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How Can You Support a Parent Who May Be in Denial About Their Child's Special Needs?

Description

Be patient. Be willing to listen. And be there for parents with special needs kids, even if (and especially when) they're struggling with guilt, despair, or denial.

I was 25. My daughter was nine months old. I was constantly in pain, exhausted, and easily irritable, but I was convinced it would get better because I was just adjusting to being a mom. And my husband called me out on my denial and told me it was time to go to the doctor.

That's the short story of how my two chronic health conditions were diagnosed. What I tried to explain away as "being a new mom" turned out to be Hashimoto's thyroiditis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Why am I telling this story in a post about parents who are in denial about their child's special needs? Well, because we can learn from it.

My husband made careful observations before he said anything;
you need to observe the child on multiple days in as many settings as possible.

Lee was positioned well to have observed what was going on with me and acknowledge that something wasn't right. He realized that my issues were constantly occurring and not based on my circumstances.

Are you sure you haven't decided that a parent is in denial about special needs because your information is limited? Maybe you've only seen the child once or twice. Maybe the child has to wake up earlier on Sunday morning and is struggling with that. Maybe the personality or teaching style in that class isn't a good match to the child. Maybe the issue at hand is your assumption and not the child's special needs. Take time to figure that out.

If you still are seeing something different going on...

My husband needed to confront my denial because it was damaging my body and hurting our family;
you need to evaluate if that parent's denial even needs to be addressed.

Sometimes denial really hurts a family. Usually, though, it won't hurt to give them more time. If a child is in danger in any way, say something right away. If no danger is imminent, you probably want to wait and build the relationship more.

Every kid is different. In a church setting, an undiagnosed special need can make teaching more challenging, but is it really a huge problem? Sure, you do want to be honest with parents if there are any troublesome behaviors, but do you want parents to dread seeing you because they never hear anything but bad reports? It is often better to adjust your approach to reach a child's heart rather than trying to fix their behavior to fit your expectations for typical development.

My husband could confront my denial because we had a relationship; 
you can't expect to help parents through their denial without first establishing a relationship.

It's the whole "they don't care how much you know until they know how much you care" principle. I was willing to hear my husband out because he knows me and I know him. Because he knows me well, his concerns were meaningful to me.

If you don't know the parents well, you haven't established the trust required to even suggest that their child might need extra support in a church setting.

My husband was willing to see us through the outcomes of any diagnosis;
you need to be willing, prepared, and available to support your families through their outcomes.

When I received a diagnosis, my husband didn't leave. He didn't get me to that point and then bail on me. He was in it for the long haul, showing that he cared with his actions. You need to realize that the outcome could wrap everything up nicely... or it could reveal ongoing needs. If the needs are ongoing, will the church be there? Will you be willing to provide support and/or make sure others in your church are mobilized to provide that support?

In other words, if you aren't able to assist with a solution, then you're not the right person to say anything.

My husband recognized that my denial meant I was grieving my old life;
you need to let parents grieve too if they need to.

This means letting them move through the stages of grief on their own timetable, not yours. Pray that the Holy Spirit will convict them of the need to move on when His timing is right, and don't try to play God by enforcing your own timetable.

Be patient. Be willing to listen. And be there for them, even if and especially when they're struggling with guilt, despair, or denial.

My husband know he couldn't meet every need and was willing to let the experts do their jobs;
you need to be willing to help parents connect with other resources if necessary.

The church should work to include people with disabilities in the body of Christ. However, my role as special needs ministry coordinator doesn't mean that I have to offer speech therapy, medical consultations, and education consulting to every family. I'm not equipped or qualified for all of that.

Just as my husband was willing to concede that doctors would be more helpful to me in some areas than he could be, you need to realize that the church's primary mission isn't to fill every practical earthly need for our families.

My husband prayed and sought God's wisdom through every step of this process with me;
so should you.

Amen.

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