Parenting a special needs child
Caring for yourself as you care for your child
By Focus on the Family Canada staff
Every woman who becomes pregnant or adopts a child hopes for a healthy baby. Many pray fervently for that blessing, and most will have that prayer answered. But what about those who receive a different answer: a child who needs so much more than the "average" child?
Parents to whom God has given a child with special needs have special needs, too. They have an extraordinary need for energy, patience, faith, trust, resources and relationships.
If you are the parent of a special needs child, you already know just how rigorously parenting tests your energy levels. It’s essential that you take good physical care of yourself, maintaining healthy nutrition and making time for exercise – especially outdoors, in fresh air, when possible. Sleep patterns may be challenging, but get rest whenever possible. Adjust your pace of life to allow for your challenges as a parent; you simply may not be able to take on as much as you did previously. Accept this and do what your circumstances allow, knowing that your commitment to caring for your child is your primary calling.
Caring for a special needs child will undoubtedly test your patience, whether it’s patience with your child, the medical system or with people who don’t understand. It’s your choice whether to view this as a frustration, or as an opportunity to develop Christ-like character. Over time, the Lord will grow your soul as you wait on Him for each challenge, each positive step of growth, or each disappointment endured.
When it comes to refining our faith, few things rival an experience like parenting a special needs child. Is God really good when difficulties surround us... when all our friends have normal, healthy children and we do not... when we have been up all night with a baby who needs 24-hour care? This is a time to seek God in ways you may never have before. The psalmist invites you to taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8). Pour out your questions, your pain, your fears to Him and experience His care for you. "Cast all your cares upon Him because He cares for you (1 Peter 5:7)." You will need God more than ever, and as you seek Him, you will find He is closer than ever.
We all feel better when we have some measure of control over our circumstances. For you, as the parent of a special needs child, control may seem very elusive. Doctors cannot always predict what lies ahead. Different treatments may be attempted until something "works," and your child’s condition may change unexpectedly. It will be important to find professionals you can trust to provide two things: professional expertise and care, and recommendations based on the best interests of your child and family.
You should also trust your own instincts. Only you know your child best; trust your gut when you sense something is amiss. Then ask for help.
It has been said that it takes a village to raise a child, and this is especially true for a special needs child. You will need to educate yourself; books, articles and judicious browsing on the Internet will help you find much that may prove helpful. Professional resources, including doctors, counsellors and therapists, may all become part of your support team. Seek the best possible information and help – for your sake and your child’s. Be an advocate for your child – ask questions, and don’t accept pat answers. Ask for support and access anything that can be made available to you – whether it is respite care, nursing assistance, financial aid, counselling or just good information.
Your most important relationship is with God. Spend time with Him regularly, sharing everything about your situation with Him freely.
The next important relationship is your relationship with your spouse (unless you are a single parent). Parenting a special needs child can be hard on a marriage. Take time to care for one another and recognize each other’s needs. It is easy to assume that your spouse will wait while the child absorbs all your attention. But don’t make him or her wait too long... refocus on one another regularly.
Be partners in this task – it is easy for the primary caregiver to end up working all alone, or at least feeling that way. Find practical ways to share the burden and to lift it for each other.
You’ll also benefit tremendously from cultivating relationships with others who have walked in your shoes. Find other parents who have gone down this road, either through local support groups, through your team of professionals or by checking out online support groups. (You’ll want to be discerning about these groups, however; some are very helpful, while others may not be).
Finally, be candid with family and friends about how they can be there for you. Often they want to help, but are not sure how. Be specific about what they can do to support you and your child.
© 2010 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.