Many blog posts and articles focus on the impressive benefits of physical activity and developmental programs for children who have special needs. It’s helpful to read how these programs are resulting in growth, learning, physical development, and increased self-confidence. But in a family where special needs kids are present, everyone’s life is different and has challenging moments, not just the life of the one with special needs. Parents, in particular, can experience the gamut of emotions and struggles as they try to help their child enroll, participate, and succeed in special needs programs. But when children are plugged into the right programs, the result is a significant positive impact on the parents as well as the children.
A fact of life: people want to be accepted, to fit in, to belong. Another fact of life: loving and raising a child whose special needs may bring unwanted and sometimes judgmental attention makes feeling accepted and “normal” pretty difficult. As the parent tries to help the child feel normal, the parent ends up feeling less and less normal, and sometimes just helpless. Parents want to see their children grow and develop, to feel included. When kids are involved in programs geared to or with accommodations for special needs, the result is often development in balance, motor skills, hand-eye coordination, social interactions, positive self-image, confidence, muscle tone, teamwork, and the list goes on. Parents are no longer trying to help their children feel normal on their own; instead, there’s a team of coaches, physical therapists, teachers, mentors, and parents coming together to help your child develop. Kids’ involvement with a schedule and regular activities can also provide their parents with a sense of normalcy as mom loads up the van to head to soccer or dad leaves work early to cheer on the wheelchair basketball game.
Even with a “normal” level of activity and involvement, apart from the right programs, it can be easy to feel alone in your struggle as a parent of a special-needs child. It’s far too easy to compare your parenting styles and level of involvement with other parents – parents who genuinely don’t have a clue what having a special-needs family member is like. As we’ve already seen, participating in the right special needs programs can help provide a sense of normal involvement in social activities. But a significant benefit to parents is a community where they – and their children – belong. Suddenly, there is a community of supportive parents who are in similar situations. They can sympathize when you talk about your child that struggles to get along with others, or struggles with academic ability, or has a hard time with hand-eye coordination. They understand what it’s like to feel easily judged, to just not know what their child needs at times. They can encourage you that you’re not a bad parent and that making parenting mistakes happens but it will all be okay. And as these moms and dads show you support and encouragement, remember that their kids are in the program right alongside your child and show them the same understanding, sympathy, encouragement, and support. Some of your closest friendships might form as a result of meeting other parents at a program each of your special-needs kids is involved in. Supportive parent groups are one of the most positive benefits of your child being enrolled in the right special-needs programs.
Many programs for special needs children will ask or allow parents to participate alongside their child. As you engage in physical activities with your child, you’ll likely see results in your own body: improved abilities, cardiovascular health, increased muscle tone, release of stress, and so on. Participation in programs geared towards skills and mental development can also help parents discover new hobbies, such as pottery, weaving, watercolor painting, or photography. Learning alongside your child provides encouragement for both of you as you’re in the boat together, and it can provide unique opportunities for better emotional connection.
Different from personal development as a natural result of participating in programs, this positive impact on parents can affect every aspect of their interactions with a child who has special needs. Programs guided by trained therapists, mentors, coaches, and physicians provide a natural pathway for parents to gain detailed guidance and training about how to help their child succeed in multiple areas. These knowledgeable guides are often eager to communicate to parents the specific needs in which the child needs additional support or reinforcement and to train parents in how best to provide that support. Sometimes the conversations will be quick suggestions; sometimes you may need to request specific training times to help you learn how to develop specific skills to help your special-needs child. Perhaps enrolling your child in a special-needs program can allow you the time to meet regularly with a trained therapist or to take a class on your child’s specific needs.
Live, Laugh, Love
A rather cliché phrase, but think about it: as a parent of a child with special needs, you need to live, you need to laugh, and you need to love and be loved. A few cautions as you consider getting your kids involved (or upping your involvement) in special needs programs:
Remember that you are more than JUST the parent of a special-needs child. Is that part of your identity? Absolutely. But that’s not the only defining aspect of who you are. Like any adult who is also a parent, try to make time for things you’re interested in: friendships, activities, a girls’ night out, groups, exercise, hobbies, and even alone time. Decide to live, and your children will benefit: you’ll be more relaxed, and they’ll see what really living looks like.
Humor is key for any parent, and perhaps even more so when parenting a child who has special needs. Laugh at yourself. Laugh at humorous moments your children create. Don’t stress out trying to meet an impossible ideal. Mistakes and messes are ok, and laughter is good for the soul.
Hand out love like candy. Some days, that means you need all the candy for yourself – let others do kind and helpful things for you. You don’t have to be the super parent who can do it all herself! Most days, you can look for ways to share the candy. Schedule a skilled babysitter (maybe an understanding parent from your child’s special needs program) and go on a date with your spouse. Spend time reading to or playing with your children who don’t require as much physical or emotional assistance. Call a friend to meet for dessert or a cup of coffee when your spouse can handle things at home for an hour. As you pour love into others, they’ll reciprocate and you’ll get filled right back up with love.