Parenting younger children with special needs

Mother and child lying on floor laughingThere's so much you take for granted as a new parent; with a child who has special needs all of this goes out of the window.

Their impact on the big stuff, such as relationships, your other children and career, can be profound, and on the day-to-day stuff, such as sleep patterns, feeding, toileting and simply getting out of the house, time-consuming and challenging. 

Toddler groups and playdates

Social isolation is a problem for parents of children who may be hard to handle in social situations. Health professionals often recommend you attend mother and toddler groups as a means of socialising, for both you and your child, but running the gauntlet of mainstream groups can be daunting.

Playdates may not be the respite that you yearn for - a need to maintain hawk-like vigilance tends to detract from sipping tea or something stronger with the other mums. And when playdates are hard work, parents aren't as keen to cultivate friendships.

But most mums recommend at least giving playdates a go. "Some people are incredibly stupid," says one mum, "but others are wonderful and it will sort out your friends from the pillocks."

Some mums say they feel more comfortable going to groups run by organisations such as Sure Start. The people working at these sort of centres should be trained in awareness of special needs and the groups are likely to be more diverse than your average privately-run, singing-with-mummy class.

There are groups and activities specifically organised for families with special needs children, although it may be hard to find them as there isn't often a central hub of information. Support groups specifically for families with special needs children can be a real boon, especially in educating you about what you can expect.

If you're the enterprising sort and can't find available groups, you might want to take matters into your own hands and start a group.

Birthdays and other milestones

Birthdays can be quite emotional, because people measure progress in terms of age, and it's hard not to dwell on what a two or three year old 'should' be able to do. But you'll get used to looking at your child's progress within their own framework of abilities, rather than comparing them to their peers.

That said, toddlerhood is a time when competitive parenting is rife and this can be harder to deal with when your toddler is not meeting the usual milestones. 

"It can be painful when your children's contemporaries are outstripping them," says one mum, "or even worse, when younger children are outstripping yours. No, I don't want to compare toilet-training problems when your child is literally half the age of mine, thank you." 

During the dark days of toddlerhood, when everything is up in the air, it can be impossible to imagine that there will be happy family times ahead. But there will be, although they'll be differently happy to the times you day-dreamed about in the past.

Friends and social life

There's still a huge taboo around special needs, and some people find the whole area uncomfortable or embarrassing. Your social life is not completely doomed, however. Although it can be hard when you're at a low ebb, keeping up communication with good friends will help them to understand your situation.  

"To them, however tactful they are, a tragedy has happened and your baby has turned into a freak," explains one mum, "Good friends will get over this and quickly move into the same space as you. Others won't. The initial reaction is just human nature and generally leads to a period where no-one speaks to you for fear of saying the wrong thing. Keep talking to the good friends and educate them gently."

Having a child with special needs is a life-changing experience - you cannot plan for the future the way other parents do. But some parents say that once they've accepted their situation, there's a certain gift of carpe diem. As one mum puts it: "You have no option other than to think 'sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof'. It can be surprisingly liberating."

What Mumsnetters say about parenting younger children with SN

  • There is a stupid notion, oft-spouted in books and on television, that caring for a child with difficulties makes us special. As if one day we get a diagnosis and turn into some self-sacrificing, jolly mother earth who relishes meeting the needs of our 'special' child. Bollocks. We love our children and we get up everyday and do our best and gradually the good bits seem brighter and the hard bits seem easier to manage. Pagwatch
  • Don't hide away. Get out there to the toddler groups and learn to live with the fact that it is always going to be different. You can't pretend that nothing is wrong and hope no one will notice. Cappuccino
  • What's been most useful is speaking to people with older kids who have the same diagnosis as our son; someone who can tell me about their child, rather than a doctor reeling off a list of facts. Bigcar
  • Having a child with special needs can have its advantages; one of them is not having to queue to use rides in playgrounds, because one excited scream from my son sends all the kids running! TeeJaye 



Last updated: about 2 hours ago