It’s a taboo feeling you don’t dare discuss: you’re disappointed by your child.
If you are like most parents of atypical kids, you may believe you’re supposed to take your child’s atypical development in stride and be grateful for your uniquely wonderful son or daughter—regardless of the behavioral, learning, or medical challenges you have to deal with every day.
You may think you’re not allowed to feel angry, resentful, or sad.
You may try to suppress your disappointment and condemn yourself because you believe it means you’re selfish and unkind. And you may never, ever talk about your “shameful” feelings with your friends or even your partner.
But denying your feelings can be bad for your mental health and could be dangerous for your child.
A recent study found that children with disabilities are at almost double the average risk for child abuse. How is this horrible statistic possible? One reason could be that parents who do not face their own feelings about their special needs kids are more likely to take out their resentment and disappointment on the children themselves. This doesn’t always mean physical abuse. There are other more subtle ways your buried disappointment may be harming your child.
How Disappointed Parents Take It Out on Their Kids
In my practice as a neuropsychologist, I’ve witnessed lots of parents with myriads of unpleasant feelings that they aren’t ready to deal with yet. Parents may love their children and work hard to get them the best care but often, their unacknowledged feelings get in the way. Here are a few common parental emotional responses to three types of special-needs kids.
Dyslexic child and ‘fix-it’ parent. This is the parent who is accustomed to solving difficult problems at work. He comes home every evening increasingly fed up by his child, who is experiencing repeated failures at school and whose self-esteem is falling. Dad decides to fix it by reading with his child every night, thereby “teaching him how to read.” Before bed. Every night. Dyslexia requires very specific teaching methods provided by trained professionals, but Dad either doesn’t know this or refuses to believe it. He feels angry and unnerved by the apparent failure of his child—he is not used to failure and doesn’t like it. He ends up in my office wondering if his child is lazy and manipulative.
High-functioning autistic child and the socially conscious parent. The set up for disappointment is the child’s lack of social skills. While many high-functioning autistic children are smart in school, they inevitably push other kids too hard, blurt out embarrassing statements in the most inappropriate places (“Mom, my butt itches!” “Look at that fat ugly person!”), or pick their nose during school choir performance. The parent feels humiliated and angry. Parents may be unintentionally gruff with their child, lecture them, or lash out.
Developmentally delayed or low IQ child and high achieving parent. In a family of high achievers, the arrival of a child who is cognitively delayed almost always causes some disappointment, frustration, and embarrassment. A parent may think, How does he not understand that he is acting like a two year old? Why does he persist in throwing a tantrum…or playing with nursery-age toys…or not understanding what we’re talking about at the dinner table? Parents can descend into sarcasm, anger, or physical punishment, especially when they think their child is doing these behaviors to ‘test’ or ‘tease’ their parent.
You might think these parents must be heartless, but they are not. They are typical parents engaged in raising what they had hoped would be typical children. And the feelings emerge. What to do?
5 Ways to Tackle Your Disappointment, Starting Now
You can’t pretend your way out of disappointment—your child knows you too well. Even a seriously impaired child will inevitably ask the heartbreaking question, “Mommy, why are you so mad at me?” But there are actions you can take today to come to terms with your feelings and learn how to manage them.
1. Be honest with yourself—and then talk about it.
Examine yourself, and be totally honest. Do I harbor anger, resentment, disappointment, or embarrassment about my child? Many parents do—dig deeper if you can’t find it. Remember the cancelled ski trip? The tantrum at the neighbor’s birthday party? Find a confidante and talk about your feelings. (Make sure it is someone you really trust, because this could become fodder for gossip.) Better yet, schedule a few sessions with a therapist. The therapist can guide you toward self-discovery and suggest healthy outlets for your feelings, along with ways to rejuvenate. There are many low fee or no fee therapy centers so it needn’t place another financial burden on you. But it can help a lot.
2. Find out more about your child’s strengths and limitations.
Many parents are better able to calm their emotional responses after they read a full diagnostic assessment that includes their child’s strengths as well as limitations. Learning more about your child’s condition may help you adjust your expectations, recognize signs of progress, and manage your emotions. If you are not satisfied with your current evaluation, seek a second opinion. Hopefully, you will be helped by a professional that can offer you more than cookie cutter recommendations and can provide true insight.
3. Every night, think of one thing that makes you proud of your child.
Think about it before going to bed. Remember, you will need to think about that one thing the next day (maybe a lot). I’m sure your child has many things to be proud of. Start thinking about one thing at a time, and the list will grow.
4. Find a support group in your area.
Whether your child’s condition is rare or commonplace, there are support groups for almost everything. Many parents find that learning to commiserate, laugh, cry and share stories is the most healing therapy.
5. Know when to get help.
If you feel that your emotions or your spouse/partner/shared caretaker’s emotions get out of control, or you worry when reading this that you have crossed the red line into abusive behavior with your child, GET HELP NOW. Do not continue to avoid the need to take care of your feelings in order to help your child. Talk with a therapist or start with www.childhelp.org for more information.
Positively Atypical! is dedicated to helping parents stay positive and loving toward their children, themselves and those around them. Please forward this to any parents who might benefit.
