Having a child is something most people have thought about since they were children themselves. Even if someone wasn’t always planning to have children, nearly all of us have imagined what it would be like if we did. Whether they would look like us, our partner, or a mix of both. Whether they would have the same interests as us, or whether they would love everything we hate and hate everything we love. Whether they would be rich and famous, or an infamous criminal.
For most people, when they imagine having children, they imagine having perfectly healthy children. It is usually not until there is an actual pregnancy that most people will give serious consideration to the possibility that there may be any mental or physical problems. Sometimes these can be detected before the birth, sometimes at birth, and sometimes not for years afterwards. Regardless of when a parent learns that there is any sort of issue, it will usually come as quite a shock. Many experts have compared receiving this news, and the period of adjustment that follows, to the experience of losing a loved one.
You have probably heard of the 5 stages of grief before: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Although most commonly associated with death, psychologists believe that these stages apply to many of life’s biggest transitions, such as losing a job, moving to a new country, or a diagnosis. In the denial stage, many parents may notice signs that worry them, but hope that it is not a major issue, and will just go away with time. While this can often be the case, there comes a point where expert advice should be sought to confirm or debunk any suspicions. In many cases, parents may want to seek a second opinion before they are willing to accept that their situation has changed.
The next stage is anger, though “stages” don’t necessarily have to be in order. The anger phase will come up at many different points throughout the parent/child’s life, but is hopefully something that they can learn to deal with. Parents may get angry hearing other parents complain about issues they have with their kids, when the parents of a child who has been diagnosed may see those issues as trivial. They may get angry at any discrimination they encounter, or at how others perceive their child. Unfortunately, these are experiences that may never fully go away.
“Bargaining” in this context would usually refer to a parent’s attempts to bear as much of the burden as possible, and to try and give their child the highest possible quality of life. This is an admirable goal, but parents must remember to look after their own health as well, and not to burn themselves out. A large part of this is learning not to compare your child to other children, and to accept their limitations, rather than pushing them to be “normal”.
The depression stage is one that can hit at many points throughout the parent’s life. Although a parent may have accepted their child’s condition years ago, certain things can still trigger a strong emotional reaction. Seeing friends’ children going to college and finding jobs, or getting married and having children are all important milestones that some parents won’t get to experience, and can cause sudden depression. Worrying about how the child will cope when they are on their own is another common cause for concern, and can cause parents more and more grief as they get older.
Eventually, given the right information and support, most parents who have children with extra emotional or physical needs will find the balance they need to have a good life. Many parents will feel guilty about the reaction they had when they first received the news, but as we have explained, it is a perfectly natural response to a major change in expectations. It would be strange not to respond as such. An although the process of unconditional love is a learning curve that never really ends, it is one that becomes easier with time. There may be times of anger or bouts of depression, but in the end, it all comes from a place of love.