Parenting Special Needs Children (page 2)
Our society has only recently begun to understand and recognize that some children, often because of circumstances beyond their control, have unique needs. These needs relate to a group of disabilities that involve problems in seeing, hearing, walking, talking, climbing, or lifting or in providing self-care tasks known as activities of daily living (ADLs) (Hildebrand et al., 2000). These needs create unusual demands on family systems and parents. In some situations, children have unique developmental difficulties and problems that label them as exceptional. In this regard, the term refers to individuals who are different in some manner from the large majority of others their age. Other children have special needs because of chronic, life-threatening illnesses, such as AIDS, diabetes, or cancer.
In the past, little support was available in most communities for assisting these individuals and their families in meeting their special needs. For some children, negative community attitudes and labels served as forms of discrimination that prevented access to the life experiences and community services available to those with normal developmental abilities. In many respects, early efforts to provide services for individuals and families with special needs could be called segregated services, since these were provided under separate support when children were isolated from others (Hildebrand et al., 2000). Negative social stigma is still evident in many cases, particularly for those individuals with chronic illnesses, such as AIDS.
Community-based programs for assisting these individuals and their families have been developed only recently. Generally, the field of special education, which serves those individuals who need such services in their hometowns, has emerged only within the last 30 years. Certainly, a variety of legislative acts at state and federal levels have assisted in bringing about the widespread availability of such services at the community level.
Characteristics of Children with Special Needs
The definition of exceptional children, or those with special needs, was formerly restricted to those with emotional, developmental, or mental difficulties that placed them at a disadvantage in comparison with others or that incapacitated them in their ability to function within the larger society. More recently, however, the meaning of exceptionality has broadened to include those groups of individuals with learning disabilities and other handicaps, as well as those with chronic and terminal illness (Rigazio-DiGilio & Cramer-Benjamin, 2000). Children with special needs in the student population of the United States are generally about 13 percent. In general, males outnumber females who have special needs. For example, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), formerly included as a learning disability, stands on its own as a separate and distinct condition requiring special needs attention. The classification scheme is so broad that intellectually gifted children also have been termed exceptional because these individuals and their needs are often misunderstood by others in their community. The process of including a child in any of these categories often involves extensive, comprehensive evaluations by a variety of medical, psychological, and educational professionals.
Unless there has been some indication prior to birth that a child is likely to have a developmental disorder, parents and other family members usually have little preparation for accommodating a child with special needs. Parents experience a limitless variety of reactions to having a child who has special needs. These reactions may vary according to the nature of the exceptionality, the degree of impairment, the socioeconomic status of the family system, the availability of professional assistance, the financial resources available to supply the assistance, and the presence of unimpaired children in the family (Leyden, 2002). Parents can be expected to experience a grief and mourning process in reaction to the confirmation of a child’s disability. The discovery that a child has special needs essentially represents a loss for most parents, in particular the loss of a future of normal developmental progress for the affected child (Osborn, 2004).
In many respects, the news serves as a crisis or as a stressor event for a family system, and additional reactions follow for most families. The family as a system must adjust to this newly recognized status of the affected child and begin to search for the numerous ways and means to meet the child’s particular needs and those of family members. This process can take months, even years, as the family strives to accept and reconcile their unique situation in comparison with other families. Ways must be found to include the child into the family’s routines and patterns. Parents, especially, must learn ways to strengthen their committed relationship and find ways to meet the needs of other children in the family. Those family systems that use the crisis and stresses of this situation to their advantage are likely to become stronger by developing healthy coping strategies that may also be applied in other future family crises. On the other hand, those families that acquire unhealthy coping strategies experience even higher levels of stressfulness and greater levels of family disorganization. Ultimately, some will dissolve as the result of the chronic strains experienced under such circumstances.
Generally, many parents experience a process in adjusting to having a child with special needs by which they attain acceptance of the situation although others may experience ambivalence and even rejection of the child. For many, it is difficult to overcome the tendency to personalize this unfortunate circumstance. In some respects, mothers may react differently from fathers when it becomes known that their child is exceptionally different from others.
Parental attitudes about an exceptional child and the circumstances involved in having this child as a family member influence the nature and quality of caregiving (Ripley, 2003). Mothers tend to become the family member assuming the greatest amount of caretaking and nurturing for a child with special needs. However, because fathers and other male family members are expected to be more actively involved in child care today, it is not unusual to see levels of family stress diminish and come more under control when this occurs.
The siblings of a child with special needs are also affected by the child’s presence (Meyer, 2003). It is possible to observe the interrelatedness concept found in family systems theory. Having a sibling with special needs brings some benefits to other children such as learning empathic skills, gaining in tolerance and compassion for those who are seriously different from others, and developing a greater appreciation of personal health status. On the other hand, siblings often report negative effects such as feelings of jealousy because of lack of parental attention, resenting the affected sibling’s presence in the family, or shamefulness and guilt about the affected sibling. Parents should be mindful of the possibilities of these negative reactions. In addition, girls often complain that brothers aren’t expected to assume surrogate parent or caregiver roles to a similar extent. By equalizing these responsibilities between male and female siblings, the psychological risks—to girls, especially—may be minimized.
Cultural backgrounds of families also influence their reactions to an exceptional child. Cultural beliefs color differences in what it means to have a child with special needs as a family member. For example, in an Anglo-European family, a child’s disabilities are described and understood in medical and scientific terms; in Native American Indian families, the child’s disability is placed on spiritual intrusion or the breaking of cultural taboos. Other cultures may attribute the situation to bad luck, an evil influence on a family, or punishment for ancestral sins (Rigazio-DiGilio & Cramer-Benjamin, 2000).
Chronic stress is one of the most frequently observed family reactions to having a child with special needs (Krauss, 2000). Family members can learn healthy coping strategies such as attending support groups, journaling, participating in individual and family therapy, tapping into spiritual resources, and sharing caretaking responsibilities, for example. Networking with other families experiencing similar circumstances is also a helpful source of coping with stress. Unhealthy coping also may manifest in some families when the child with exceptional needs is scapegoated, abused, and emotionally mistreated.
© ______ 2006, Merrill, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
- Coats and Car Seats: A Lethal Combination?
- Kindergarten Sight Words List
- Child Development Theories
- Signs Your Child Might Have Asperger's Syndrome
- 10 Fun Activities for Children with Autism
- Why is Play Important? Social and Emotional Development, Physical Development, Creative Development
- The Homework Debate
- First Grade Sight Words List
- Social Cognitive Theory
- GED Math Practice Test 1