When a child with special needs is born into a family, the parents become immediately aware of the myriad challenges that lay ahead. Not only do they have to cope with issues like cost and time, but they also have to face their own emotions and the reactions of family members, relatives, friends and the public.
Children with special needs can change a family’s entire dynamics. This could occur when the special child can only communicate with his eyes and sounds, but everyone in the family must learn to interpret what he wants or needs. It then becomes a collective family effort to learn the various ways of the special child while seeing to the needs of other family members.
As a first step, these parents should never make their special child’s disability the sole focus of the family. Otherwise, the family is defined by the disability and the child, and the marriage and the other children will suffer. One of the main challenges will come from the siblings of the special needs child, and, to a certain extent, from the extended family – the relatives.
Siblings of special children
It can be difficult for siblings of special needs children to understand that their parents are not favouring their special needs brother or sister. It is also difficult for these children to understand that their special sibling really does have some form of mental, physiological or learning disability.
In situations like these, it is not easy to practise balanced parenting as the special needs child clearly needs constant monitoring and assistance. To create this balance, these parents can adopt a few helpful tips to maintain their children’s well-being:
- Parents should show that they empathise with their non-disabled children’s frustrations and listen carefully to their opinions and needs. It will help them realise that it is not easy to be a sibling of a special needs child.
- Try and allocate some time from your daily schedule to spend with your other children. This is important so that they don’t feel they will receive your attention only when they are disobedient or do something wrong. Be aware that a lack of parental attention can motivate delinquent behaviours in some of these children. Try and divide your attention equally among your children.
- Be sure to acknowledge and praise their achievements, and not just recognise their shortcomings. This will allow the children to feel that they are treated equally – if they do something wrong, they will be punished, and if they do something right, they will be rewarded accordingly.
- Bear in mind that your non-disabled children may feel anger and resentment towards their disabled sibling for not being the “normal” sibling they wanted. They may in turn, try to embarrass their disabled sibling and appear insensitive to his or her differences. If this occurs, explain to your children that these feelings are normal, and they have to try to accept them, while patiently explaining and discouraging such feelings. Also, these children may feel guilty for having these negative feelings, and it is your role as parents to reassure them that their feelings matter and are not forbidden.
Caring for a special needs child can also put a strain on the marriage. Therefore, parents should try and set aside some ‘couple-time’, even if it’s for an occasional meal. Talk to your spouse about your fears and worries, or talk to other people who can understand you. Remember to set aside some personal time for yourself by allowing other family members to watch over your special child while you rest.
Facing the relatives
Special parents may also encounter feelings of resentment towards gossip about their special needs child from relatives, and this can be an added stress on these parents. In cases like these, it is good to either talk your feelings out with these relatives so that the familial bond is not broken, or learn to ignore their comments.
Close relatives, like grandparents for example, may have old-fashioned views about disability and it would help if parents explain to them about their child’s disability. Also, allow your relatives to baby-sit your special child so that they too may be able to learn and better understand the child, even if it’s in a small way.
Parenting a special needs child is double the challenge, but parenting any other non-disabled child is not easy either. Take charge of your fears and work as a family in caring for one another because at the end of the day, a loving and supportive family is what is most needed in the life of a special needs child.