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Looking After Children with Childhood Developmental Disorders is Challenging

Mothers are At Risk of Anxiety if They Can’t De-Stress

A mother can be devastated when her child is diagnosed with a childhood developmental disorder. She can experience an emotional rollercoaster ride, starting from shock, followed by denial (of the doctor’s diagnosis) and thereafter, self-reproach sets in. Ultimately, she will have to accept the news. Only those who experience it for themselves can relate to the sense of loss, uncertainty and endless streams of stress that come with taking care of children with Special Education Needs (SEN).

An SEN mother’s life seems to only revolve around her child. Other than taking care of her child’s daily life, she will also spend time looking for different treatment approaches and various useful information, with the hope to improve her child’s condition before schooling age.

Teaching her child basic living skills requires a lot of efforts from an SEN mother. If her child attends a mainstream school, the mother will have to take on more challenging responsibilities, such as helping her child cope with homework, revision and tests. An SEN mother also has to manage the consequences of her child’s behaviour. She may experience embarrassment and scrutiny when her child experiences an emotional meltdown in public. These are some difficulties that an SEN mother faces that many of us may not fully relate to. As such, SEN mothers often avoid talking about their children and sometimes choose to keep a distance from their family and friends.

Overwhelmed with Negative Emotions

When a mother fully focuses on her child, dedicating all her attention and financial resources, she can easily overlook her own needs. To her, leisure activities are considered luxuries. Day in and day out, she needs to manage her day with exhaustion and negative emotions that never seem to go away.

Research from Australia shows that 50% of SEN children’s caregivers suffer from severe anxiety symptoms. Out of them, 60% are diagnosed with anxiety. Counsellor Fiona Tsang points out: “Mothers can easily get lost in the sea of medical information related to their child’s condition. Being confused plus having insufficient sleep can make them highly irritable. Sometimes, they are worried when their child is not making progress as quickly as they would like despite time and money spent on seeking professional help. It is important for parents to understand that every child is learning at their own pace and some fluctuations in their learning curve is fairly normal. Excessive worrying about it can increase caregiver’s anxiety.”

Marriage Can Break Down Easily if A Couple is Not Aligned

An SEN mother can also face pressure from her spouse. If SEN parents fail to be understanding to each other, this can strain their relationship and potentially lead to a marriage breakdown. Honorary Assistant Professor from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Hong Kong, Dr. Vinci Cheung says: “It is uncommon for fathers to bring their child to see a counsellor. Sometimes, I met mothers lamenting that she would argue with her husband whenever they talked about their child.”

We had a case of a family with two autistic children. When counsellor Fiona Tsang made a home visit, she saw that the home was filled with toys and paint was peeling off from walls, which were droodled on. The toilet could not be flushed and toys had to be moved away when the family wanted to watch television. The family also hardly had meals together. The father of the children came across as being nonchalant like an outsider. His wife had to manage everything in the household. Fiona says: “Compared to mothers, fathers usually are less accepting of SEN children.

Self-Care is Important for The Arduous Journey

To manage disagreements between husband and wife, Dr. Cheung suggests: “As mothers usually focus on taking care of their children, they may show little concern to their husbands. Try expressing your concern to your husband when he gets home. This may make him asks about your child. When responding to this, mothers should bear in mind that they should focus on the main point and avoid too many details. Also, find a suitable opportunity to talk to your husband on how to work together to help your child. These steps will reduce friction between a couple.”

Taking care of SEN children is a long, arduous journey. Being a pillar of support for their child, mothers should learn to reflect on their life and assess how to effectively allocate time. No matter how busy they are, they should find time and space to exercise self-care as this benefits their mental well-being. Taking care of themselves is an act of love for their child as it is essential to their child’s well-being.

(Note: The case study has been adapted for privacy purposes)

If You have Family or Friends who are SEN parents:

  1. Lend a listening ear to help them relieve their stress and avoid providing too many opinions.
  2. Avoid sharing tips related to treatment or education if you are not in the medical or mental health related professional field. SEN parents may already know much about such information.
  3. Help them with some simple tasks, such as mailing letters, shopping for necessities etc.
  4. As a superior (or manager) or colleague, be understanding if the parents have to leave work early due to special circumstances such as having to meet teachers at school. If possible, share their incomplete work.
  5. Due to long-term stress and insufficient rest, SEN parents can get highly irritable and may snap at you easily. Avoid arguing and responding immediately, give them time to calm down.

The Companions
Dr. Vinci Cheung
Counsellor