Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D.
Not long ago I was working with a parent
whose son was especially demanding. Ten years of age, the son
had been diagnosed with multiple issues at one time or another,
kicked out of several schools, and prescribed several different
medications over the years. With three other children in the home,
this parent was as tired as anyone I've ever worked with.
Most of us have no clue what it is like for a parent of a special needs child. Whether it is developmental delay, Down Syndrome, autism, behavior disorder, or something harder to diagnose (as was true with the child I am referring to), these children are often times mentally and physically taxing.
Parents are torn between their intense love and loyalty to their children and the daily reality of the demanding nature of their needs and/or dysfunction. I hate to admit it, but as a therapist there have been times over the years when I've thought, "I don't see how you do it" when I have watched a parent walk out of my office with an especially challenging child.
Some parents of special needs children have to pack up lots of gear before they leave home, much as one does with a newborn, but this chore never ends. These parents can't just drop their children in class at church, at a meeting of boy or girl scouts, or at dance class or soccer practice.
These dedicated parents have to explain
over and over again to various strangers some of the situations
they might encounter with their children, running the risk of
rejection - or even worse - pity. They just want their children
to have fun.
Some of these children might have bladder control problems or special diets. They may be hard to understand, or they may be easily angered or upset. For example, peaceful evenings may quickly turn chaotic over the simplest of issues.
Most children learn how to manage their frustrations and difficulties as they get older, developing coping skills that most parents take for granted. But some children with physical, emotional, or developmental issues will never fully garner that skill.
These parents sometimes are not invited to parties or included in social events because people either don't know how to behave around them and their children or because they don't want to be troubled. It is lonely to be excluded.
Even when invited, finding a babysitter who can manage a special needs child's specific issues is such a challenge that some parents quit trying. In other words, they never have time just for their own relaxation, marriage care, or respite from the day-to-day business of life.
Even when they find a moment of quiet during the day while children are away, these parents dread to hear the phone ring, knowing it may be the school calling with some issue. Some of the parents with whom I have worked, especially those with behavioral disorder children, are literally called nearly every day by an administrator or teacher from school.
I have seen some amazing parents with endless patience, but even the best parents get tired. You can help. Offer to babysit or to drive other children to dance practice. Perhaps you could make a meal here or there. Sometimes just offering adult conversation may provide a bit of comfort during the day.
Some people feel awkward and don't know how to address a special needs child. A wheelchair, braces, or autism are not contagious; parents really just want you to respond to their son or daughter as you would to any other child. Smile, say hello, and include him or her when you can.
Don't treat these children with pity or disdain. Don't feel required to compensate. These children want a normal life, too.
So be a good listener. Help as you have opportunities. Invite them to parties. Be patient. We all want to be loved and accepted. The world is a cold and lonely place when we are stressed and we feel as though we are facing it by ourselves.
But if I could pick just one thing I think most parents of special needs children might appreciate, it would be that you understand them. Seeing that you get it - that you have at least an idea of how challenging life can be - may be enough.