How does disability impact a family?
Counselling for families who have a family member with a disability is very important as looking after a disabled child can put pressure on the whole family, not only the parents but also the siblings.
When you are pregnant, you might fantasise about your future child and what activities and fun you are going to be able to share together, stereotypically for a Dad this might include playing football on the common, and for a Mum it may include baking or going shopping. When parents are informed that their child has a disability, the loss of the fantasised child and the discrepancy between these expectations and reality can produce feelings of shock and disbelief.
Parents having a disabled child can embark upon a journey of anxiety (especially if you have seen your child severely unwell or undergoing invasive medical procedures), depression, isolation (“no one can understand the challenges we are going through”), guilt (“is it my fault?”), anger (“why me/us?”), frustration, jealousy (looking at the “normal” families), sleep deprivation/sleep issues (being “on call” 24/7), unhealthy eating habits (no time for anything else), denial (“he is just developing slowly”), grief, shame (about your child’s behaviour or appearance), overwhelmed (by the layers of bureaucracy and form filling and fighting to get what the child deserves in terms of benefits, equipment, social worker, education, etc), ongoing stress and uncertainty (“will he ever by independent?”).
Parents have to learn how to cope and navigate in a world of changing attitudes toward both them and the child as well as society’s attitude to disability.
Many parents will go through different stages of grief, followed by suffering and acceptance. Counselling can help to assist parents through those stages, understand what they are feeling and work progressively towards a level of reasonable acceptance, closure, and reconstruction. Counsellors can assist parents in developing and implementing stress management programs while helping them achieve a balance between their hopes and reality.
Some fathers may find it harder to speak about their feelings, whereas mothers may be more open to talk. This can cause a rift in couples. Counselling will help support both parents in their marriage.
Sometimes it can be really difficult to focus on the siblings’ needs because, out of necessity, the disabled child is the family’s biggest area of focus. Siblings are at a greater risk than average of internalising issues and hiding their problems to protect their overburdened parents. They may face peer problems, as they may be ashamed and embarrassed about the disabled sibling’s behaviour or appearance.
They may become prematurely responsible and independent, developing duties similar to a parent. That can be a precursor to emotional distress. They may feel neglected by the parents and find it unfair that most of the parents’ time is devoted to the disabled sibling. They may feel that parents are choosing to favour the child with special needs.
Parents may spend so much emotional energy on the special needs child leaving little emotional energy and patience to support the sibling. Siblings may feel guilt that the disability happened to the sibling and not to them. They may feel fear about the health and future of the sibling. They may experience resentment, anger or jealousy towards the sibling. They might have their own worries or needs that they find hard to talk about.
For all the reasons stated above, offering counselling to parents and siblings of a disabled person is important to allow them to have a safe and trustworthy space to voice and explore their worries and issues, in order to live a happier life.