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.