Often as parents we have unrealistic expectations for our kids. Our child is born, and we dream an imaginary future for him or her. “My son is going to be a golf pro,” “My daughter will win beauty pageants,” or “My boy will be valedictorian and get a scholarship to MIT.” Even simple dreams like, “My daughter will look like me,” or “I’ll teach my son to play baseball,” might not become reality. And this can be hard to deal with at first.
Eventually, nearly all parents come to realize that their child isn’t exactly what they expected. Especially in the case of children with special needs, there is a big, heartbreaking difference between the imagined child and the real one. How can you learn to fall in love with this new, unexpected little person? How can you get to the point of being completely at peace with your child and his or her disability?
1. First, nurture yourself. I’ve used this analogy before, but the concept is similar to when an airline steward instructs you to “put the oxygen mask on yourself first, and then your child.” If you are passed out and unconscious, you cannot help your child. And likewise, if you are emotionally wiped out, your child will not have a healthy parent. Get support in dealing with your grief. You need, in essence, a good listener, whether it be a friend, relative, or therapist, who will let you express your pain and offer you encouragement. You also need weekly time off for yourself, away from your child, where you can catch your breath. Several of my blogs provide tips on finding babysitters, dealing with grief, and getting support. Check the “Coping Strategies” category by clicking here.
2. Throw away your “dream child” concept. Write a character description of the perfect kid you were supposed to have. Get out a piece of paper, and write a detailed explanation of all the things your imaginary child was supposed to be and do. Take a good look at what you’ve written. Honestly, is it realistic? Now take this description and ritualistically destroy it. Burn it in the fireplace, or tear it to shreds and bury it. In your heart, mind, and soul, say “goodbye” to this perfect child concept forever. It isn’t real.
3. Look at your parental role in a new way. Often times, what initially gets parents “stuck,” is ego, pure and simple. “This is MY child, and he’s imperfect. I did something wrong. Maybe I’M flawed. I caused this. People will look at me and think I’m inadequate. People will see me as a failure. People will pity me.” Instead of these self-defeating thoughts, try seeing this as an opportunity: “I have been given a difficult challenge. I must be a strong, resourceful, capable person for God or fate to have given me this test. I can handle it. It will be hard, but others will see that I am a devoted parent. I have unconditional love for my child.” For some parents, it helps to visualize that God, a social worker, or someone important has sat them down and says, “I have a special child for you to take care of. He needs incredibly patient and loving parents. There is nobody better for this child than you, and he needs you. Will you accept this responsibility?”
4. Lower your expectations appropriately. Get involved with your child, on his level. Your child should not be compared to other children who don’t have his disability. He’s got to have a new set of expectations which are right for him. He needs his own personal goals, which are reasonable and achievable. In your home, life should be full of words like HURRAY and YIPPEE and Good JOB! Lowering the expectations and helping him slowly progress changes everything. Now you can celebrate accomplishments, feel proud, happy, and pleased with your child’s progress. When compared with regular kids, he falls short and supposedly “fails.” But on his own terms, meeting his own goals, your child is a winner. And you are his winning coach!
5. Have fun. Plan activities that inspire your child, that make her smile, teach her, grab her interest, and encourage her to explore the world around her. Don’t sit trapped in your home, afraid to be out amongst other people. Who cares what anyone else thinks, and your child has a right to be an active participant in her life.
6. We serve those we love, and love those we serve. Simply by taking care of your child and being involved in his daily life, your heart will continually increase in love. It’s an automatic thing. Sure, you’ll be frustrated at times and exhausted. This is where point number one, above, comes back into play. Be sure you are nurturing yourself. But trust that, in time, you will love your child in a way only those with disabled kids can understand. There is something powerful, sweet, and noble about raising a special needs child. You have been given a wonderful gift. The day will come when you will be able to share this truth with other parents, who are just beginning their own journey.