Special Needs Kids Part I
Children who have a disABILITY deserve to be treated just like any other child. As a parent, how can you accomplish this and at the same time get the support that you need?
You Are Not Alone: If you have recently learned that your child is developmentally delayed or has a disability (which may or may not be
completely defined), this message may be for you. It is written from the personal perspective of a parent who has shared this experience and all that goes with it.
When parents learn about any difficulty or problem in their child's development, this information comes as a tremendous
blow. The day my child was diagnosed as having a disability, I was devastated - and so confused that I recall little else
about those first days other than the heartbreak. Another parent described this event as a "black sack" being pulled down
over her head, blocking her ability to hear, see, and think in normal ways. Another parent described the trauma as "having a
knife stuck" in her heart. Perhaps these descriptions seem a bit dramatic, yet it has been my experience that they may not
sufficiently describe the many emotions that flood parents' minds and hearts when they receive any bad news about their
Many things can be done to help yourself through this period of trauma. In order to talk about some of the good things that can happen to alleviate the anxiety, let us first take a look at some of the reactions that occur.
Common Reactions: On learning that their child may have a disability, most parents react in ways that have been shared by all parents before them
who have also been faced with this disappointment and with this enormous challenge. One of the first reactions is that of
denial -- "This cannot be happening to me, to my child, to our family." Denial rapidly merges with anger, which may be
directed toward the medical personnel who were involved in providing the information about the child's problem. Anger can
also color communication between husband and wife or with grandparents or significant others in the family. Early on, it
seems that the anger is so intense that it touches almost anyone, because it is triggered by the feelings of grief and inexplicable
loss that one does not know how to explain or deal with.
Fear is another immediate response. People often fear the unknown more than they fear the known. Having the complete
diagnosis and some knowledge of the child's future prospects can be easier than uncertainty. In either case, however, fear of
the future is a common emotion: "What is going to happen to this child when he is five years old, when he is twelve, when he
is twenty-one? What is going to happen to this child when I am gone?" Then other questions arise: "Will he ever learn? Will
he ever go to college? Will he or she have the capability of loving and living and laughing and doing all the things that we had
Other unknowns also inspire fear. Parents fear that the child's condition will be the very worst it possibly could be. Over the
years, I have spoken with so many parents who said that their first thoughts were totally bleak. One expects the worst.
Memories return of persons with disabilities one has known. Sometimes there is guilt over some slight committed years
before toward a person with a disability. There is also fear of society's rejection, fears about how brothers and sisters will be
affected, questions as to whether there will be any more brothers or sisters in this family, and concerns about whether the
husband or wife will love this child. These fears can almost immobilize some parents.
Then there is guilt - guilt and concern about whether the parents themselves have caused the problem: "Did I do something
to cause this? Am I being punished for something have done? Did I take care of myself when I was pregnant? Did my wife
take good enough care of herself when she was pregnant?" For myself, I remember thinking that surely my daughter had
slipped from the bed when she was very young and hit her head, or that perhaps one of her brothers orsisters had
inadvertently let her drop and didn't tell me. Much self-reproach and remorse can stem from questioning the causes of the
Guilt feelings may also be manifested in spiritual and religious interpretations of blame and punishment. When they cry, "Why
me?" or "Why my child?", many parents are also saying, "Why has God done this to me?" How often have we raised our
eyes to heaven and asked: "What did I ever do to deserve this?" One young mother said, "I feel so guilty because all my life I
had never had a hardship and now God has decided to give me a hardship".
Confusion also marks this traumatic period. As a result of not fully understanding what is happening and what will happen,
confusion reveals itself in sleeplessness, inability to make decisions, and mental overload. In the midst of such trauma,
information can seem garbled and distorted. You hear new words that you never heard before, terms that describe
something that you cannot understand. You want to find out what it is all about, yet it seems that you cannot make sense of
all the information you are receiving. Often parents are just not on the same wavelength as the person who is trying to
communicate with them about their child's disability.
Powerlessness to change what is happening is very difficult to accept. You cannot change the fact that your child has a
disability, yet parents want to feel competent and capable of handling their own life situations. It is extremely hard to be
forced to rely on the judgments, opinions, and recommendations of others. Compounding the problem is that these others
are often strangers with whom no bond of trust has yet been established.
