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Pity!? – What Children With Special Needs Really Need

By Helen Rauch-Elnekave
Ph.D. Pediatric Psychologist

(Page 1 of 3)

Children who are chronically ill, physically challenged, or who suffer from learning difficulties need our RESPECT, not our PITY.  When we pity children, we feel sorry for them, indulge them and, in the process, actually show them disrespect. 

When faced with children’s illnesses or birth defects, parents can easily lose sight of their children’s uniqueness and concentrate primarily on dealing with their medical “problem.”  In our zeal to do the right thing, we can become oblivious to the ordinary developmental and emotional needs of our child. 

But, isn’t having pity on people the same as having compassion for them? 

No.  When we pity people, we don’t really see them.  We allow their illness, or their handicap, to blind us to their ordinary needs as human beings.  When we have compassion for people, we understand them as individuals who have needs like us, not only those posed by their particular handicap.


It is rare for parents of a child with special needs to know intuitively not to let their child’s “problem” dictate their parenting agenda.  And then there are always those family members who are waiting to criticize us for not being more indulgent toward our “poor child!”

Parenting, the world’s most important profession, requires more than love; yet few of us have undergone any training for it, beyond what we experienced as children ourselves.

Parents of children who are chronically ill, or have special needs, characteristically question whether they are asking too much of their child or if they will damage them by making “unreasonable” demands.  Adding to their “parenting dilemma” is the preferential treatment they must give their child with special needs.  They ask themselves and worry about how that extra care and attention might be adversely affecting their other well children.

What is the source of this natural urge to indulge children with special needs?

Our own unacknowledged feelings!


Guilt.  In order to parent effectively, we (whether our children are healthy or have special needs) must first recognize and understand our own feelings.  Should we remain blind to them, we will be more likely to rely on “pity” when deciding how to respond to our children. 

It is natural for the parents of children who are born with a congenital defect, or who develop a chronic illness, to search for explanations about why such a tragedy befell them.  “Did we do something to cause our child’s problem?  Perhaps we could have prevented it?  Should we have called the doctor earlier or not gone out the night of the accident?”  The questions are endless and the guilt overwhelming.  If, in addition, the problem is hereditary, or was caused by an accident for which a parent was responsible, the pangs of guilt become unbearable. 

And with time, guilt burrows deeply and causes no end of suffering.  Indeed, it often causes us to “compensate” for our imagined or real role in causing or, at least, in not preventing our child’s illness or impairment.


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