12 thoughts on “Parents: Don’t Let Your Disappointment Defeat You”
Much of this is very good advice, but written from the point of a neuropsychologist, not a parent of a child with special needs. Everyone can agree that the role of parenting is difficult, and what isn’t taken into consideration is the additional daily, hourly, continual stress on a parent of a child who has “differences”. “Breakdown at a neighbor’s birthday party?” How about the hurt of your child NEVER being invited to a birthday party? “Get help”? Many of us (on top of dealing with the excessive emotional, physical, and financial demands) spend literally DAYS, WEEKS, YEARS, seeking help that either simply isn’t available, or is so prohibitively expensive that we can’t AFFORD help. Support groups are fabulous, but two hours a week to “vent” is little relief to the parent who goes for six, eight, maybe even eighteen months without sleep, or who can’t find or afford a child care provider who will stay with their special needs child so that they can get to the support group.
What our society needs are QUALIFIED services providers who are experienced, intelligent, and sensitive. These providers need to understand that our children learn in different ways, and services need to be adapted for each individual. Many professionals have “cookie cutter” responses, that don’t address the variations of individuals in the disabled community.
Denise, thank you for writing in. You are clearly a mom who knows well the playing field of raising atypical kids. I agree about the help that isn’t available. That’s why I started this blog; to raise awareness of parents’ needs.
I hear what you are saying Denise. As the aunt of a now deceased nephew who had many disabilities, I feel one of the problems to be the lack of information early on. When my sister left the hospital with Michael, basically all she knew, or understood was that Mike was sick. There were no talks of what to expect, or of how to find the resources she may need, Instead my sister and brother-in-law were left to ultimately blame themselves, and then each other. Eventually they divorced, and my sister fell into alcohol and drug addiction. Although much has changed since 1985 there is still much to be done.
Thank you for your kind words, Paula. I’m very sorry for your losses, on so many levels. Unfortunately, your story is more the rule than the exception. I’m hoping that one day, if we keep our voices loud and strong, we can collectively make a difference, and put an end to the suffering experienced by families who have differently abled members.
As a mother of a 9 year old with multiple disabilities, YOU SAID IT!
Thanks! Hang in there–you are not alone, (although as a mom of two kids with differences, I know it OFTEN feels VERY lonely…)
Great points Dr. Rita.
“Do I harbor anger, resentment, disappointment, or embarrassment about my child? Many parents do—dig deeper if you can’t find it.”
Excellent article Rita. I think the above sentence is the key. Specifically, the key word would be ‘about.’ The moment this turns into ‘toward’ or ‘at’ the child…is the moment it becomes unhealthy. Parents of children with disabilities always have to fight their inner negative dialogue. This comes from both personal experience with my own child and from doing crisis intervention.
One of your readers on your blog commented that parents of these children are short on time, busy or exhausted and sometimes it’s difficult to seek help. Your suggestions, if they are taken seriously are wonderful deterrents for the busy, stressed out parent. I say this humbly, as one who has been there…countless times.
I think it is absolutely imperative to keep a positive outlook, never compare and always, always rejoice in any accomplishment. (yes, I am a fan of CBT : ) )
Personally I think you provided wonderful information. I took advantage of it and shared to my business page on Facebook. So thank you very much! : )
This is a helpful perspective. To acknowledge disappointment opens the door to dealing with it. As you point out, one can actively work on recognizing one’s child’s strengths. The true challenge in my view is to overcome our fears for that child. Disappointment is fundamentally related to fear that the child will be at the mercy of a cold and uncaring world for which (s)he may never be sufficiently prepared. My advice to parents is to seek out the stories of children who are managing. Perhaps Temple Grandin’s experience of autism is atypical but it can be a beacon for any parent whose child lies somewhere on the spectrum. Most children are inspired by the story of Helen Kellar. There are beacons for everyone.
Excellent article and advice. After working in schools with exceptional needs students and their parents ( for 32 years/thousands of fragile souls) I certain agree with what you are saying. In my mind I used to think about the list psychologists would pull out occasionally that listed the most stressful things in peoples lives ( ie losing a job, death in the family etc) and always treated parents initially as if they were dealing with a death in the family. ( only of course in my own mind) Not literally but figuratively they are dealing with the death of that perfect child of their dreams. It made it much easier for me to listen to them more carefully when they were saying something or sometimes demanding something that I thought was not rational or difficult to agree with. We are all just doing the best we can with the information available to us and the more solid information we possess the more we are able to cope.
I wanted to add how amazing most of the parents of my students were over the years. As educator we may have the theoretical knowledge about how best to teach all of our students but parents were their child’s first teacher ( and often continue through their lives) When we share our information we have a much clearer picture of what best works for each individual. Stressed educators and stressed parents can join forces and share much information. I remember a parent of a young brilliant young man who would work on mathematical equations 24 hours a day if his parents permitted it. The school was making no gains either but the Mom’s solution to getting her son a little physical activity helped us out at the school with a great strategy we adopted.
Thanks for posting this Rita! One thing I keep in mind is the Bible verse John 9:1-2: “And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”
I see the glory of God revealed to me everyday in my boys, both of whom have Autism. I have also seen how they have made others feel more fulfilled. I am truly blessed to have them.