Disappointment that a child is not perfect poses a threat to many parents' egos and a challenge to their value system. This jolt
to previous expectations can create reluctance to accept one's child as a valuable, developing person.
Rejection is another reaction that parents experience. Rejection can be directed toward the child or toward the medical
personnel or toward other family members. One of the more serious forms of rejection, and not that uncommon, is a "death
wish" for the child -- a feeling that many parents report at their deepest points of depression.
During this period of time when so many different feelings can flood the mind and heart, there is no way to measure how
intensely a parent may experience this constellation of emotions. Not all parents go through these stages, but it is important
for parents to identify with all of the potentially troublesome feelings that can arise, so that they will know that they are not
alone. There are many constructive actions that you can take immediately, and there are many sources of help,
communication, and reassurance.
Seek the Assistance of Another Parent: There was a parent who helped me. Twenty-two hours after my own child's diagnosis, he made a statement that I have
never forgotten: "You may not realize it today, but there may come a time in your life when you will find that having a
daughter with a disability is a blessing." I can remember being puzzled by these words, which were nonetheless an invaluable
gift that lit the first light of hope for me. This parent spoke of hope for the future. He assured me that there would be
programs, there would be progress, and there would be help of many kinds and from many sources. And he was the father
of a boy with mental retardation.
My first recommendation is to try to find another parent of a child with a disability, preferably one who has chosen to be a
parent helper, and seek his or her assistance. All over the United States and over the world, there are Parent-Helping-Parent
Programs. The National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (NICHCY) has listings of parent groups
that will reach out and help you. If you cannot find your local parent organization, write to NICHCY to get that local information.
Talk with Your Mate, Family, and Significant Others: Over the years, I have discovered that many parents don't communicate their feelings regarding the problems their children
have. One spouse is often concerned about not being a source of strength for the other mate. The more couples can
communicate at difficult times like these, the greater their collective strength. Understand that you each approach your roles
as parents differently. How you will feel and respond to this new challenge may not the same. Try to explain to each other
how you feel; try to understand when you don't see things the same way.
If there are other children, talk with them, too. Be aware of their needs. If you are not emotionally capable of talking with
your children or seeing to their emotional needs at this time, identify others within your family structure who can establish a
special communicative bond with them. Talk with significant others in your life -- your best friend, your own parents. For
many people, the temptation to close up emotionally is great at this point, but it can be so beneficial to have reliable friends
and relatives who can help to carry the emotional burden.
Rely on Positive Sources in Your Life: One positive source of strength and wisdom might be your minister, priest, or rabbi. Another may be a good friend or a
counselor. Go to those who have been a strength before in your life. Find the new sources that you need now. A very fine counselor once gave me a recipe for living through a crisis: "Each morning, when you arise, recognize your
powerlessness over the situation at hand, turn this problem over to God, as you understand Him, and begin your day." Whenever your feelings are painful, you must reach out and contact someone. Call or write or get into your car and contact a
real person who will talk with you and share that pain. Pain divided is not nearly so hard to bear as is pain in isolation. Sometimes professional counseling is warranted; if you feel that this might help you, do not be reluctant to seek this avenue of
Take One Day at a Time: Fears of the future can immobilize one. Living with the reality of the day which is at hand is made more manageable if we
throw out the "what if's" and "what then's" of the future. Even though it may not seem possible, good things will continue to
happen each day. Worrying about the future will only deplete your limited resources. You have enough to focus on; get
through each day, one step at a time.
Learn the Terminology & Seek Information: When you are introduced to new terminology, you should not be hesitant to ask what it means. Whenever someone uses a
word that you don't understand, stop the conversation for a minute and ask the person to explain the word. Some parents seek virtually "tons" of information; others are not so persistent. The important thing is that you request
accurate information. Don't be afraid to ask questions, because asking questions will be your first step in beginning to understand more about your child.
