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“You Can’t Buy Happiness: How Downsizing and Living Simple Has Transformed My Child”

One year ago, we sold the farm (literally) and drastically downsized our lives into a 36-foot RV. We shed furniture, toys, clothes — and stress. In the process, we also saw a transformation in our extreme child, who has found contented calm in our new tiny life.

My husband and I have lived tiny with our two kids and our dog for a year now. Our decision to drastically downsize, give away more than 80 percent of our possessions, and sell our 15-acre farm in exchange for a 36-foot fifth wheel was motivated not by insanity but by years of research that supported the idea that a more simplified way of life can promote better behavior and more opportunity for success for kids with behavior diagnoses like our son’s.

Even if living a mobile lifestyle or downsizing to 100 square feet per person is not tenable for you, it is possible to encourage positive responses and depress feelings of anxiety in you extreme child by taking some simple steps to de-clutter and downsize your stuff.

Here are eight ways that simplified living has improved out extreme child’s behavior:

1. Less Stimulation for Sensory Overload

Behavior meltdowns happen in the face of a sensory challenge or when our son feels incapable of articulating a feeling or emotion. The result? An explosion of emotion. It seems simple, but removing the sources of sensory overstimulation can relieve this anxiety.

Picture the traditional child’s bedroom: a brightly colored cartoon-character bedspread, pictures of action heroes on the walls, bins overflowing with toys that make sounds or light up. Maybe there is a canopy or an extra decorative pillow array. Perhaps there are LEGOs, hundreds of them, scattered around across a rug that looks like a town. Its texture is scratchy.

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Just the bedroom alone, never mind other rooms in the home or an additional playroom, harbors untold sensory overstimulation.

Downsizing all of that “stuff” has diminished the sensory overload for our son. He and our daughter each have two square fabric bins. The rule is that if it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t stay. So, they each have one bin for stuffed animals and the other for dolls or action figures, racecars, or a wooden kitchen set. This reduces the drive to choose between so many things, and have access to a million different stimuli all at once. Their room is decorated with calming colors and simple decor. They share a bookshelf and a desk, and that is it.

Neither child has ever complained that it isn’t enough, and the sensory reduction has been a huge assist for our son’s needs.

2. More Quality Time

Our kids don’t want mountains of stuff from us. They just want us. Drastically downsizing all of the things I had to clean, keep up with, fold, and take care of has afforded us many more hours together.

And spending less money on stuff means we can afford to take more trips and engage in adventures like playing outside, going fishing, and teaching each other new things. Before simplifying our lifestyle, we let our son cook with us twice. Now, he loves to learn by measuring ingredients, making shopping lists, or chopping vegetables (after having learned knife safety, of course!).

Simplification has increased how much quality time we spend together as a family.

3. Lessened Anxiety

Parenting a child with anxiety is a tricky road to navigate because you can’t possibly predict all of his emotional triggers. Additionally, when your child has other diagnoses, such as ADHD or ASD, he tends to have anxiety because of his primary diagnosis.

Will kids like me? Will I make friends? Will they play fair on the playground?

The list is a mile long.

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Reducing our material baggage and needs has afforded us the opportunity to be a one-income family. That means one of us stays home to “road school” our kiddos so our son can learn at his own pace. No more anxiety about school. That is maybe the best thing ever.

4. The Ability to Tailor Education

Parents of extreme and neurotypical children alike understand the pressure of preparing for school every morning. The simple routine — wake up, brush teeth, get dressed, eat breakfast, and get out the door — ends badly more times than not. Removing this anxiety for our son by opting to educate him at home has been a tremendous relief to our entire family.

Simplifying our lifestyle allows us to cater each lesson to his strengths and weaknesses. That means the majority of his education is hands-on learning that is relevant to real life. He can learn just as well in the grocery store as he does from a textbook sometimes. It is an incredible joy to instill in my kids a love of lifelong learning!

5. The Freedom to Create Your Own Schedule

Most kids, regardless of age or ability, function best on a schedule that is predictable. Spontaneity is sometimes fun, but for kids with behavior disorders, routine is practically magic.

While many families spend five days a week running from school to practice, practice to homework, homework to tests, and then spend the weekends at soccer games, tee ball, and dance recitals, we don’t. Simplifying has meant reducing our stress in every way.

This means that our kids each get to choose one activity per season. If they choose nothing, we don’t freak out. I assure you, as a lifelong educator, colleges aren’t going to deny your child because she doesn’t have 13 years of Little League softball on her application.

This simple cut in the schedule frees up so much time and releases hours of stressful “go, go, go” for the entire family!

6. Small Space for Small Responsibility

Our kids do chores. That’s right. Even our two-year-old daughter has her own tasks and, you know what: She loves it!

Having less stuff means a shorter to-do list. So it becomes easier for your young daughter to put away her own clothes. Our son helps with everything from taking out the trash to doing the laundry.

Today’s kids severely lack life skills when they graduate, so this is a great way to instill responsibility and teach them valuable skills on a small, manageable scale.

7. Appreciation for Simple Things

In the age of excess screen time, birthday parties with bounce houses, and extravagant summer vacations, kids have a lot competing for their attention, and parents feel pressured to keep up. Simplifying our lives and downsizing our stuff has taught us some pretty beautiful lessons through our kids.

Our almost-7-year-old son didn’t know what an iPad was until recently. Our daughter would hands-down choose playing in the dirt over watching TV, and both of our kids have spent more hours in a $10 inflatable pool in our yard than they have on any vacation in their lifetime.

You know what? They love it! They love running around outside together playing hide and seek as much as I used to love riding bikes and climbing trees until the streetlights came on. It is a simpler way of living, and it is teaching them to use creativity, imagination, and problem solving to dream up awesome adventures!

8. The Lesson of Blessing Others

We get asked often about the best part of going tiny with our kids. I love the negligible time I spend cleaning now, but more than that I love modeling kindness, and implementing it with my kids.

Every time they count out their toys and cut that number in half to give away, they learn the joy of blessing someone who has less than they do. The importance they once placed on stuff lessens daily. They are teaching others (and reminding us) what being kind looks like — and that is beautiful.

[Slideshow: The Ultimate Room-by-Room Organization Guide]

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