Have you ever noticed that when parents hang out or socialize, the parents of kids with special needs or learning disabilities find each other? It’s as if they have a homing signal that draws them together. It’s not surprising – they share something and understand things in a way that other parents and caregivers sometimes don’t get. It doesn’t even have to be a life-altering special need. Sometimes it’s raising a child who is a square peg in this round-hole world. When you are raising a child who just doesn’t fit the mold, you are managing worries that impact your parenting. It’s normal to seek the company of others who know what that feels like.

The “What Ifs” & “What Thens”

One of the things we get is the inherent “what ifs” and “what thens” that come with the territory of parenting a child that is “different.” These fears wake us up at night in a panic, worried about what the future will bring for this child…  and us.

Author Elizabeth Stone once said:

“Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

Every parent can identify with this, right? Our hearts are walking around firmly attached to our children. We are subject to all the emotional bumps and crashes that life brings their way. When our kids hurt, we hurt too.

There are plenty of bumps and occasional crashes when you raising a child with special needs, prenatal exposure, learning challenges, or other differences. The “what ifs” and “what thens” are tangible and often have enormous consequences – hence waking in the night.

What Are We Worrying About?

1. Does my child fit in or feel like they belong?

A primary worry we experience when raising a child with special needs or different abilities is how they will fit in with their peers. We struggle when we sense they don’t “belong” anywhere. We know the risks for kids who don’t fit in or find a safe niche of belonging.

It’s easy to let that worry run to the worst-case scenario. We feel stress and anxiety over how to find the right connections that accept and welcome them as they are.

2. What are the impacts of my child’s challenges?

Another notable worry is how our kids will manage their differences, disabilities, and other struggles. We see all sides of our kids, and we know their different abilities are only one part of the fantastic kids within. But we also know that others might never look past those differences to try and see who our kids are.

We lie awake at night, gaming out the possibilities of what this need means for their ability to enjoy a “typical” childhood. We wonder if they’ll grow out of these differences. Or we stress over the long-term challenges this disability will have for middle school, high school, teen crushes, first jobs, higher education, and more. The anxiety of predicting what their needs will mean for them is exhausting.

3. What does the future look like for my child?

Once we get on the train track of what long-term impacts our kids will experience, it’s a short hop over to Future Plans Railways! We start worrying about whether they will find meaningful work and fulfilling relationships. We fear that they will be able to live independently. Then we start picturing our senior years filled with their doctor appointments, scaffolding them to hold a job, and our thoughts barrel down the track like a runaway car.

Managing Our Worries

Many of us live with these fears and worries hovering at the back of our throats. This low-level simmering of anxiety is unhealthy and can also be rough on our parenting. Making decisions and plans for our kids from a platform of fear can hinder us from experiencing the fullness of life we deserve. Our kids can also sense that fear in us and begin to adapt in ways that might hamper them from trying new things or exploring possibilities. We don’t want that for ourselves or our kids, but how can we manage those worries?

Educate Ourselves

It’s a common saying around here: Knowledge is power. When you equip yourself with reliable information, you can proceed with confidence. We can educate ourselves about our child’s challenges, special needs, or learning disabilities. Learn the current best practices, what technology might support them best, and the range of outcomes for kids like yours.

For example, whether your child has FASD, ADHD, Down syndrome, or any other challenge, look for national organizations that support families like yours. Seek out the leading professionals in those fields. They often have podcasts and newsletters that keep you current on the latest research and resources.

Free Courses to Educate Yourself!

Start and Maintain Regular Self-Care

We must emphasize the importance of taking care of yourself regularly! The weighty issues you face while raising a child who struggles with disabilities or learning challenges can leave you depleted and run down. We all understand the importance of keeping our kids’ immune systems boosted and healthy – but we frequently forget to prioritize our own health.

In addition to taking care of your physical health with regular doctor appointments, you can start small with refreshing self-care. Take 15 minutes a day to quiet your mind. Listen to relaxing music, stretch, try yoga, pray, or journal. The point is to use those moments to reset and restore yourself. As you develop the habit, build on it!

