He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother-River City Counseling

First, I want to apologize for the email you received yesterday. It was a technical glitch on my end. Let’s hope this one reaches you safely and in its entirety.
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Before our children are born, we parents have all sorts of lofty goals and aspirations. We’re always going to be firm but loving. We’ll definitely use cloth diapers and serve only organic, homemade baby food and keep cooking healthful dinners for the rest of the family. We’ll always work as a team, even when we’re tired and crabby. If we have older children, we’ll make sure that we continue giving them the love and affection they need and deserve. We’ll also find the time to keep our marriage a top priority.

These are fabulous goals, but when a child with special needs comes into a family our good intentions are sent through the shredder. Firm and loving often turns into impatient and irritable. Cloth diapers turn into all-purpose rags to clean up everything to do with the baby. The baby’s food is whatever you grab through the haze that comes with the chronic exhaustion. As long as he doesn’t complain when you accidentally put cumin in his applesauce instead of cinnamon, you consider it a small victory. And for the rest of the family, it’s drive through city. Parental teamwork and keeping the marriage a priority…what the hell do those mean?

If a child’s needs are long-lasting or chronic, needs shift, but the family continues to be destabilized. Whether it’s a child with Down’s syndrome or is autistic or a kid with an eating disorder or who is cutting repeatedly, appropriately, more parental resources go to the needier child and, out of necessity, less to the others.

Children aren’t stupid; when they recognize that their parents aren’t around and/or emotionally available, they know they’ll have to work to get the attention they need and deserve. Although there are a number of strategies that kids use, these are the ones I see most frequently. The uber-responsible kid (typically the oldest) tries to pick-up the slack by cooking, cleaning, and “parenting” younger siblings. They want to be recognized for their help. Instead, parents often feel reassured that things are under control and keep their focus on the needier child.

Other kids act out by failing their classes, getting “caught” using drugs, and/or by being particularly defiant. It may not be their preferred method of getting attention, but some attention is better than none. As you can guess, it backfires. Instead of getting love, affection, interest and concern, the little emotional energy their parents do have is spent on anger, yelling and punitive consequences.

Perhaps most difficult to spot are the kids who, on some level, recognize that their parents have little to give them and disappear, instead of being demanding. Rather than giving the love and attention they deserve, the stressed parents figure they must be OK and continue taking care of the more needy child.

Then one day you have one of those “wait, I’m a good parent who’s supposed to act differently” moments and realize that your parenting is out of balance and your other children need more. Great insight, right? Helpful? Maybe/maybe not. Recognition may not be enough, if the time and energy aren’t there to make it better.

As someone who did use cumin instead of cinnamon on a particularly exhausting day parenting a special needs kid and a therapist who has worked with a number of siblings of special needs kids, I have a number of questions for you to consider. This isn’t a comprehensive list; it’s just a few ideas.

Do you both have to go to all of your child’s appointments? If you divide and conquer, who stays with the other kid(s) and what do you do to show them they’re important? Are you spending regular, one-on-one time with the other kid(s)? What are you doing to take care of yourself, such that you’re more likely to be the parent you want to be? Are you depending on your friends/family for support with watching the kids and getting time for you as a couple? Where are other, healthy adults available to help “parent” (e.g. coaches, scout masters, club moderators, teachers, etc.)? Are you preaching to your kids the importance of being kids, not parents, and send them to places that support this (e.g. summer camp)? Do they visit relatives in areas away from home? Would you consider having your child see a therapist?

No-matter what strategies you have for coping with being a parent of a special needs child, his birth and upbringing will throw the delicate balance of a family into a destabilizing blender. And there’s very little you can do. And everyone (perhaps you most of all) will be stretched emotionally beyond his or her wildest nightmare. However, not all is lost. The answers to the questions I asked may help you keep some honey in the household, without getting stung by the bees.

One Response to He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother-River City Counseling
  1. elizabeth
    July 15, 2015 | 9:14 pm

    Really excellent advice. Full of insight and suggestions. Good food for thought…

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