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Parenting children who experience special needs

Learning that your child has been diagnosed with a "special need" can be a difficult experience. In South Africa, the term "special educational need" is used to refer to any child or adult who requires specific attention because of learning difficulties, emotional and behavioral difficulties, mental or cognitive disorders, physical disabilities, or medical conditions, such as Cerebral Palsy or Down Syndrome. It is important to be aware that special educational needs also occur on a spectrum or continuum. This means that a child may be diagnosed with a particular condition, but their functioning and abilities can vary. Thus, some children may require more, or less, support than others, despite having the same diagnosis.

When your child is labeled as having difficulties or experiences a special educational need, it is normal to feel worried, scared, guilty, confused, hopeless, or helpless. These feelings often arise because parents are concerned about the future of their children, and their ability to protect their child from society’s views of disabilities. In some cases, parents also blame themselves or feel like failures when their child receives a diagnosis. This also results from feelings of powerlessness, as parents may want to help their child but do not know how due to the limited amount of information available. These feelings are further intensified by experiences of isolation as sometimes others do not understand the child’s difficulties.

Parents also go through something like a grieving process when learning about their child’s diagnosis. However, parents can also be in denial about their child’s differences. In these cases, it’s important for parents to acknowledge that they are experiencing a loss. The loss of a child they were hoping for and expecting. Going through this process does not mean that a parent does not love their child, but instead, it helps the parent adjust to their new reality.

Supporting a child who experiences a special educational need can be challenging as well as emotionally and financially taxing, as often they require additional support from Speech Therapists, Occupational Therapists and Physiotherapists. It becomes critical for parents to

lean on their support system and seek additional assistance for themselves. After all, it takes a village to raise a child.

However, it should be noted that raising a child who experiences a special educational need is not all negative. Some parents report personal growth as they have become more understanding, compassionate, tolerant, and patient. In some cases, marital relationships improved as parents were required to work together and so, their communication improved. Parents also report high satisfaction levels when parenting a child who experiences different needs. With this said, it is critical that parents do not focus on the more challenging aspects of the child and what they may not be able to do or achieve. This can make parenting a lot more difficult and challenging. It can also negatively impact the well-being of both parent and child. Instead, the child’s strengths should also be acknowledged, encouraged, and developed further.

If your child has been diagnosed with a special educational need and you would like more general information about the condition or require additional support for yourself or your family, please do not hesitate to contact Ububele.

Written by Jenna Fernandes, intern educational psychologist

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