My husband and I adopted our daughter when she was nine years old. She has a long list of mental health diagnoses. We quickly discovered that parenting a special needs child results in the whole family having a special set of needs. As I’ve interacted with other parents of children with special needs, I’ve noticed that there are some factors that most of us have in common. These characteristics are typically present regardless of if the child has been diagnosed with ADHD, autism, physical disabilities, Down’s syndrome, emotional issues or any other special needs.
1We’re tired. Really, really tired. Exhausted, actually. This isn’t an occasional thing for us. We don’t miss out on a full night of sleep once in a while. It’s all of the time. My daughter suffers with insomnia and nocturnal panic attacks. It is not uncommon for her to be awake for most of the night. Even if we do get enough sleep, we’re still run down from all of the energy it takes to manage our child’s condition. Our schedules are jam packed with various doctor, therapy and psychiatric appointments, IEP meetings and trips to the pharmacy. On top of it all, we still have to go to work and keep up with general household duties.
2Our brains are constantly busy. We’re always considering possible triggers in every situation, wondering how to explain our child’s unique needs to others and worrying about the future. My daughter suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and seemingly innocent encounters can send her into a meltdown. I spend hours analyzing every one, looking for the trigger and making plans to help her process it and get through it better next time.
3 We know more about our child’s condition than most doctors. My daughter is diagnosed with several types of anxiety disorders. I’ve read piles of books on the subject and keep up with the latest research online. Her pediatrician has never heard of the disorder. Mental health professionals in our area have very limited knowledge of it. I had to become the expert.
4We’re lonely. Our friends and family often have stepped away because our child’s needs made them uncomfortable. Or perhaps we had to step away from them because they refused to respect our boundaries and parenting decisions. Most special needs children don’t respond well to traditional parenting methods. Our brains may explode if we hear that all our child needs is more discipline one more time. Discipline isn’t the issue. Our child’s condition is – and that isn’t their fault or ours. My husband’s mother even cut off contact because she found our situation to be too stressful to be part of.
5We’re fragile. We feel judged all the time. We want what’s best for our child like any other parent and worry if we’re doing enough for them. We often don’t have enough time or energy left to take care of ourselves.
So what can you do to help parents of children with special needs? Understand that we’re overwhelmed and near the edge. Bring us coffee and a muffin “just because”. Tell us we’re doing a great job. Be gentle and kind with us. We’re doing the best we can.
Rachael is a freelance writer who is a self-proclaimed magazine junky, owns too many shoes and collects tons of recipes that she never attempts to make.