Raising a child with prenatal alcohol or drug exposure comes with its own unique aspects. For some children, the impact may be minimal or short-term. For many, however, the impact is profound and lifelong.

It is important for parents of children who have been exposed to alcohol or drugs in utero to be aware of the possible long-term implications for their child.   

Some types of prenatal exposures include the following: 

  • Alcohol  
  • Nicotine 
  • Marijuana 
  • Illegal drugs (such as heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine) 
  • Some prescription medications 
  • Inhalants 

Prenatal exposure can contribute to a range of growth deficiencies and functional brain anomalies that lead to cognitive and behavioral problems in children that last a lifetime.

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Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder 

Alcohol is one of the most common prenatal exposures. No amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy, and children exposed to different amounts may present with a variety of challenges ranging in severity. Some children with prenatal exposure to alcohol are diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). FASD is commonly known as an “invisible disability” as the majority of people with FASD have no discernible physical features. (Only about 20% of those diagnosed have facial features associated with FASD.)

Because of this, many children with FASD are expected to perform and behave at levels beyond their capabilities. However, many children and individuals diagnosed with FASD may exhibit a variety of behaviors that can often be misinterpreted by others.  

Common challenges experienced by children with FASD, according to Eileen Devine, LCSW, neurobehavioral therapist and coach for parents: 

  • Developmental level of functioning (might be below chronological age) 
  • Social skills and adaptive behavior (might exhibit impulsive behavior) 
  • Sensory systems, sensory-motor integration (might be easily overstimulated) 
  • Nutrition (undereating or overeating) 
  • Challenges with receptive language (difficulty understanding what is being said)
  • Challenges with expressive language (difficulty speaking or having others understand them)
  • Communication (difficulty with both verbal and nonverbal communication) 
  • Processing pace (processes things slowly and can only do one thing at a time) 
  • Learning and memory (can’t retain information, has difficulty with abstract thinking) 
  • Executive functioning (difficulty solving problems)

It’s important to remember that prenatal exposure can present at any stage of development. For example, a child may know how to do a task one day and not be able to process it the next. Perhaps the same concept might need to be explained over and over and over to a child.  It can be frustrating and feel as if the behaviors are willful when it is actually the brain deficiencies at play.   

Prenatal exposure can present at any stage of development. For example, a child may know how to do a task one day and not be able to process it the next. It can be frustrating and feel as if the behaviors are willful, when it is actually the brain deficiencies at play.   

Individuals with FASD may experience some degree of challenge to daily living and need extra support with communication, motor skills, physical health, learning, memory, attention, emotional regulation and social skills to reach their full potential. With the right information and tools, you can help your child reach their fullest potential.   

Here are 9 things parents can do to address some of the more common challenges:  

  1. Step back and look at your child’s inner experience. 
  2. Highlight their strengths. 
  3. Build connection. 
  4. See if your child’s environment is a good fit.  
  5. Stay regulated when interacting with your child. 
  6. Keep a log of behaviors to see if there are patterns you can connect. 
  7. Be gentle and give your child extra time in their schedule. 
  8. Provide structure for regular sleep.  
  9. Be patient. 

Every child is an individual with their own unique qualities and characteristics. Patience, love and strong relationships with caregivers will help children to grow and thrive. In addition, early intervention, resources, accessing services and support, and having a stable home environment are all shown to lead to more positive outcomes. By focusing on your child’s strengths and needs, you can help them be successful!  

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All parents encounter challenges as their children grow up. And sometimes, issues may arise that leave you uncertain as to how best to respond. But not every issue requires therapy or counseling. The PACE program is here to help during those times.

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