Parents' Reactions to Their Child's Disability

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Parents of children with disabilities have many reactions to their children's special needs, and these reactions may focus on positive or negative factors (Ferguson, 2002). Some parents go through several emotions roughly in a sequence; others may experience only one or several discrete reactions. For some, the reactions may be minor and their approach pragmatic. For others, their child's disability might affect their entire family structure and life. Part of your work with parents includes recognizing that the way they respond to you may be influenced by any of the following responses to their children's disabilities (Ferguson, 2002):

  1. Grief. Some parents feel grief about their child's disability. Sometimes this is a sorrow for the pain or discomfort their child may have to experience; sometimes it is sadness for themselves because of the added stress on the family when a child has a disability; and sometimes it is a sense of loss for what the child may not become. Grief may be temporary or it may be chronic, a realization nearly every day of how their lives are different from those of families with children who do not have disabilities. Parents have a right to grieve about their child-a right educators should respect.
  2. Ambivalence. Another reaction parents may have toward their child is ambivalence. This feeling may occur as parents attempt to confirm that the child's disability is not temporary or fixable, as they try to determine what the best educational options are for their child, and as they ponder how their child will live as an adult. The decisions that parents of children with disabilities have to make are often difficult, and they continue throughout childhood and adolescence and sometimes through adulthood. Parents often attend meetings with school personnel at which tremendous amounts of information are shared with little time for explanation, and they often meet with representatives from many different disciplines. It is no wonder they may feel ambivalent.
  3. Optimism. A college student was once interviewing the parent of a student with a mild intellectual disability. When asked what it was like having a child with an intellectual disability in the family, the parent replied, "Mary is my child. Just like any other child, I love her as my child. She is sometimes funny and sometimes clever and sometimes naughty. She can really get into trouble. She's just like my other children, except she's Mary." For this parent, her child's special needs are just part of the configuration of needs that any child in any family might have. In this family, the emphasis is on the person, not the disability. There are many families like this one. In these families, the special needs of the child are met without an extraordinary reaction. Parents may work diligently to optimize their child's education, and they are hopeful about their child's future. They work closely with educators and others to ensure that the child's life, whatever it may be, is the best one possible.
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