live independently, go to college, or find employment. Whatever their goal, be sure that your child’s voice shines when dreaming it.
- Break it down. After setting long-term goals, focus on breaking them down into smaller, more manageable goals. These should resemble stair steps leading to the dream. And remember to acknowledge their accomplishments, big and small!
Practice healthy coping
- Identify wellness activities. Find activities that are meaningful for your child and encourage them to engage in those activities frequently. Healthy habits that bring joy can relieve stress.
- Remember that it is okay to have difficult days. Individuals with disabilities are often expected to overcome their circumstances or be inspirations to the world around them. Remind your child that sometimes it is okay to not be okay – and that difficult emotions are valid.
Utilize supportive resources
- Link with community resources. Resources such as the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) are designed to assist military families who have dependents with disabilities. There also may be local organizations, equipped to meet specific needs. And other military families with similar experiences might be an invaluable resource. Becoming familiar with your area’s resources and what they have to offer can benefit your child.
- Involve your child in the process. Ask your child to assist with searching for and corresponding with organizations and/or supportive professionals. Doing so is an opportunity for them to learn how to engage with supportive resources independently.
Military youth with disabilities are accustomed to dealing with both military-related and disability-related stressors. Developing positive attributes, such as resiliency and perseverance, can equip them with the skills needed to become successful adults. Parents are in a unique position to strengthen their child’s growing sense of autonomy and confidence. Be mindful of transition readiness to ensure your child is well-prepared and supported through life’s transitions. Fostering independence in your child will lay a foundation for their future flourishing.