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Supporting the Emotional Health of Your Child With Disabilities

How to raise a happy, confident kid

The email from my son't teacher made my heart sink. "Your son is the most challenging student I have ever had,” it read, “because his self-esteem is so low. He hides his work behind a folder and will not engage in class. He seems very sad.”

My son was 9 at the time, profoundly dyslexic and, though I didn’t see it until it was pointed out to me, hedging
dangerously close to depression. By that point, we had spent countless hours on testing and tutoring, decoding
and practicing, but these practical therapies weren’t addressing a deeper issue: Navigating my son’s disability meant diving down into his feelings with him before they wrecked him.

It turns out, my son was not alone in feeling down. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Learning Disabilities revealed a significant increase in social anxiety, generalized anxiety and depressive symptoms in children
with learning disabilities over typically developing children.

Feeling isolated and struggling to accept what makes them different is a common thread in kids with other disabilities too, and experts believe those feelings are leading to more cases of depression.

Fran Osborn, a licensed professional counselor at Dallas Area Insight Counseling, says that while it is no secret that anxiety and depression are on the rise for typical children, she is seeing an even greater spike among kids with special needs. In trying to take care of their more obvious
needs—making therapy appointments, keeping up with the medication schedule, communicating with teachers and tutors, navigating health care red tape—parents can overlook their child’s complex inner life.

“Children with disabilities need emotional support just as much as they need the physical therapies,” she says, “because if they cannot fully accept themselves and their disabilities and deal with being different and find purpose
for their lives, that can lead to anxiety and depression down the road.”

That’s not to say that every child with disabilities will develop depression. But every child with disabilities has thoughts and feelings, even if parents may not perfectly understand them, and learning to interpret and care for those feelings is a crucial part of creating the best life possible for your kid.

Communication Breakdown 

Lauren Schnepf is trying to help her 4-year-old son Caleb, who has Down syndrome, prepare emotionally for mainstream kindergarten this fall. Since he doesn’t have a lot of words, his feelings can come out through his fists.

“Sometimes when we are out in public, if someone invades his personal space, he will swat at them to get them to back up,” the Lake Highlands mom explains.

She admits that her son’s behavior used to embarrass her until she understood the emotions he was trying to convey.

“Now I realize that it’s a normal emotion to feel overwhelmed when someone is too close to you or making you feel uncomfortable,” she says. “We all feel that—I just have to help Caleb find a way to express that without hitting.”

For kids with special needs, expressing their emotions can be complicated by communication challenges, which in turn makes it more difficultfor parents to recognize and interpret those feelings. Emotional distress, in particular, may look different for a child with disabilities than it does for other kids.

Alisha Feuerbacher, a specialized behavior support teacher at Frisco High School, helps children in special
education whose behaviors impact their daily school life. She says their emotional challenges can manifest in ways that might not initially look like an emotional issue.

“When we as adults think of what depression or anxiety looks like, it’s usually from our own perspective,” she says. “But for the kids I work with, the symptoms look like outbursts, anger and sometimes violence. It looks like
frustration at not having the tools to process a big feeling.”

Feuerbacher says these emotional issues, if left unrecognized and unsupported, can intensify into a big problem for a child’s whole family.

“My job is 60 percent working with the parents and 40 percent with the kids,” she explains, “because if the child’s emotional needs are not met, it can cause a lot of stress for the parents’ and that can turn into a hard situation for everyone.”

To meet Caleb’s needs, Schnepf left her corporate job to run an online boutique, which allowed her to be at home more with her son. Now she’s close at hand to read his emotions and help him process them.

“For Caleb, this has helped a lot because as his mother, I can tell when he’s frustrated or sad or angry,” Schnepf says. “I can usually feel it coming on in his mannerisms or a slight change in his demeanor that others might not be able to pick up on. Before I could sense that change, but I
didn’t have as much time to work with him. Now I can head it off be-fore it starts, and I have more time to work with him on processing it using things like social stories.”

In addition, the Schnepfs also sought out professional help through the Rise School of Dallas. “They connected us with a behavioral therapist who will come alongside what we are doing at home and help connect Caleb’s behaviors with his feelings and then help untangle the ones that aren’t helping him,” she explains.

Awareness and Acceptance 

As kids with disabilities get older, they may begin to recognize their limitations, leading to feelings of isolation and inadequacy.

Mansfield mom Stephanie Smith remembers the first time
she realized that besides the physical challenges of spina bifida, her daughter Caroline would have another set of challenges that could be less obvious—and at times, much more painful.

“I remember when birthday party invitations started coming in for things that were hard for her to do, like swimming or roller skating,” Smith recalls. “Caroline started feeling really different and a little sad.”

Later, sleepovers became a source of anxiety too. “With the things she couldn’t do as easily as her friends came a lot of feelings that she had to learn to process,” Smith explains. “She was frustrated and felt like she was missing out when she had to leave a party early because of physical limitations.”

Though it is tempting to soothe your child’s frustrations by downplaying her disability, Osborn says that being cognizant of your child’s limitations is actually a great starting point for lending emotional support. “A lot of times, the way the child handles her disability depends on how the parent handles it,” she says.

