All of us who are parents of children with special needs can recall the moment we first heard a professional confirm that there was something different about our child.
Over the next decade, I would meet and become lifelong friends with couples whose marriages were made stronger, their families more bonded, and their lives more full of joy and meaning by having a child with special needs. I also met some families who struggled with the strain of being “an exceptional family,” sometimes resulting in divorce or separation.
Often, the difference between these families came down to their skills at family coping and resilience. The first set of families were able to frame the stress and uncertainty of having a child with special needs as a challenge that provided opportunities for coming together and finding optimism, joy, and meaning. Those families who struggled may have seen the task of parenting a child with special needs as a crisis-causing stressor, which made them prone to becoming overwhelmed and demoralized, often leading to additional crises.
We often think of people as resilient when they have overcome some significant challenges. In research, we call those challenges “risk processes.”
Risk processes are circumstances, events, or characteristics that interfere with development (for a child) or well-being (for an adult). The risk process might be an illness or accident, a trauma or tragedy, or it might be more long-term challenges such as poverty, disability, or lack of education.
Despite these adversities, resilient individuals lead happy, productive lives, which leads to our definition of resilience: bouncing back from risk or adversity. Researchers Emmy Werner and Ruth Smith described resilient children as “defying the odds” and noted that one-third of high-risk children became young adults who “loved well, worked well, played well, and expected well” despite the hardships in their lives.
So how do people manage to be resilient? What enables them (and, we hope, us) to defy the odds?
In the case of parents of children with special needs, protective processes often fall into three groups:
Excerpted from “How to Build a Resilient Family When Your Child Has Developmental Differences” by Paul LeBuffe, Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D, and Danielle Hatchimonji, Ed.M., M.S., published in Greater Good Magazine online. Read the full article to learn more about protective processes and how they help us cope with risk and adversity, and what this means for the exceptional family.