Parent's attitude's can be a handicap

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 August, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 August, 1993, 12:00am

SARA'S five-year-old son, Philip, is physically handicapped, and she and her husband have tried their best to cope with the situation.

''I know I cannot feel sorry for myself,'' Sara said. ''And I want to be strong for my son.'' Regardless of what Sara tells herself, however, she is often overcome by depression.

Though she tries hard to deny her sadness over Philip's condition, she is daily confronted with the reality: first, she has to take care of Philip; second, she is clearly aware of how people react to him as a crippled child.

For most parents it can take years to come to terms with, and fully accept, a child's handicap. It is not uncommon that many, like Sara, shut down their emotions in order to put up a strong front and cope with the stressful routine.

However, when parents suppress their emotions they may unintentionally lose touch with their child's emotions and overlook their pain and suffering.

In many cases they even project their idea of ''being strong'' by suppressing feelings on to the handicapped child.

Generally people can look at a handicapped child and feel empathy for their physical limitations.

Yet often they don't think of how the handicap has affected a child emotionally. Since most children are unable to articulate their frustration and unhappiness, adults may conclude that they are fine emotionally.

At the same time children simply don't know how to express complex emotional feelings. They depend on the perceived attitudes and emotional reactions of their parents.

In Philip's case, he is old enough to realise he is different from other children his age.

He has already experienced the frustrations and restrictions of his lack of mobility. Yet seeing how his mother copes with emotions and her emphasis on ''being strong'' confuses him. This perhaps makes him reject his own emotions.

Parents who have not yet come to a total acceptance of their child's handicap tend to see the handicap as a representative of the total being of the child.

When the child displays emotional problems, such as listlessness or withdrawal, they tend to see it as a direct effect of the handicap.

They do not try to understand how the problem has come about in the course of the child's everyday experiences as a person, regardless of the disability.

For handicapped children their disability is simply part of them. Their attention is not exclusively focused on the issue in the same way as parental attention is. But their parents will be the major vehicles in helping them to learn to live with, and either overcome or compensate for, the handicap.

Unless parents can come to accept the handicap, they are in no position to assist their child. First of all they need to be truthful to their own feelings.

They have to get rid of their own deception that they should not feel sorry for themselves or even be angry at being in such a position.

Many parents believe if they feel this way they are betraying and rejecting their own child. The fact is, whether people directly express such feelings or not, most of the time the feelings are there.

When parents allow themselves to feel the emotions brought on by the situation, they are more likely to empathise with their child.

The important thing is for parents to properly give vent to such feelings; to direct any expression of frustration toward the situation itself and not at the child.

At the same time, when parents acknowledge their own feelings they are also giving their child permission to acknowledge his.

Coming to accept a physical handicap can be a long, tough journey for most children. It is inevitable that they will experience emotional ups and downs. Therefore it is important that they learn to accept and give vent to such feelings.

Cathy Tsang-Feign is a licensed psychotherapist and author of the new book Self-Help for Foreigners. Her office is at the Vital Life Centre: 877-8206.