When one child is hurting, does the whole family have to suffer?

He says:                                                                                                           

One of our children has a serious problem that is negatively impacting their life, and that of everyone in the home. Addressing their exceptional needs along with the ongoing basics of the other three kids, has been overwhelming for me. Truthfully, I have not succeeded in balancing it all. Initially, I was oblivious to just how much time and energy was being devoted to one child, at the expense of the others. Of course, if a child is in distress, a parent will throw themselves into helping them – giving it their all, devoting time and energy mental and physical – to making things right again, protecting a child is such a strong instinct. But when other children are in the picture, their needs can be overlooked. Their development is in full swing, and they need continuous love, attention, energy and effort.

I found myself exhausted from the battle to help our distressed child, and after dealing with the challenges of work and daily life, I had nothing left for my other children. No humor, joy or energy to take them to a park and play. They responded in a predictable, typical childlike way- by misbehaving. Lacking the maturity and the vocabulary to express their feelings, they demanded attention by acting out in maddening ways. Initially my reaction was “Oh, great! More teenage brattiness!” and my response to them was punitive.

Courtney and I would commiserate each night over the day’s travails- lamenting the loss of our visions of a family life of happiness and contentment. Instead our days were full of strife, sadness and anger. At some point, it dawned on me the connection between the kids’ behavior changes and my efforts. So I made a difficult choice – I reduced the amount of effort and focus placed on the child in distress to allocate that to the other kids and life in general.

Now, no matter how concerned I am about the one child, I force myself to set those concerns aside, and focus on the other children, one at a time. Sometimes this includes blocking discussions with those children about their sibling. They all love each other, and they know there is a serious problem – but they don’t want every conversation dominated by that topic. They have concerns and worries of their own – they have lives that merit attention, too. I have noticed a marked improvement in my other children after I devote such focused time on them. Sure, seems like a no-brainer – what when you are stuck in the middle of a miserable situation, your mind has blinders.

Honestly, it is nice to have a break from worrying and fretting. Focusing attention on my other children makes me feel good about being a parent again, and that I can still impact their lives. A dad needs to feel this way once awhile, especially when a child is hurting and dad can’t make it all better.

She says:

This past year of difficulties with one particular child has been so trying on all of us with no end in site. Despite wanting to just be left alone, Thomas and I have had to give lots of time and attention to this child. At its worst, I guess I just figured the other kids were kind of taking care of themselves, understanding that one of their siblings needed some extra attention. On a certain level, I think they did feel this way but, as Thomas said, they also wanted and deserved their own share of attention even for little things like celebrating a good grade or laughing at a funny story they told.

It was sometimes impossible to fathom acting enthusiastic or even laughing when bad stuff was going on but we had to force ourselves to, for our own sake as well as theirs. We also had to make the effort to be “normal” for the troubled child who really did not want to drag everyone down.

It was heartbreaking to hear his siblings plead with him to cope with his problems so everything could get back to the way it was. And it was equally heartbreaking to hear this child apologize, in tears, to his siblings for creating stress in their lives.  In a way, those moments cemented the love they all have for each other.

What is the lesson here for everyone? My take is that first, bad stuff just happens in a family, be it a serious illness, injury or various other issues. While that person needs attention, so does everyone else in the family. It is a parent’s job to hold it together for the sake of the children (and fall apart in private, with their partner or friends).  In the midst of chaos, fear, sadness – whatever – the other children and the child in trouble need for life to appear to be going on, falling back on the safety of normalcy.

One thought on “When one child is hurting, does the whole family have to suffer?

  1. boy, i about cried reading this! i have two special needs children but one has more issues than the other and took a great deal of our time when they were little. we could see the effects this had on the younger child when she got older and started really verbally abusing her brother. i think she thinks she has a right to feel this way about her brother because of the time she missed with us. not sure how to deal with it because nothing seems to change her ways. if you have any suggestions i would greatly appreciate it. thanks!

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