As your disabled child struggles with his or her challenges, you struggle with your own – like frustration, anxiety, and fatigue. It can sometimes be hard to see your child’s good qualities in the midst of the unrelenting demands of his or her care.
But your child is a gift who can bring you joy even when you don’t expect it. Here’s how you can find hope while parenting a child with disabilities:
Go ahead and grieve. Don’t be afraid to grieve for the dreams that have died in your life because of your child’s disability. Ask God to help you be aware of His presence with you as you go through the stages of grief – denial, anxiety, depression, anger and guilt. Pray about your concerns often. Get regular physical exercise to reduce your stress. Seek help from a therapist and medications to deal with depression if necessary. Surround yourself with friends who will listen to and support you. Ask God to show you how to transform your anger into constructive action. Remember that God’s grace is always available to you, in every circumstance.
Let go of what you had planned so you can embrace what God has planned. Face the fact that your life hasn’t worked out the way you’d hoped, and be willing to let go of unrealistic plans for your future. But know that God will bring good out of even the worst situations if you trust Him. Ask Him to reveal His plans to you. Accept your child for who he or she is – rather than who you expected him to be – and ask God to help you discover all that’s good about your child.
Get enough sleep. Recognize that sleep deprivation will harm your physical, mental, and emotional health. Do your best to establish routines that enable you to get the most sleep you can. Schedule and maintain regular bedtimes and naptimes. Take your child through consistent bedtime rituals (such as a bath, a story, and a prayer before falling asleep) to help him or her sleep better.
Invest in your other kids. Remember that, while your disabled child will often require more time and energy than your other kids, your other kids still need your attention. Try to spend one-on-one time with them while another family member or friend is with your disabled child. Let them know how much you appreciate the patience and compassion they show when they help their disabled brother or sister.
Don’t neglect discipline. Understand that your disabled child needs discipline just as much as healthy children do. Set clear rules and boundaries that your child can realistically be expected to follow, and follow up with praise for good behavior and consequences for bad behavior. Intervene whenever your child has a tantrum. Remember that, while your child is limited in some ways by disability, he or she can still grow and mature in many other ways.
Consider help from a variety of resources. Work with professionals in many different fields – such as medical doctors, schoolteachers, and counselors – to get your child the help he or she needs in all aspects of life. Make sure each person knows about changes to your child’s medications or routine so he or she can adapt to your child’s care as necessary.
Make time for fun. Give yourself a regular break from the exhausting demands of caring for your child. Hire someone qualified to take care of your child and go out to eat, or to see a movie, take a hike in a park, or some other fun activity. Know that, if you return refreshed to your child, you’ll be able to take care of him or her much better than if you hadn’t also taken care of yourself.
See abilities instead of disabilities. Shift your focus from what your child can’t do to all that he or she can do. Assess your child’s unique gifts and offer him or her appropriate enrichment activities. Express some progress in various areas as your child matures, and celebrate whenever your child masters new skills. Give your child opportunities to act as a positive role model for younger children who suffer from the same or a similar disability.
Give God your worries about the future. Whenever a worry enters your mind (such as where your child will end up after you pass away), pray about it. Trust that God will hear and answer your prayers, often in ways you can’t imagine. Remember that your child ultimately belongs to Him, and He loves him or her deeply. Don’t assume the worst for your child’s future; pray for the best, and know that you have real hope because the God who loves your child also controls the future.
Enjoy your child. Ask God to help you see beyond the demands of caring for your child and come to enjoy his or her company. Think about what qualities about your child’s personality you most enjoy. Make time to do fun activities together. Realize that your child sees your face often, and he or she shouldn’t always see an expression of fatigue or anxiety. Try to smile at your child as often as possible, communicating your love to him or her.
Invite God to teach you true love through your child. Let your parenting experiences help you discern what matters and what doesn’t. Trade your cynicism for wonder. Let go of petty concerns, and focus on love – for God and other people. Rejoice in the freedom you have to love your child no matter what, and the knowledge that God loves you no matter what.
Adapted from An Unexpected Joy: The Gift of Parenting a Challenging Child copyright 2006 by Mary Sharp, M.D. Published by Pinon Press, a division of NavPress, Colorado Springs, Co., www.pinonpress.com.
Mary Sharp, M.D. has been a practicing family physician for 20 years and the mother of an autistic child, Nic, for 12 years. She lives with her husband Rafael (also a physician), and their two older children in East Lansing, Mich.