Parenting is a tough job. But parenting children with special needs is exponentially more challenging. Fifty-three percent of marriages with a special needs child that end up in divorce point to the child’s disability as having “some” or “major” influence on the eventual dissolution of the marriage (Shapiro, 2003).
Children with special needs can affect the entire family:
- Jealousy or embarrassment from siblings. Children with special needs require more attention with everyday life. Because of this, siblings may feel left out. They may also feel embarrassed of their special needs sibling in social situations or in public.
- Communication struggles. Children with special needs often have difficulties articulating, understanding, or processing verbal communication. This can cause parents and siblings to feel frustrated. It can also be extremely difficult for the special needs child.
- Disenfranchisement from other family members. Because the special needs child frequently has some kind of physical limitation, families are often restricted in the activities they can do as a family. This may cause feelings of resentment toward the special needs child.
What can parents do?
I am the father of a special needs child—a daughter with Cerebral Palsy. My wife and I have done some things right and made plenty of mistakes with her. Following are some things we have learned that any parent can do to help foster well-being:
- Get to know your child. Spend time with her. Do things with her that she likes to do. Give her individual attention. This takes time, but know that if you do not invest time with her now that you will regret it later. Your child is special, and she is worth your time!
- Play with your child. What if your child is physically unable to go on hikes or be away from home care for long periods of time? Find things you can do together. Our daughter has an incredible memory. We have discovered that she is very good at games that require a good memory. And bowling is easy—just put up the bumpers!
- Get help. Do not be too proud to seek help. None of us have all the answers. We can go to counseling and support groups. There are lots of organizations for special needs children that can provide things like physical therapy and specialized equipment, such as Shriners.
- Develop their individuality. The natural inclination of many parents is to do everything for their special needs child. Your child is likely more capable of doing more than you give him credit for. We can guide him toward developing his own individuality by teaching him problem-solving tools and basic life skills such as cooking and balancing a checkbook. If there is a problem at school, we can offer a listening ear and together brainstorm possible solutions.
- Experiment with different learning styles/discipline. None of us have all the answers. We need to recognize that each child is different and requires a tailored parenting approach. There is no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to parenting. At times, behaviors of a special needs child may be interpreted as disobedience, but your child simply may not understand. Be careful that you do not discipline prematurely.
- Educate yourself. We knew nothing about CP before our daughter was born, so we looked for ways to understand this disability. Books can be very helpful. One book I would recommend was written by Lynn McDaniel, who has CP, called, I Can Too!.
- Take care of yourself. Parenting a special needs child can be so consuming that it is easy to neglect ourselves. We all need time to recharge and regroup. Find what works for you and plan it into your schedule.
- Be patient! There is nothing easy about parenting a special needs child. Never give up. Be patient, and know that your efforts will make a difference in the long haul.
McDaniel, Lynn (2003). Yes, I Can! Publishing Designs, Inc.
Singer, Jonathan L. (2012). The Special Needs Parent Handbook: Critical Strategies and Practical Advice to Help You Survive and Thrive.
Shapiro, A. (2003) ‘No Time for Us’: Relationships between Parents who have a Disabled Child. A survey of over 2000 parents in the UK. UK: Contact a Family