5 Stages of Special Needs Parenting

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You know the 5 stages of grief? For a working mom with a busy schedule, special needs parenting takes you through similar stages—sometimes all in one day!

Most people are familiar with the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But as the mother of a boy who has severe ADHD and is on the autism spectrum, I wonder how these steps apply to special needs parenting?

Don’t get me wrong, I am by no means grieving my son’s challenges. Sure, there are days when you find yourself asking why can’t he be like other kids. But with his challenges also comes amazing things that other parents don’t get to experience. Life is full of tradeoffs.

But, just because I am not grieving for his conditions, does not mean it is not a struggle. The struggle is very real… every day! There are days I am certain I’ve run through the entire spectrum of “stages of grief” emotions and back again.

For a working mom with a very busy schedule, the five stages of special needs parenting look something like this:

Stage 1: Denial

You know the 5 stages of grief? For a working mom with a busy schedule, special needs parenting takes you through similar stages—starting with stage 1: denial.

No, we cannot possible be having this same argument again. No, you cannot take 20 toys with you in the car. Please put your shoes on. We can’t leave until you have shoes on. Brush your teeth. No, seriously, brush your teeth. If I have to tell you one more time to brush your teeth, you are going to room. Take your medicine. Please take your medicine. Take your medicine now! I will give you candy if you take your medicine. EVERY DAMN MORNING.

And I just shake my head and revel in the Groundhog Day scenario that is my life and think, no, this cannot possibly be happening again today. Welcome to denial.

Stage 2: Anger

You know the 5 stages of grief? For a working mom with a busy schedule, special needs parenting takes you through similar stages—including stage 2: anger.

I am not really a yeller. I never have been. But there is something about a 3 year old with severe ADHD that can make me come unglued. I reach boiling points of anger every day over the dumbest things. When you find yourself yelling things like “No, you cannot have fruit snacks. Fruits snacks are not breakfast food” at the top of your lungs, you know you are in a bad way.

I also get angry sometimes at my situation. Not so much in a “why me!” sort of way, but more in an internal monologue “how in the world is one person supposed to manage all of this and survive!” kind of way. Yes, sometimes I find myself yelling at myself in my own head. Anger is the stage I hate the most. It is the most outside my comfort zone as a person and I don’t handle it well. When I get angry over the many ups and downs and twists and turns of this roller coaster ride, I get angry at myself for being angry. It’s a vicious cycle!

Stage 3: Bargaining

You know the 5 stages of grief? For a working mom with a busy schedule, special needs parenting takes you through similar stages—such as stage 3: bargaining (literally).

Bargaining in my situation is not like the bargaining of grief. With ADHD children, this comes in the form of literal bargaining. My whole life is a series of bribes to get through the day. A hallmark “symptom” of ADHD is reward based thinking. Children with ADHD live in the here and now and often only think in the form of “what’s in it for me.” I have to “reward” my son to get him to do just about anything. If you eat your vegetables you can have fruit snacks. If you pick up your toys you can have a sticker. If you don’t meltdown in Target you can have a toy. All day every day. Everything gets a bribe. It’s the only way to function since I am fairly certain things like “if you don’t listen to me I am going to murder you” is not an actual solution you can follow through on.

The bargaining isn’t relegated to just him either. I am constantly bargaining with myself. If you make it through dinner without completely losing it, you get a glass of wine (or 3)! The bargaining doesn’t stop.

Stage 4: Depression

You know the 5 stages of grief? For a working mom with a busy schedule, special needs parenting takes you through similar stages—including stage 4: depression.

I admit it, I have been reduced to tears by son’s challenges. I have found myself having to step outside, drink in hand, to take a five minute break where I wallow in self pity and feel very low for the situation I am in, the difficulties of my day, and affects of the stages above. I get sad because I spend so much time in anger, denial, and that I have to pay my son in various currencies (be it candy, stickers, whatever) to get him to do anything a typical child would do. I usually snap out of it fast because I am always quick to remind myself how awesome my son is and how great my life is. There is no reason to be depressed. But it happens. I can’t control it.

Stage 5: Acceptance

You know the 5 stages of grief? For a working mom with a busy schedule, special needs parenting takes you through similar stages—ending with the fifth step of acceptance.

Even after all of these stages that come and go throughout the day, I always manage to reach a point of acceptance. I often find myself saying to other people thank god our son is with us. He is adopted and lord only knows what his life would be like if he was still with his birth parents living with these challenges. Fortunately my husband and I have the passion, drive, and resources to get him the help he needs. He goes to the best schools, best therapists, has access to medication, etc. I can only imagine what the alternative would be.

Knowing that we are able to get him the help he needs and surround him with the love and support he deserves makes it easier to accept, and even appreciate, that he is with us. Now that is not say there isn’t some level of humorous irony in two hard core, control freak, uber Type A people being blessed with a special needs child. There is really no two people on earth who are less mentally equipped to deal with our son’s challenges than us. And I can absolutely appreciate the irony in that. But, we make it work and we do it well (I hope). I guess I more than accept this is our life. I love it.

You go through your own five stages of grief when you're parenting a child with special needs. From denial to acceptance, here's what the stages feel like for one working mom.

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Jacquelyn Baker

Jacquelyn is proud adoptive mother to her 3 year old son, J, and wife of 11 years to her college sweetheart, Matt. While not a professional writer by trade, Jacquelyn is a fierce supporter of adoption and working moms everywhere. When not hard at work in her career in digital as a Sr. Director of Business Innovations at Rockfish, Jacquelyn blogs about the trials and tribulations of mothering a toddler with severe ADHD, navigating the crazy world of adoption, and striking a balance between career and family.

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