In support group, one parent finds empathy, some breathing room

At my son’s early intervention therapist’s office, I commiserated with other parents about the challenges of raising a child with special needs, learned who the “in” neurologist was and what alternative treatments were popular and how to navigate through the insurance maze.

Although talking to parents in the waiting room reminded me I wasn’t alone, I often walked out of the clinic more anxious than when I entered. I wondered if I was doing enough.

Finding a support group that is a good fit is worth investigating. Research what is available in your area. Most support groups have an open door policy that allows parents to shop around. Before visiting, talk to the facilitator and ask questions. How often do they meet? How big is the group? Who leads the group? Is it OK to observe? Do the parents have kids of similar ages or with similar issues?

Once you find the right support, you may be surprised at how much easier it is to breathe.

Support groups for emotional needs

Parent-led support groups try to provide empathy and understanding.

“We all come because of who we are rather than who our children are,” voiced a mother at a recent support group started four years ago by a mother, Kristen Scott, who has a son with autism. At these meetings every parent has a chance to talk uninterrupted about their experiences. New parents may learn from listening to more seasoned ones that they can still carve out a life for themselves. In turn, more seasoned parents often recognize how far they have come in their journey when they talk to parents of younger children.

Diagnosis-based support groups

When a support group is offered to parents whose children share a diagnosis, the focus tends to be more on sharing tips about how to manage common problems. Sometimes this means parents ask ahead of time to be put on the agenda to seek help in resolving a specific issue. It could also mean a more formal presentation about a topic of concern.

“I like knowing there are others in the same boat as me,” one mother shared at a group I visited. “I don’t necessarily need to vent. I simply want to connect with other parents who get it.”

Media-based support

Although most support groups are free and accessible, many parents have neither the time nor the desire to meet face to face with other parents. Internet support groups in the form of message boards, chat rooms and blogs are another valuable resource for support.

Reading about the journeys of other parents who have raised a child with special needs can be therapeutic. In fact, I have contributed to several anthologies in this genre and have found that even the writing and journaling process can be rewarding.

Individual counseling

Although support groups can be helpful, they are not a replacement for therapy. Individual counseling is recommended when your stress interferes with daily life. Significant changes in eating and sleeping habits, difficulty concentrating and feelings of worthlessness are all symptoms that should be referred to a social worker, psychologist or physician if they continue for more than two weeks.

Marla Davishoff is a licensed clinical social worker, freelance writer and mom living in Deerfield.

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