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This is day 26 of 31 Days of Supporting the Special Needs Family. To view the story behind this series and the series contents, please visit the landing page. Today, Stacy Warden has written a very practical piece for families who are struggling with extended family relationship because of their special needs child.
One of the hardest aspects of becoming a parent to a child with special needs is how it greatly affects an existing family dynamic. It has the potential to cause strife, conflict and tension in the closest of families. In many cases this leads to a division in family relationships, hurt feelings, and the dissolution of a support system that is greatly needed.
The underlying reason for family discord can range from unsolicited advice about how you are the root of your child’s disability or reason for their lack of meeting milestones timely, to an unwillingness to make adjustments to a challenging situation like not being able to attend family gatherings because you have a child that has overwhelming sensory difficulties.
In severe cases it can be a difference of values – you refused to give up your child with special needs for adoption or place them in a group home, thereby having a child that causes the family great embarrassment. Or something that is out of your control; your child’s wheelchair doesn’t fit through their doors or would scratch your mother-in-law’s new hardwood floors. Family members may also have difficulty understanding and accepting that often times your life revolves around therapies, appointments, and doctor’s visits and dividing your time as you previously once did, can cause unavoidable distance.
No matter the root of the conflict, the same coping mechanisms apply for getting through that very strenuous and painful situation.
Recognize Your Role
The first and most important factor to getting through family discord is understanding that your priority is your child with special needs. You musn’t feel guilty about the fact that your life has taken on a new importance. The guilt-trips that family members can place upon you can only add to the stress and emotional strain that you are already coping with when caring for your child with special needs.
Extend the Olive Branch
No one wants to ever throw in the towel when it comes to longing for family support and understanding. Sometimes families have difficulties themselves coming to grips with your new life. They may not have the proper tools to express their own pain, heartache and loss of a dreams for a grandchild, nephew, niece or cousin. Give them the benefit of the doubt that they too are struggling to come to terms with this life-altering event. Special needs affects the entire family. Try offering to invite them to be a part of you and your child’s life in a way that makes your child with special needs comfortable. Maybe that means meeting at a park for thirty minutes, maybe that looks like a walk around the mall together, or a cup of coffee for an hour at your kitchen table while your child does in-home therapy. If it doesn’t work, you can at least say you gave it one last-ditch effort.
Build a Bridge
Often times family discord is the result of a bewilderment and confusion about how to relate to a child that has special needs within the family. Finding tools that would assist in bridging the gap towards understanding can be helpful. Seek out resources that may be educational or informative that you can pass along to family members that may not feel comfortable with your child with special needs. Purposeful distance can be caused because they don’t know what to do, so they chose to do nothing at all. Tell them what you need, how they can help, and explain to them all the ways you need support, love and understanding to get through this challenging journey.
Sometimes you need to simply draw the line. Don’t be afraid that you’ll make tension worse within your extended or immediate family. A direct, honest approach is the best when facing issues about how family members need to adjust to a new set of circumstances. Be open about your feelings. Don’t feel like you have to hold back the truth of what life is like raising a child who has special needs. Let them know you need someone to be there through the good and the bad, no matter what that looks like.
Let it Go
Sometimes no matter how hard you try or the avenues you pursue, you’ll find yourself at a loss with mending fences. As cliché as it sounds – you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. It may be incredibly painful and not at all the ending you were hoping for, but sometimes you have to move on for the sake of your child with special needs. All of your positive energy must be invested in your child, even if extended and immediate family don’t want to come along for the ride. It’s okay. Be gentle with yourself and know that you exhausted all your efforts.
Family feuds are not rare, but unfortunately are even more prevalent among families of special needs children. The important thing to remember you are not the only one experiencing difficulties in your extended and immediate family. It is natural for most families to have some periods of time where functioning is impaired by stressful circumstances. Never give up hope that things may turn around, but at the same time do your best to march forward.
Stacy Warden is a in-home parent CNA, who worked in the legal profession in District Court prior to the birth of her first son Noah, who suffered a birth injury resulting in global brain damage. She has two young sons, Noah and Luke. Noah has severe spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy with athetoid movements. Noah loves cheesecake, airplanes and cartoon t-shirts. Luke admires his older brother and is always eager to assist him so they can play together. Stacy’s passion since Noah’s birth has shifted towards advocating for those with special needs and offering encouragement and inspiration for life’s often unexpected journey. She constantly craves coffee and enjoys quiet walks with her boys, while finding pleasure with the simple things in life. When she’s not hunting a Starbucks drive-thru, she is flipping through Irish and English recipe books in search of the next best dish.