Insight Is 20/20

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Envy the Parents of Special Needs Children: Part Two

Parenting special needs kids has surprising positive psychological effects.

Any parent who has a special needs (SN) child knows just how tough the parenting experience can be. While there are limitless types of special needs a child can have, I am focusing on children with special psychological and emotional needs. Specifically, I'm focusing on psychiatric disorders, including mood disorders, thought disorders, and autism-spectrum disorders. Now, a quick look through the parenting section of the local bookstore reminds us how perplexing and challenging the parenting process is for any parent – special needs or otherwise. Yet the challenge for the parents of SN children is undeniably greater than for the parents of other children.

In my previous article, “Pity the Parents of Special Needs Children: Part One,” I referred to several research studies which concluded that having a SN child causes multiple negative effects on the parents (e.g., stress). In this article, however, I focus on the positive: What are the psychological benefits for parents who have the infinitely unique challenge of parenting a child with SN? You might not be surprised to find out that there isn’t much research about the positive effects on parents. Accordingly, I will refer to my own experience as the parent to a SN child, parent, as well as a psychologist who has worked with many parents of SN children both in private practice and in the community mental health system. 

So, let's discuss the positive psychological benefits—most of which are completely unexpected - of parenting a child with SN.

The Role of Maturity and Selflessness

Parenting, in general, requires that a parent become less selfish over time. Why? Because an infant, and later a young child, has so many needs, and the parent must set aside his or her own needs in order to help the child survive and, ultimately, thrive. There’s no doubt that not every parent makes the cut: The number of children who are taken away from their parents due to neglect or abuse has actually been on the rise in Los Angeles, for example, where I live and work. For these parents, they were either psychologically or physically unable to take care of their children, or they were simply too selfish to focus consistently on their kids, seeking escape instead from the responsibility.

All responsible parents become more mature and less selfish over time, but the growth potential is even greater for the parents of SN children. The reason is simple: As the parent of a SN child, you’re forced to play additional roles because your child has greater needs than most other children. Parents of SN children wear countless hats, including parent as therapist and parent as rehab specialist. If any non-SN parents don’t get it, I will spell it out clearly: Most parents don’t spend hours with psychotherapists and other professionals being educated about mood regulation, sensory systems, and the line between normal and abnormal development. I'm not bitter; I'm just being honest.

For me, a psychologist who spent ten years (from Psych 101 at Vassar to my post-doctoral fellowship much later), I had to go back and relearn so much of what I had lost along the way. In some ways, parenting a SN child is a lot like going back to school for a degree—but one that goes on for many years, with no real end in sight!

A Bigger Purpose

For most parents, they have a clear purpose: to raise a happy, healthy child. But the parents of SN children have an even bigger purpose: to help a child recover from challenges that could otherwise compromise their future. Parenting SN children is really about helping the child recover from disability, and the parents of SN children will tell you that there's no greater purpose on earth.

Parents of SN Children Inspire Other Parents, Creating a Psychological Sense of Community

Most of the parents of SN children I've seen tell me that they turn to other SN parents in a time of crisis, arguing that only SN parents are gifted enough to handle the most challening problems. Anecdotally, considering the SN parents I've worked with over the years, I've found them to be one of the most organized and effective group of multitaskers I've ever encountered! And it's because they run tight ships. You know who I’m talking about: the mom who fought to get her son into a special school for her child who is on the autistic spectrum, or the dad who started a second job to help pay out-of-pocket for rehab services the state wouldn't cover. Like overcharged batteries, the responsible parents of SN children never give up. Though I’ve heard a group of moms call themselves ‘Warrior Moms,’ I prefer the less militaristic associations of ‘Parent Healers.’ That's really what the parents of SN children are, after all.

