Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Self-Image and Special Needs

When a child has special needs, we must help them develop a good self image.Three items to consider are: what we think about ourselves, what others think about us and if we are Biblically-minded, what God thinks about us. In the hubbub of our daily thoughts, the most necessary point we must deal with is what we think about ourselves.Seven year old boy: “Mom, I don’t like the size of my ears.”
Mom: “Son, God loves your ears and I think they are cute.” 
Boy: “Well I don’t like them!”Two other responses could be, “Mom, God loves everybody! He doesn’t count.” or “Mom, you don’t count. Of course, you’d think they were cute.”Often our personal beliefs carry more weight than even the opinion of God.Not every parent faces the reality of a child with special needs whether they are physical, emotional or mental. The closest experience I’ve had is so far from these challenges, I’m almost embarrassed to write about it, but it’s my son’s reality that prompts me to share.For whatever reason, my oldest son didn’t develop the ability to say a few consonant sounds well. “R” was “aw”, “tr” was “twah”.

As a young mother, I fought self-condemnation. Did I not introduce crunchy foods early enough in order to develop the movement of his tongue? Did I not read aloud to him enough? I had many questions. Unlike the parents of children with conditions that make daily living distinctly challenging, our remedy was simple: two years of speech therapy at a local school.
My son didn’t like it. I never knew until recently why he seemed to meld into the walls when we walked through the hallways and past the open doors of 4th grade classes, to meet with the speech teacher. I also never knew why he looked so sad when I practiced the lists of “r” and “w” words with him every night.Currently, his adult peers would never know he had a problem once upon a time. Like I said, his challenge was a simple and easily solved one. However, no matter how  trivial my son’s challenge may appear compared to children with special needs, self-image was an issue for him.  I wish I had known this at the time. I was stunned to discover that during these years, Christopher had developed a very poor image of himself. This was the reason for the melancholy that I saw in his face. He was a natural competitor. His question “Why do I have this struggle?” was very real. Here is an excerpt from his blog: “…, when I was in 5th and 6thgrade I had to visit a speech therapist because I couldn’t pronounce the “r” sound correctly, especially when I got excited and started talking fast (which people tend to do when they get excited).

There are few things worse than being told you can’t talk properly (I can’t speak for everyone but it definitely tops wearing braces, which I also have experience with). In hindsight I’m extremely glad for those many, many speech lessons; however, back then they were a tremendous source of shame and actually caused me to embrace the role of outsider. I figured that as an outsider I’d interact with fewer people and thus be put in fewer embarrassing situations.

These are the words of a Summa Cum Laude college graduate, so it goes to show that handicaps do not reflect intelligence.  However, in his blog article he goes on to write about the mask he assumed to attempt to be something that he felt he was not due to his speech impediment.Reality and perception are venomous counterparts. They walk hand in hand. However, one thwarts the other and can change someone’s destiny if not tamed. A child’s perception about themselves cannot be automatically fixed by a quick exhortation about God’s love while cooking a meal or reminders about the child’s unaffected skills and talents. Hugs before bed, buying favorite toys and changing the subject are feeble attempts to fix a problem and only exhibit our sense of helplessness as parents.As I stated, I never knew that my son’s self image had grown sour. If I had known at the time, I’m sure I would have performed some of the aforementioned countermeasures. I do wish that I’d not brushed off his sad demeanor and uncharacteristic behavior in the hallways of the school because at the very least I would have regularly prayed for him.A decade has gone by and I have little boys in the house again. While neither is showing any physical challenges, life has already presented situations that could affect my five year old’s self-image. I noticed on the playground months ago, that he no longer runs with abandon to play with another kids no matter what age. Now he stands back and watches. He plays alone all the while glancing at the other kids out of the corners of his eyes. Usually after 15 minutes or so, he gathers the courage to begin to interact with another child if they are about his age. What happened? 

In protecting him from rejection I once said something to him that planted the wrong idea in his young mind.Previously at another playground in another town, a bus load of boisterous preteens flooded our serene playground paradise. My then extroverted four year old went up to some of the preteen boys and began conversing with them like they were his peer, all the while oblivious of their facial expressions and deaf to their whispers. However I was not deaf. As quick as a lioness, I rushed my son away while smiling at the insensitive tweens. Getting down on my knees in front of him, I explained what I thought would be good wisdom for him as he grows up. I told him that older kids sometimes don’t want to play with younger kids because of the age difference. I said that not every older kid has a younger sibling and some don’t know how to be nice and I didn’t ever want his feelings hurt. The reality of what I said, while true, didn’t filter accurately inside his four year old brain. Months later, I learned that he was afraid of older kids.Nooooo! Not my intention! His perception of my words had tainted how he saw the world around him and how he perceived himself in the face of older kids. It took over a year to undo the fruit that my ten second statement produced.
How much did this affect his self-image? I don’t exactly know, however I know that he  began to be self-aware in a non constructive way. His age became a negative thing in some environments. Moreover he began to realize that he was much taller than his peers who assumed he was seven and didn't quickly rush to play with him. He began to feel like an outsider. Although he learned how to play by himself during our playground excursions, as I watched his eyes, I could see the longing for interaction. God is good and inevitably other children would come along and my son’s world would be as he wanted it to be.
Loving well includes counseling our children in an age-appropriate manner, following up with them by asking them what they think was said, praying for them, and continuing this process over and over again as we watch them develop. We can tailor their perceptions if we get into their heads and discover how they are translating the world and our words. But it takes time.The beauty of prayer is that we recognize that some dilemmas take God’s invisible working to fix. He loves our children way more than we can ever love them and we can learn to trust His goodness as a heavenly father.Without direct parental involvement, my oldest son Chris’ self-image was mended through his relationship with God. He writes about his healing process:
“So how do we escape? If we truly are created to be someone different than who we’ve presented others for so many years how do we go back? How do we bring back the man or woman behind the mask?First, we must acknowledge that we’re wearing a mask in the first place, which is easier said than done. Repentance (i.e., changing our mind and how we think) will only come if we understand what falsehood we believe and what the alternative truth is. This is why our second task is to ask God to reveal the difference between who we really are and who we’ve been pretending to be. He’s anxious and happy to do so. This is not a one and done event. It’s a process as God not only shows us who we’ve been pretending to be but also why we’ve been pretending to be them. This journey into the past can bring up painful memories but this is the path to restoration and healing. Finally, we must accept ourselves, our true selves. God has a glorious plan for each and every one of us and it is only by becoming who he created us to be that we’ll be able to accomplish the good works he designed for us.

Although by age fourteen, Chris’ speech impediment was just a memory, his way of coping with the impediment, the mask - a sign of a poor self-image, had turned into a predicament that God has now turned into a wonderful testimony.We don’t want our kids, whether they have a special need or not, to disapprove of themselves and find a mask to put on. If circumstances cause some to have to live with a life-long disability, we want their perception of themselves to be secured by God’s love and founded on God’s identification system.  As they journey through life’s maze, all must acknowledge the reality of human weakness, incapacitating or otherwise, but not allow their challenges skew or sour their self-perception. The Bible says that mankind is created in His image. The spiritual DNA that makes each individual significant is far greater than the physical house that we live in while on the Earth. Ultimately this is the truth that removes the mask and establishes self-image. God is present to tend to the hearts and minds of our children as He whispers affirmation to their personhood.