The World of Special Needs Parenting Can Bring Hard Lessons When It Comes to Friendship

Jennifer Arnold by Jennifer Arnold Additional Needs

Jennifer Arnold

Jennifer Arnold

I’m passionate about raising awareness about disability issues through education and outreach. When I’m not wearing my writer hat, I’m usually tryi...

I’ve always treasured the friendships that I’ve had throughout my life.

Some have formed from circumstance.

Some have drifted in and out, and some are only around for a season.

There are also the few who I am thankful to have been friends with for most of my life.

Still, I don’t believe anything has taught me about the value and meaning of friendship more than being a special needs parent.

In a world that can be isolating, scary, and uncertain, true friends will be willing to go along for the ride and support your family as much as you are willing to support them during hard times.

In the last twelve years, my friendship circle has narrowed considerably, and as sad and pathetic as that sounds, it is actually a good thing.

I have come to realize that where friendship is concerned, it’s quality that matters, not quantity.

To say that parenting a special needs child is stressful would be an understatement.

Our plates are often filled to maximum capacity. Many times we are operating on autopilot, and our friendships tend to get put on the back burner.

Not everyone can comprehend what it’s like raising special needs kids, and that’s OK.

There are the friends who “get it,” or at least try to, and I love them for that.

Then there are friendships that can be emotionally draining and toxic , and these traits are never more apparent in times of turmoil.

I have experienced my fair share of these, and it took me awhile to realize that these friendships were doing more harm than good.

These were long-term friendships, and I wanted to hold on and believe that things might change.

No one is perfect, and I would be lying if I said that the breakdown of the friendships was always entirely the fault of the other person, but ultimately I realized that these relationships were not healthy for either of us.

When they did eventually end, whether it was my choice or theirs, I felt peace rather than anger and sadness.

Those former friendships taught me to be more careful about who I surround myself with and  about the type of friend I want to be for others. In the world of special needs parenting, some of the following methods of support and understanding can go a long way.

Listen to what they say- not how they say it.

I had a conversation several years ago with someone where I was describing a really frustrating situation having to do with my son’s health.

I was emotional and a little swear-y, which tends to happen when my emotions run high (which she knew because she’d known me for twenty years).

After I poured my heart out, my “friend’s” only response was, “Jen! You swear too much.”

True friends will let you vent without judgement- even if dropping the F-bomb a couple of times makes them cringe.

Know that they don’t flake on or avoid events intentionally.

I would love to volunteer at my kids’ schools, or sign up to be on a committee, or schedule an appointment that is more than three months away.

But I can’t, because our life is such that one severe meltdown could wipe out a good part of the day, or one cold could turn into a hospital stay and throw a huge monkey wrench into arranged plans and obligations, leaving others to scramble and pick up the pieces.

Understand that they may not be able to do phone calls most of the time.

These days, texting is my preferred method of communication, along with social media.

Long gone are the days where I can sit and have a leisurely phone conversation.

For me, texting is still communicating in real time, and much easier than trying to chat while hiding in the bathroom (which is the only spot I can be alone, and even then, I get little hands pounding on the door).

Texting is not impersonal; it’s a necessity at this point for anything not medically related or non-emergent.

True friends also won’t gaslight, ghost, or create unnecessary drama.

I was accused once by a former friend of not being there for them during a rough period, which happened to be during the same time that my newborn was in the NICU fighting for his life.

No, I wasn’t able to be there because I was in survival mode myself; postpartum with a critically ill baby, which this person was well aware of.

I should probably clarify that these incidents I mentioned weren’t a one-time occurrence.

There were signs that these  friendships had been deteriorating for awhile; these were merely my “a-ha” moments that woke me up to the fact that maybe it was time to move on.

It’s not easy to be friends with parents who have special needs children.

Our lives can be unpredictable, and messy.

Our homes are loud and chaotic.

We are often cranky, broke, and tired. We may tend to bore you with endless talk of our latest medical and behavioral issues if you ask.

I’ve learned that if you are lucky enough to find those people that are willing to stick by you in this beautiful whirlwind, hang on and don’t let go.

Those are the friendships worth cultivating; they are your tribe.


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