If you’re reading this, chances are that you have a child with challenges. Those challenges might be classified as “special needs,” medical necessities or a jumble of diagnoses.You may have dealt with these since your child’s birth, or perhaps you got side-swiped with them one random day. Whatever the case, and whatever you’re juggling, those challenges have taken up a whole lot of your time, attention, energy, brainpower and sheer, white-knuckled will.
The squeaky wheel gets the oil, right? Of course it does. Day in and day out, it’s been your job to keep your child on track, in treatment and just breathing sometimes. But what about the other children? If you’re blessed with more than your kid with challenges, there are other children in your family. These are the ones who are “normal,” typical, functioning and thankfully, not needing you so much on a minute-by-minute basis. But, they still have needs.
I already thought my plate was full when I gave birth to four kids in six years: two with extensive food and environmental allergies, asthma and sensory processing disorders; and one of those also with ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, anxiety and depressive tendencies.
But that wasn’t enough, apparently. One morning, one of my “easy” children peed blood, and ended up in the hospital for almost a month. Her kidneys shut down to ten percent function and she required dialysis to save her life. I was with her for those weeks in the hospital, of course, sleeping on a hard, narrow couch, and riding the daily rollercoaster of her medical drama.
When we emerged and finally got to go home, my daughter (now with Chronic Kidney Disease) went back to preschool and went on with the rest of her life. Psychologically, she was steady. Even today, she seems blissfully unaware of how close she came to dying.
But in the following months, it became apparent that two of my younger kids at home — who almost lost their sister, and were without their primary caregiver (me!) for weeks — had been terribly, negatively affected by their sister’s near-death experience and my sudden absence from their lives.
My son, eight years old at the time, started acting volatile at school, and isolating himself from his classmates socially. And my four year old daughter became obsessively attached to me and insanely jealous of her sick sister. Many tantrums were weathered; many tears were shed.
Both went through a mini existential crisis, even at their tender ages, in which they realized that I could disappear, their sister could die, and they could die, too. Interestingly, my daughter’s medical crisis was more traumatic for the children at home — who weren’t at the hospital, didn’t know what was going on, and couldn’t know when it would ever end — than the child in the hospital.This was the last thing I expected, on top of everything else. But thankfully, I recognized the signs of my other kids going off the rails and sought professional help. It took years of counseling for them both to work their way out of the PTSD, attachment disorders, and accompanying anxiety and depression. And thankfully, their sister’s health has been relatively steady.
I know you and your child with challenges have a lot going on — you always do, and you might always will. But let’s not take for granted that everyone else in the family is just fine. Let’s step back and consider whether their own, quieter needs are being overlooked, just because they aren't squeaking the loudest.
Annamarie Adkins has been many things: world-traveling college student, restaurant reviewer, Catholic journalist, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd catechist, and most recently, a substitute teacher. She and her husband live with their four children in Saint Paul, Minn.