Osborn, who was born blind, says the best thing her parents did was to help her accept that she was blind and roll with the punches.

“Their approach was very matter of fact,” she remembers. “It was like, ‘This is who you are.’”

By setting the tone early on, they gave her a healthy approach to dealing with the feelings of isolation that accompanied her disability. This kind of open acceptance
is important in helping a child make room for her disability in her identity without allowing it to become her identity.

“When you don’t acknowledge disabilities, that’s when a problem can form later on down the line as children have to learn how to accept that they are different, and that the difference is just one part of who they are,” Osborn says.

Feuerbacher agrees that when parents fully accept their child’s disability as part of who they are, it helps the child process things better. “If a child is bipolar, understanding that his reactions aren’t always a choice but instead a chemical reaction leads to more acceptance, and that helps the child feel comfortable accepting himself and the things about him that are different,” she says.

When those sleepover invitations came, Smith was frank with Caroline about her abilities. “We had to talk a lot about how we cannot change what is different but we can find a different way to do things,” she says.

Wes Parks, a Fort Worth psychotherapist, says that a realistic view is crucial to raising children who feel comfortable with themselves and confident that they can
be successful, adding that an unrealistic view of their abilities can hurt children’s emotional health in the long run. He sees this problem at school, especially for kids with cognitive impairment: Instead of giving students with disabilities attainable goals and plans for the future, he says schools may downplay the severity of disabilities,
leading to disappointment, anxiety and depression in the future.

“They tell the parents of a child with an IQ of 65 that he will go to college and puff them up with this notion that college is the only path for him,” he explains. “Then when it comes time for their child to graduate, the family’s
confidence is shattered when they find that college isn’t a viable option for their child.”

To avoid that kind of emotional fallout, it’s important for parents to find education and mental health consultants who can put their child on a realistic path toward a future
with purpose.

A Place in the World 

Be warned: A realistic path is not a sheltered one.

Osborn says parents may accidentally become a hindrance
to their children’s emotional health by protecting them from risky new experiences, making them feel like they are inadequate or have no real purpose. As counterintuitive as it may seem, battling feelings of isolation and anxiety actually requires parents to be less hands-on.

“Many parents don’t throw their kids out there and let them experience things, but these experiences build ability,” she says. “They help children find their strong
points and help them realize they have a purpose in this world.” 

Feuerbacher says she can clearly see the difference between the kids she works with who have a healthy emotional balance and those who do not—and that difference is their parents. The parents of emotionally
healthy kids “are focusing on the whole child and not the
disability,” she explains. “They find ways for them to pursue interests like art or modified sports. They give them these opportunities even though it’s challenging.”

For the Smiths, that meant putting Caroline in pursuits designed for children with disabilities, like T-ball through the Miracle League, but also mainstream activities like the church nursery and soccer through SoccerTots. These opportunities helped her find friends who could see past her wheelchair and leg braces and opened the door to new and affirming experiences. Soon Caroline developed a strong circle of girlfriends whose parents went out of their way to be inclusive.

“Once we accepted that we would have to do things differently, those friends were willing to help us and go the extra mile so that Caroline eventually could spend the night at friends’ houses or swim with them,” Smith says. “Having friends who invested in her was one of the biggest
things we did that made a difference in her life.”

Pursuing interests—particularly in the company of others—can banish loneliness and boost a child’s social confidence, but it’s also a vehicle for keeping feelings of inadequacy at bay.

“It is so important to highlight what children can do well,” Osborn says. “It’s critical to their emotional development to feel capable in a world that will often try to tell them they are not.”

The Smiths give Caroline space to feel disappointed or frustrated, but they meet that disappointment with affirmation that her differences make her unique and give her a distinct purpose in this world. “We would listen and validate her feeling because, yeah, it can stink to be
different,” Smith says. “But all of us are different in one way or another, so we would quickly follow that up with affirmation and then push her to focus on what she can do and to do it to the best of her ability.”

Turns out Caroline is gifted academically—she just needed a place to cultivate that interest.

“[We] found a private school where she could blossom and not have to constantly explain her disability,” Smith says. “She is currently taking pre-AP algebra and doing great.”

Osborn encourages parents to follow Smith’s lead and move past a place of fear, to push their children to try new things and find their niche. “It can be scary, but as parents your job is to prepare your children to live independently in the world, so we must push past the fear,” Osborn says. “On the other side of that fear is going to be where they find their identities as whole persons.”

For my own son, it started with a lawn mower. My husband spent several months teaching him how to mow the grass. The instant gratification of seeing a freshly mowed yard boosted his confidence tremendously, and some neighbors even offered him a job mowing their yards.

Realizing that he could command a big machine helped him find an even bigger purpose: becoming a pilot. Now 12, he is working toward his pilot’s license and glider pilot’s license. In order to push past my fear of allowing him to go up in an airplane, I asked myself if I wanted a son who battled depression on the ground or who found his self-worth in the air.

I’m happy to report that while his typical peers are struggling to navigate middle school, he is flying high.