Five emotional sticking points of parenting a special-needs child

As a parent, it is emotionally overwhelming to have your child diagnosed with a special need. When raising a child with a special need it is easy to either let your emotions take a back burner while you continue to plow ahead with looking after your child’s needs, or to allow your emotional reaction to become so overwhelming that you are unable to figure out what the next steps are for your child.

When parents’ emotions are not addressed properly, they can become “sticking points” in the process of raising your child and can be detrimental in moving forward with appropriate responses. Dr. Stanley Greenspan, in his book, “The Child with Special Needs: Encouraging Intellectual and Emotional Growth,” says he believes that parents of children with special needs have the added responsibility of understanding themselves before they are able to help their child. He refers to this practice as “observing yourself.”

Dr. Greenspan suggests that as individuals we all have ways of feeling and behaving that are automatic and that influence the way we relate to our children. These emotional responses are very much a part of who we are as parents, as they are learned from our own families, as a result of circumstances in our lives, and from the culture in which we live.

Below is a brief description of five emotional sticking points where parents often become trapped in their understanding of and adaptation to their child’s special need:

Accepting the diagnosis

The moment of diagnosis is often the most difficult sticking point. Even if you were the one who suspected that your child might have a special need, it can still be emotionally challenging to move on from the diagnosis. Your child’s diagnosis might feel like an incredibly negative moment in your life, but it is actually a very positive step in moving towards finding her the help she needs.

Removing your emotions

The tricky part during this stage is to work through your own emotions even as you move forward with your child’s diagnosis. You might have all sorts of pre-conceived ideas floating around in your head about a certain approach, or you might have hang-ups about what special education or special needs means. It is important to keep an open mind as you move through the process of finding your child the help he needs.

Practice your game face

In the beginning, you might need to fake your excitement when your son engages in a therapy session, or when your daughter puts her hearing aids on in the morning; force yourself to smile as you answer your friend’s questions about your daughter’s diagnosis; or rehearse what you are going to say at your child’s Individualized Education Program meeting.

Do whatever it takes so that your child views her diagnosis as a positive moment in her life. In the beginning it will seem as if your child’s special need is all you can think about, but as you grow and change, it will slowly begin to fade into the background. Don’t worry, talking about your child’s diagnosis will become easier with time!

Find help for yourself

It’s important to acknowledge where you are at the moment. You are not expected to have this all figured out by the time you leave the first appointment. This is where the experience of others, especially parents who have already entered this world, can begin to share their advice, expertise, and can identify with the emotions that you are dealing with.

Stability in the home (moving forward in the home)

When your child is first diagnosed, it can change the dynamics of so many relationships in your life. It’s important to keep things as normal as possible when you are moving through things with your family. Friends, neighbors, relatives, siblings — all of these people are looking to you as to how they should interact with your child. For the most part, you don’t really have to change anything. There will be the need to educate and inform friends and family as to what needs to be done regarding specific equipment, accommodations, or communication strategies if necessary, but for the most part, there is no need for anyone to treat your child any differently.

Next steps

Whether you are just beginning your journey or if you have been on the road for a while, this is just a quick overview of the emotional sticking points that parents often find themselves trapped in when they first begin to respond to the reality of having their child diagnosed with a special need.

Raising your child is a marathon, not a sprint. Do not think that you need to have everything figured out in the first week after a diagnosis, or even in the first year.

Krystyann Krywko is an award-winning education writer and researcher who specializes in hearing loss and how it affects children and families. Her focus is on the emotions that are involved in working through a child’s special-needs diagnosis. For more of her writing, visit her blog, www.kidswithhearingloss.org.