We understand and appreciate the stress you’re feeling. Parenting, in the best of circumstances, is marked by numerous responsibilities and pressures. Add to it the additional cares and concerns that come with having a child with special needs and the task can feel overwhelming indeed. We want to encourage you and offer hope, though. As tough as it can be, you can do this and do it well.
Although we’re not aware of the exact emotions you’re wrestling with at the moment, one of the foremost things that parents of a child with special needs have to deal with and work through is grief. Parents have all sorts of hopes and expectations for their children – dreams of academic achievement, athletic accomplishment, a successful career, a family (including grandchildren), and so on. While many of these are within reach for a lot of kids with special needs, depending on the type of disabilities a child has, for many children these aspirations and goals may never be achievable. With grief can come tremendous sadness or anger at the loss of these dreams, but this doesn’t have to destroy you.
To effectively process grief, you need to first acknowledge your feelings, and recognize that it’s okay and normal to feel sad or angry at the losses you and your child face. Give yourself the space and the permission to feel and perhaps even journal these emotions. That said, in order to move beyond your grief you must be willing to challenge your feelings, and to say, “These aren’t the circumstances I wanted for my child or me but we will move forward in spite of this.” Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll never be sad or angry again. For example, sadness can flood over the parents of a child who will never graduate from high school when they attend the graduation of a friend’s child. Just as the grief comes, though, it can be experienced and then laid back down – grief and pain don’t have to be permanent and debilitating.
While each person experiences and processes grief differently, a deep and well-grounded faith will make all the difference in how you view and face the struggle. Having a close personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ will not make you or your family immune from pain and hardship. In fact, the Bible tells us we will have tough times. But the closer we are to God the greater our ability will be to find purpose and hope, and the better equipped we’ll be to move through our grief.
An important step in the process is to consider that God doesn’t make mistakes. From a human standpoint, yes, there is some sort of “abnormality” in your child that may hinder your child’s growth. But your child is still an image bearer of God’s nature. The Lord is proud of your child and, as difficult as it may be to get there, you can be as well. Be gentle with yourself, but know that there is a way to view your child beyond his or her disability.
Now let’s consider the stress you’re experiencing. If you’ve ever been a passenger on an airplane you’re probably familiar with the pre-flight instructions advising you that if the oxygen masks drop from the overhead compartment, you need to place one on yourself before trying to assist someone else. The issue at hand is simple – you must attend to your own fundamental personal necessities before you can take care of other people. That’s not a breezy justification for adopting a “look out for number one” mindset. If you don’t take care of yourself you may be able to take care of your family for a while, but ultimately your efforts won’t be sustainable, and the results won’t be pretty. Self-care, then, is essential not just for your physical, emotional and spiritual health, but for your family’s as well.
There are a number of ways in which you can care for yourself. First, you need to maintain your physical health. This will not only help you to deal with stress but may be crucial if the care you provide your child is physically demanding. Eating properly and getting sufficient exercise are key. The latter may seem unrealistic at first glance, but like anything that’s important, if you plan for it you can make it happen. Find a friend who can watch your child for a half hour a few times a week. If your child is in school make the most of that time. If you work outside of the home, a lunchtime walk can yield significant benefits. Even a walk of a few minutes when your husband gets home from work can be a huge health boost. Regardless of how difficult it might seem up front, finding a way to care for your physical health is vital.
Equally important is your emotional health. Do you have support from others? Do you have friends you can talk to? Having a support network is essential to your emotional health, but gathering and maintaining one might seem difficult for some, especially for those who are introverts. But whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, you will be healthier when you have friends and others who care about you and can offer support.
Along that line, you may wish to consider joining a support group for parents of children with special needs. A group like this can be an invaluable resource in providing encouragement and helpful advice for stressed parents.
Similarly, be sure to prioritize and nurture your marital relationship. Having a solid marriage won’t keep you from dealing with the difficulties associated with special needs, but it will help you to cope with the stress when you and your husband are working together and supporting each other. There will be seasons when demands on your time and your finances may make dating each other seem like an impossibility, but don’t write it off. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on a date in order to make it meaningful. Short walks together, a cup of coffee together when the kids are in bed – you get the picture. What’s most important is that you take time out on a regular basis to focus on each other.
Finally, don’t neglect your spiritual health. Are you spending time with God in prayer? Are you accessing His wisdom and being reminded of His promises as you spend time in God’s Word, the Bible? Do you gather regularly with a faith community that supports you as you journey toward spiritual maturity? These are important questions to consider, both for yourself and for your family.
We know that there are real and unique pressures that parents of a child with special needs face. If you’d like to discuss your situation with a member of our staff, feel free to call Focus on the Family’s Counseling department.
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Special Needs & Disabilities (resource list)