When Parents of Kids With Special Needs Are Each Other's Worst Enemies

Two female friends arguing at home
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Maybe it was the time the other moms in your kid's self-contained class gave you the 'my kid is higher-functioning than YOUR kid' stink-eye. Maybe it was that moment in a waiting room when you didn't react enthusiastically to another parent's impassioned theories and felt the temperature drop. Maybe you were sitting in a support group and realized that your goals for your child were fundamentally different than the goals other parents were fighting for. Maybe it happened when the parent of a child with special needs was in a gatekeeper position and kept your child with special needs from inclusion and accommodation. How can that be? Aren't we all in this together?

In so many ways, we are. Sure we are. It's us against the typical world, fighting against anyone who is keeping our kids from getting the help and care and education they need. The problem comes in when our opinions differ on what that help and care and education should look like — and when, fair enough, our kids' differences make those things different. That's when it goes from linking arms and singing "Kumbaya" to hand-to-hand warfare. And as much as it hurts when an educator or a medical professional block your advocacy, it's particularly painful when that person is someone who should have been your greatest ally.

While it's always possible to be surprised by a fellow parent's sudden defection from your worldview, there are certain situations where you're more likely to feel the knife in your back than others. Beware these five situations in which parents of children with special needs are most likely to be each other's worst enemies

When They Have Conflicting Agendas

We understood when the mothers in our son's first full-day self-contained class, who wanted their kids moving up to be with older students, were unhappy with my desire to have my younger kid move up into their kids' class. Still, we were stunned at the speed and ferocity with which they threw both our boy and us under the bus and hissed, "My child doesn't belong in a class with your child." When you have your Mama Bear blinders on, it's easy to focus only on that thing you believe so strongly is essential to your own child's well-being and block out any concerns outside of that, even the well-being of other kids with special needs and their families.

What you can do: If the other parent is open to communication, compare notes on your particular agendas and see if there is any point at which your conflicting desires overlap. Is there a solution that would be mutually acceptable? Fighting for it together is likely to be more effective than fighting each other.   

When They Go From "My Child Can't Do That" to "These Children Can't Do That"

Even when our kids are left out of the mainstream, we'd like to think they fit in amongst their peers with similar disabilities. Often, that means assuming and even insisting that every child must have the same skills or lack thereof and that conclusions can be broadly drawn based on our own personal observations. We develop goals and plans and future expectations based on that, and what started as an awareness of our child's abilities becomes The Way It Is for All These Children. So what do we do with parents who seem to feel that kids might be able to do more, or might only be capable of less? Brand them as overly optimistic or negative and harden your own convictions seems to be the common response.

What you can do: Never lose sight yourself of that fact you want so much for parents and educators and the community at large to understand -- that every kid is different, every family is different, and if you've seen one of "these children" you've seen one of these children. 

When Rights Collide

Their kid can't eat peanuts, and PBJs are only lunch foods your child with eating issues will tolerate. Your kid needs quiet and calm, and their kid needs to move and vocalize. Their kid has sensory issues that cause him to bump and jostle, and your kid has sensory issues that cause her to be terrified of unexpected touches and taps. All kids have a right to a safe and secure school experience, and those who have an IEP or a 504 plan have legal rights to have their specific disabilities accommodated. When one kid's accommodation is another kid's infringement, that's when parents attack.

What you can do: Recognize that the problem here is not the child and not the child's advocating parent, but a school or other setting that has not yet figured out a humane way to handle a difficult situation. All parents should try to work together to be part of that solution.

When They Can't Be Quiet

If you've been around the special-needs parenting block a few times, you'll have come across some political divides that split parents of kids with special needs into warring factions -- cure vs. acceptance, for example, or inclusion vs. specialized instruction, or parent advocacy vs. self-advocacy, or special-needs parenting as blessing vs. burden. Parents whose hot-button opinions don't correspond to your own can make you feel angry and defensive and ready to attack. These people are ruining it for everyone. They're making all parents look bad. They must be stopped, or at least argued with at length on Facebook or in the comments.

What you can do: Be honest with yourself about whether arguing is going to do anybody any good. If it just makes the other parent dig in harder and makes you yell at your family for the rest of the day, leave it alone. Hide the infuriating posts. Avoid the comments. Do your own best to articulate your beliefs in a non-confrontational way.

When They Won't Speak Up

So what about the parents who don't so much block what you believe and try to do but do nothing at all to help it? They can seem like an enemy at a time when you're trying so hard to rally for a meaningful special-needs cause. You call meetings to get all the parents in your district behind your efforts for their children and nobody comes. You create an advocacy support group and the meetings are sparsely attended. You see kids in your child's school who are being under-served because no one is making noise on their behalf, and you wonder what their parents could possibly be thinking to be refusing to push for progress for their child and all children.

What you can do: Acknowledge that people may be parenting the best they can even when their advocacy doesn't look like yours. Remember how overwhelming the job seemed before you got your feet under you and started doing it. Be available to support parents who don't know what they need. Support their kids, too.

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