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.
PARENTING A CHILD WITH SPECIAL NEEDS
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
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
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
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
Omnipotence. While we do play a major role in the
social and intellectual development of their children,
we cannot take credit for ALL of our children’s positive
achievements; some belong to them alone! Nor
should we take upon ourselves all the blame for our
children’s negative outcomes—physical, cognitive, or
emotional. If we do, we will feel compelled to do
everything to relieve our child’s distress, thereby
depriving them of the opportunity to learn how to cope
on their own. Children, whether they are
physically and mentally well or impaired in some way,
are unique human beings. We must honor that
individuality, in all its splendor, and refrain from
taking too much credit!
Anger. One can feel angry, without acting upon it.
Anger, the feeling, is a natural human response.
But many parents of children with special needs don’t
even let themselves feel the anger that all parents
experience toward their children. If we never feel
anger toward our children, but repress it, how will they
learn to handle that awful feeling? Well, they
probably won’t and, as a consequence, will likely
develop a passive-aggressive style of behavior that is
manipulative and irritating! Raising children is
difficult, regardless of whether they have special needs
or not. Parental anger is natural. What is
not acceptable, of course, is acting upon that anger by
hitting or deriding our children!
And what happens to that anger that we repress?
Psychoanalytic theory suggests that we “compensate” for
it by becoming overly indulgent and concerned toward
that which aroused our anger!
Below are the stories of two children with whom I have
worked. One child (Avi) was indulged and pitied;
the other (Shai), who had multiple medical problems, was
treated like a child without problems.
Giving Priority to the Problem. Avi (21), the
eldest of three children, was only eight years old when
he began thrice-weekly dialysis treatments.
Because of his illness, Avi is much shorter than his two
younger sisters and looks and behaves like a nine- or
10-year-old boy. At 14, Avi became clinically
depressed after an unsuccessful kidney transplant.
His parents rarely set limits for him and indulge him
excessively. When a younger sister recently fell
in love with the tutor who came to Avi's home several
times a week, he demanded that they stop seeing one
another. Their parents agreed!
Although Avi “completed” high school, his knowledge is
limited; teachers demanded little because of his
illness. He has no friends.
In the Dialysis Unit, Avi's compliance is poor. He
tries to shorten his dialysis sessions and complains
about his treatment by the dialysis nurse, who sets very
clear limits for him. "Only you don't pity me!" he
once shouted at her. When she asked who does pity
him, Avi answered, "In school, my teachers took pity on
me and excused me from classes and exams that were too
hard for me. They let me come late because they
knew I was sick. My parents also take pity on me.
They give me whatever I ask for. My sisters have
to give in to me because I'm sick! So why aren't
you considerate of me too?!"
Today, Avi does not look for work, despite having
successfully completed a course in computer graphics.
He refuses to follow his diet because, "I don't like to
limit myself." Avi does not take responsibility
for his behavior and is often in conflict with the
Avi's parents have consistently refused to learn how to
set limits for their son. Today, Avi is an unhappy
young man, who is socially isolated and actively
disliked by those around him.
Giving Priority to the Child. Shai (10) has been blind
since he was a toddler. When he was six, he
underwent surgery to implant a CSF (cerebral spinal
fluid) shunt (a tube that drains excessive fluid from
the brain to the spinal cord). Shai underwent
kidney transplantation at the age of seven.
Shai's parents have assigned him household chores along
with his siblings. He rides his bike in the yard,
takes care of his own needs independently, and even goes
to the movies. They do not make excessive
concessions for him and have avoided giving him the
feeling that he has special rights because of his
problems. Shai's mother reported that she expects
Shai to clean his room by himself, "Otherwise, he won’t
be able to find his things!" Shai is a regular
member of his family, not the most important one.
When I asked Shai's mother how a child with so many
problems could be so "normal," she explained that she
and Shai's father decided to make every effort to assure
that their son would live as normal a life as possible.
Today, Shai is a happy, imaginative, intelligent and
independent child, for whom the clinic staff wait with
anticipation at the time of his monthly visit.
Shai is living testimony to the importance of not
letting pity blind us to the needs and innate strengths
of children with special needs.
As parents, we must be honest and recognize our
unexamined feelings regarding our special children.
We can expect to feel anger at our child with special
needs, or at the universe, because it is a natural,
human reaction. What we can throw away is the
guilt and feelings of omnipotence that cause us to react
in unnatural ways to our children. Guilt only
causes problems and omnipotence is a kind of arrogance.
An added benefit of indulging our children with special
needs less is having the time and energy to give a bit
more prominence to the needs of our well children.
They have been so understanding, but many have
experienced a degree of emotional neglect.
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