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Raising Special Needs Children in a Religious Community

Photography courtesy of: Kameel Rayess, Lebanon (FB @kameelrayess5)

Raising children properly has always been the most difficult challenge for many parents. Some Druze parents model the behavior of their own parents, being inspired by how they were raised themselves. Others behave according to information acquired through books, websites, or formal advice. Yet one of the major determinants of parents’ behavior is their general attitudes and specific thoughts and beliefs. These elements have a subsequent effect on the socio-emotional and cognitive development of children.

Children aren’t made the same, no matter how much society tries to create a profile of the perfect child. The broader society in which the family lives, coupled with individual characteristics of parents and children, affect how parents care for their children. When a child is irritable or aggressive, they tend to receive inconsistent parenting, with parents sometimes displaying emotionally violent outbursts. Such overreactions are commonly associated with child developmental problems.

Many children are misunderstood and not communicated with properly when they suffer from a developmental disorder. In cases where children are disobedient or hostile, parents may incorrectly believe they were born to be that way.

Some children are born with developmental disorders such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), as well as learning and communication disorders. These disorders are usually accompanied by anxiety, depression, OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), etc. There are no definitive causes to these disabilities, but some are thought to be caused by genetics, parental health and behaviors, as well as the exposure of the mother or child to environmental toxins.[1]

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the prevalence of developmental disability among US children aged 3 to 17 increased between 2009 and 2017–ADHD increased from 8.5% to 9.5%,  ASD from 1.1% to 2.5%, and any developmental disability from 16.2% to 17.8% [2]. These figures are expected to increase in the future with better identification and availability of services.[3]

Parents look forward to their child’s developmental milestones: taking a first step, smiling for the first time, and waving bye-bye to name a few. However, children with developmental disabilities experience delays with these milestones. In a family-oriented society, delays in child development might frustrate parents. A large amount of research has focused on how parents react when a child is diagnosed with a mental illness. Some emotions commonly experienced are denial, helplessness, devastation, sadness, loneliness, guilt, anxiety, and grief. 

Even within the category of mental illnesses, there are diagnoses with more stigmas attached to them than others. For instance, individuals with more severe, bizarre, or perceptible symptoms of mental illness are more likely to experience rejection, as well as isolation, as some parents of children without the disorder don’t want their children to interact with a child that has a mental illness. The complexity of dealing with a mental illness diagnosis depends on the support that parents receive from their extended families and community in seeking professional help. Good family coping skills and resilience, in addition to social support, are linked with fighting self-blame and stigma.[4] 

That said, these skills will help parents whose children have developed behavior problems, due to their diagnosis, to adopt proactive and positive parenting methods. One crucial step is receiving primary care and early intervention to change a child’s developmental trajectory, where early social/emotional development and physical health provide the foundation upon which language and cognitive skills develop.[5]

Through the long journey of parenting a special needs child, parents tend to go back to their faith for solace, strength, and perseverance. Thus, researchers have had an elevated interest in the association between religion, spirituality and mental health. There has been research showing that religion and spirituality can sometimes be damaging to mental health through negative religious coping, misunderstanding, miscommunication, and negative beliefs.[6] 

Recent studies have shown that religious practice and spiritual self-perception appear to aid individuals on their journey to recovery.[7] It’s true that faith can be a great aid for parents and children alike to ease their feelings of anguish, yet it’s not a cure. It’s a light that shines to show the way one already decided to follow. That’s why parents with toddlers that show signs of delayed development should immediately seek professional help. 

Accepting and surrendering to the reality of the situation, and denying the existence of the problem, would only prevent the child from getting crucial care at an early age, thus making it harder to cope in the future. Parents with a special needs child should fully understand their child’s diagnosis, process it, get support from a pediatrician, psychiatrist, as well as a school social worker, and create a supportive environment to make them feel safe and loved. And through it all, parents should take care of themselves and their mental well-being. 

References
[1] ‘Developmental Disabilities | CDC’ (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020) <https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/developmentaldisabilities/facts.html> accessed 9 February 2020.


[2] Benjamin Zablotsky and others, ‘Prevalence and Trends of Developmental Disabilities among Children in the United States: 2009–2017’ (2019) 144 Pediatrics.

[3] Maureen S. Durkin, ‘Increasing Prevalence of Developmental Disabilities among Children in the US: A Sign of Progress?’ (2019) 144 Pediatrics.

[4] Brieanne A. Gallaway Gallaway, ‘Acceptance Experience Of Parents Of Children With Mental Illness’ (Sophia, the St. Catherine University repository website, 2015) <https://sophia.stkate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1451&context=msw_papers> accessed 9 February 2020.

[5] Sue Goode, Martha Diefendorf and Siobhan Colgan, ‘The Importance of Early Intervention for Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities and Their Families’ (Ectacenter.org, 2011) <https://ectacenter.org/~pdfs/pubs/importanceofearlyintervention.pdf> accessed 9 February 2020.

[6] Samuel R. Weber and Kenneth I. Pargament, ‘The Role of Religion and Spirituality In Mental Health’ (2014) 27 Current Opinion in Psychiatry.[7] Maria Archer, ‘The Positive Effects Of Religion on Mental Illness’ <https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-positive-effects-of-religion-on-mental-illness> accessed 9 February 2020.

About Hanadi Abi Ali

Hanadi Abi Ali currently lives in Beirut, Lebanon where she teaches math and science, and writes on important health topics in her free time. Hanadi studied Environmental and Public Health at the American University of Beirut.

2 comments

  1. Amazing article Hanadi and helpful for both teachers and parents.

  2. You always keep making me feel proud my dear student and friend. Great work! Keep it up!