Learning how to formulate questions is an art that will make life a lot easier for you in the future. A good method is to write
down your questions before entering appointments or meetings, and to write down further questions as you think of them
during the meeting. Get written copies of all documentation from physicians, teachers, and therapists regarding your child. It
is a good idea to buy a three-ring notebook in which to save all information that is given to you. In the future, there will be
many uses for information that you have recorded and filed; keep it in a safe place. Again, remember always to ask for
copies of evaluations, diagnostic reports, and progress reports. If you are not a naturally organized person, just get a box
and throw all the paperwork in it. Then when you really need it, it will be there.
Do Not Be Intimidated: Many parents feel inadequate in the presence of people from the medical or educational professions because of their
credentials and, sometimes, because of their professional manner. Do not be intimidated by the educational backgrounds of
these and other personnel who may be involved in treating or helping your child. You do not have to apologize for wanting to
know what is occurring. Do not be concerned that you are being a bother or are asking too many questions. Remember, this
is your child, and the situation has a profound effect on your life and on your child's future. Therefore, it is important that you
learn as much as you can about your situation.
Do Not Be Afraid to Show Emotion: So many parents, especially dads, repress their emotions because they believe it to be a sign of weakness to let people know
how they are feeling. The strongest fathers of children with disabilities whom I know are not afraid to show their emotions.
They understand that revealing feelings does not diminish one's strength.
Learn to Deal with Natural Feelings of Bitterness and Anger: Feelings of bitterness and anger are inevitable when you realize that you must revise the hopes and dreams you originally had
for your child. It is very valuable to recognize your anger and to learn to let go of it. You may need outside help to do this. It
may not feel like it, but life will get better and the day will come when you will feel positive again. By acknowledging and
working through your negative feelings, you will be better equipped to meet new challenges, and bitterness and anger will no
longer drain your energies and initiative.
Maintain a Positive Outlook & Keep in Touch with Reality: A positive attitude will be one of your genuinely valuable tools for dealing with problems. There is, truly, always a positive
side to whatever is occurring. For example, when my child was found to have a disability, one of the other things pointed out
to me was that she was a very healthy child. She still is. The fact that she has had no physical impairments has been a great
blessing over the years; she has been the healthiest child I have ever raised. Focusing on the positives diminishes the
negatives and makes life easier to deal with.
To stay in touch with reality is to accept life the way it is. To stay in touch with reality is also to recognize that there are some
things that we can change and other things that we cannot change. The task for all of us is learning which things we can
change and then set about doing that.
Remember That Time Is on Your Side: Time heals many wounds. This does not mean that living with and raising a child who has problems will be easy, but it is fair
to say that, as time passes, a great deal can be done to alleviate the problem. Therefore, time does help!
Find Programs for Your Child: Even for those living in isolated areas of the country, assistance is available to help you with whatever problems you are
having. NICHCY's State Resource Sheets list contact persons who can help you get started in gaining the information and
assistance you need. While finding programs for your child with a disability, keep in mind that programs are also available for
the rest of your family.
Take Care of Yourself & Avoid Pity: In times of stress, each person reacts in his or her own way. A few universal recommendations may help: Get sufficient rest;
eat as well as you can; take time for yourself; reach out to others for emotional support. Self-pity, the experience of pity from others, or pity for your child are actually disabling. Pity is not what is needed. Empathy,
which is the ability to feel with another person, is the attitude to be encouraged.
Decide How to Deal With Others: During this period, you may feel saddened by or angry about the way people are reacting to you or your child. Many
people's reactions to serious problems are caused by a lack of understanding, simply not knowing what to say, or fear of the
unknown. Understand that many people don't know how to behave when they see a child with differences, and they may
react inappropriately. Think about and decide how you want to deal with stares or questions. Try not to use too much
energy being concerned about people who are not able to respond in ways you might prefer.
Keep Daily Routines as Normal as Possible: My mother once told me, "When a problem arises and you don't know what to do, then you do whatever it was that you
were going to do anyway." Practicing this habit seems to produce some normalcy and consistency when life becomes hectic.
Continue to Part II...
Copyright © NICHCY (National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities). Authors: Patty McGill Smith, Carole Brown, Samara Goodman, and Lisa Kupper. The above information is presented for educational purposes only, and it is not a substitute for informed medical advice or training. Please do not use this information to diagnose or treat a mental health problem without consulting a qualified health or mental health care provider.