  • Schedule a weekly book club or Bible study.
  • Join a dance, poetry, or knitting class.
  • Plan a supper club with your closest friends.
  • Set a date to regularly run, bike, or hike with your partner, spouse, or friend.

Try to establish regular self-care that feeds the parts of you that have been pushed back when managing worries has taken center stage. Focus on what makes you feel alive and feed those things.

Seek Counsel or Therapy

Sometimes, we struggle to manage the swirling thoughts and fears of raising this child with significant needs. When you feel overwhelmed and unable to handle these worries, seek wise counsel from a clergyperson, counselor, or therapist. Attending to your mental and emotional health is as crucial as caring for your blood pressure or back pain.

Stay Connected

Remember those circles of parents and caregivers who find each other in crowds, as if by homing signals? Those are your people! Dig into relationships with others who are managing worries similar to those you are working through. Please take advantage of the various communities related to your child’s needs, whether they offer online or in-person support. There are significant benefits to each type of community that you can maximize for your needs.

What Can We Learn When We Are Managing Our Worries?

Comparison is no good!

It’s easy to get discouraged when scrolling through the social media accounts of families with Perfect Kids! Perfect Academic Experiences! And Perfect Vacations! It usually magnifies your mind’s dire predictions about your child’s future. You load yourself down with guilt over signs you missed and opportunities your child will no doubt lose out on because of this need. You end your scrolling session convinced your child will live with you forever, eating cornflakes and filming mindless reels of the soggy cereal bowl.

When you feel the comparisons rising, shut your phone off and walk briskly for 15 minutes. Or play a quick round of cards with your kids. Change the script in your head, and maybe consider unfollowing those accounts that make you feel like you – and your square-peg kid! – will never measure up in this round-hole world.

Our fears are based on the present.

We cannot pretend to have the answers to parenting kids who are square pegs trying to fit in round holes. However, remember that our fears are often based on what our kids are like right now. We project that view into the future. In our state of worry, we fail to consider that our child will grow, mature, and change.

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Our kids are resilient.

When you are in the thick of your child’s struggles, it’s also common to forget that our kids are usually more resilient and adaptable than we give them credit for. Pay attention when you obsess about their challenges, and give yourself some positive self-talk to help manage worries— especially if the middle-of-the-night fears keep you awake.

We are resilient, too.

We, as parents, adapt to the new realities of their needs and challenges as our kids age. Hard as it is to believe sometimes, we, too, are more resilient and adaptable than we give ourselves credit for—again, especially in the middle of the night.

Technology and medicine will advance.

Science is advancing rapidly, and cutting-edge treatments and technology will benefit our kids in myriad ways. Adaptive tools, medical apps, and learning resources are already impacting our kids. How they will navigate their world will continue to evolve in exciting ways!

There will be room for them.

Inclusion, acceptance, and room to grow are becoming an everyday practice in many circles where our kids move. The world is a big place with room for many different skills, talents, and personalities. There will be a place for our precious child, and we will help them find it.

We can redefine “success.”

Our idea of “success” might evolve as our kids grow. We may need to intentionally adjust as our kids find their voices. Listen to them: their ideas of success are often more realistically matched to their abilities. One helpful suggestion is to view your child through the lens of what is typical for their peers with similar life circumstances or differences rather than their peers who are developing typically (whatever “typically” means!).

The Outcomes Are Most Often Better Than We Anticipate

The best news of all of this is that while we may obsessively worry over some terrible outcomes for our kids, the truth is it doesn’t often play out that way. Between educating ourselves, learning to listen to our kids, and allowing ourselves to adapt and grow, we usually learn that managing our worries is much more work than needed. And that the outcomes for our kids who are square pegs in round holes are bright and their own variety of beautiful.

What have you learned while parenting a square-peg child in this round-hole world? How have you managed the what ifs and what thens?

Image Credits: Mikhail Nilov; Andrea Piacquadio; cottonbro studio