Predictability and Order Are Relics from the Past

For me—and thousands of other parents of SN children—accepting how little we can control is one of the most profound psychological effects of parenting these children. You lose touch with what is ideal and start accepting what is, for better or worse. In general, you get better at accepting realities you don’t like, and you switch instead into a sort of ongoing crisis mode where your chief goal is to meet the day’s needs, keep your head above water, and try to save enough energy to get ready to it all over again the next day.

So many parents have sat in my office and explained, "I never know what kind of mood my son will wake up with," and they go on to explain that the first hour or two in the morning can either be manageable or awful, depending on the morning. Many parents have confided to me that one thing they've learned as a result of their parenting expereince is to stop overthinking everything. What's the point? With so many different disorders, we have no idea what caused them to begin with!

Rethinking Traditional Success and Keeping Up with the Joneses' Children

Raising a SN child threatens a very common goal many parents have for their children: to achieve a traditional type of success in multiple realms: social (having friends and a boyfriend or girlfriend in the teenage years- and, yes, it is important); academic (passing each grade and doing well in school); and sports (playing on sports teams, which helps physical and emotional development). The truth is that the challenges of many SN children will prevent success in one or more of these realms, at least, until the child's special needs are successfully treated.

Every parent, when the child is in the womb, starts to develop conscious and unconscious fantasies of what that child will be like once born. Every parent, as a result, must learn to accept who the child becomes later, putting to bed any fantasies that the parent might have had about the child being different. For the parents of SN children, they must take honest inventory of what expectations they have for the child, particularly when it comes to academic and social success at school. Simply put, children with SN have a different path from other children.

Many parents of SN children have come to see me for psychotherapy because they feel anxious about the uncertainty of their children's futures: They fear their child will be rejected, will fail a given grade in school, or won't be able to live or work independently as an adult. Though these are perfectly normal fears, they are fears - not realities. 

When my son started having social and academic problems at school in kindergarten, I quickly realized that his unique challenges may thwart a particular type of success I had always chased —and secretly hoped my son would mirror in his own future. I had to slow down. I had to reflect on my own life for perspective.

In my own life as a kid, my parents pushed me hard to do well in school and to achieve professional success later in life. Back then, I was like a little thoroughbred, studying like a nervous wreck for my SATs and feeling as if my life depended on which college I got into. If you’d asked me years ago whether I wanted the same type of successes for my child, I would have given a fair and diplomatic answer. I can picture myself something, such as, “I just want him to be happy, no matter what he does.” Sounds terrific, but is it what I truly believed?

At this point, as my son heads toward his seventh birthday, I want him to be happy. I want him to feel purposeful and effective in life, and I want him to care about something positive. His psychological challenges require that I take things day by day, and that I help him set goals that are achievable. There is no perfect order to things, and letting go of an idealized version of child development and keeping up with the Joneses' children has been the most positive psychological benefit I have found. When you have a SN child, you simply stop comparing them to other children over time. It just doesn't matter what other children are doing; what matters is staying afloat and meeting the day's needs!

To all of the parents of SN children, I wish I could coordinate a massive standing ovation where you feel appreciated for all that you do. The extra time and energy that you devote to your SN child can make an enormous difference in your child's future. I know it's hard, but try to find the faith to keep fighting for your child's future. When your energy is low, practice good self-care by sleeping more and taking lots of warm, relaxing baths. Try to get a massage whenever possible, whether at a fancy  establishment or a free one from your friend or romantic partner. The stress you're under is intense, so treat your body kindly. Though these behaviors won't change the problem, they will calm you and give you balance as you navigate your way through the rocky road of SN parenting.

In addition, make sure you to talk to the parents of other SN children. These parents are your community family, and you can find in-person support groups or online chat rooms that fit your family's specific needs. The more social support you have, the better for you and your children.

Finally, if you didn't have a chance to read Part One of this article and are curious about what the negative effects of parenting children with SN are, check out my full article on this site, "Pity the Parents of Special Needs Children: Part One."

Seth Meyers, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist with the L.A. County Department of Mental Health.

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