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Identity Issues Parenting Special Needs Children

By Ruth Mortimer

Raising a child with special needs is associated with a variety of issues, least of which is the potential threat to a parent’s sense of identity.

Issues Related to Having a Special Needs Child
The following are some of the main issues which parents of special needs children face:

* the grieving process
* the practical issues – help with the child, medical requirements, education issues, structural changes around the home
* parents’ needs – respite care, counseling, and support
* recognizing and dealing with the threat to one’s identity.

The threat to identity is one of the lesser understood difficulties which parents face. However, upon learning that these feelings are normal, parents can find ways of maintaining a strong sense of “self”, or reshape their identities. Attending to such issues help people to derive satisfaction and fulfilment within the context of rearing their family.
The Identity Challenge

How a person responds to the identity issue is influenced by several factors, such as the type and severity of the child’s disability, other family members, if single or partnered, social support, finances, coping skills and, the individual’s health. Some parents may find that they can no longer work full-time, enjoy all their leisure activities, put family holidays in the “too hard basket” and give up visiting friends if their child has particularly challenging behaviour.

All these issues affect the way a person feels about him or herself, that is, “sense of self” or identity. People have certain ways of defining “who” they are. For example, Anna defines herself as a mother, lawyer, and tennis player. As a parent of a child with special needs, she becomes a mother in quite a different way from what she had anticipated. If she relinquishes her career, she feels she is no longer a lawyer, and may find she can no longer be relied upon, or even have the energy for, interclub tennis. Anna may end up feeling dull, exhausted and a failure – a much diminished sense of self.
Possible Effects

Parents can find their store of energy and patience stretched to the limit. And, it is not always just for a few years until the child leaves school – it may go on for a lifetime. For people to conclude that they have to give up their job, or move to part-time work, may not be able to travel overseas, or live in peaceful retirement, can be daunting, to say the least. In a sense, there is a loss of future and this is a grief. Furthermore, a lessened sense of self can mean low self-esteem, lower levels of confidence, depression and other health problems.
What Parents Can Do

Talking to a trained counselor, or supportive friends, and expressing all the negative feelings of guilt, resentment, and disappointment, is an excellent start to managing the challenging journey ahead.

Seeking alternative ways of experiencing fulfilment and purpose is important if the individual has given up a valued job. People like to feel they can still contribute and be rewarded for what they do.

Perhaps the skills and experience that have been developed over the years can be used productively in some other direction. Many people find that working from home, using the resources of computers and other communication tools, offers freedom and flexibility to their working life.

Parents need respite care which provides time out – for fun, for physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.

Parents can gain much satisfaction when raising a special needs child. It is a very important job. With good organization and support, it is possible to shape a rewarding life and maintain a healthy sense of identity.

©2008 Ruth Mortimer. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Ruth Mortimer is from Palmerston North, New Zealand. She is a mother of two sons, the younger of whom is autistic. Owing to the challenges of raising a child with special needs, she decided to do freelance writing from home. She has a doctorate in psychology, along with an endorsement in clinical psychology. She has carried out qualitative research on women’s health, retirement, and sexual abuse. She enjoys reading, walking, making glass mosaic pieces, chess and a bit of gardening when there is time.