Stay Engaged With Your Special Needs Child (Part 1)

Three Reasons Staying Engaged Is So Hard

Our special needs kids have a special place in our hearts.  Each one is precious and unique, placed in our families as a vessel of God’s grace.

At the same time, our special kids bring special challenges that push us beyond what we thought (or think) we can handle.  And the life we would design for ourselves. 

Sometimes it’s easier to disengage and take an unplanned siesta.  I bet you can identify with me. 

My Son, Your Story

After more or less coasting with our autistic son, Matthew, for the last several years, things are changing.  We need to step up our involvement and help him get ready for life after school.

There are days, honestly, where I simply don’t feel like it. 

Just recently, I told my wife about an email exchange with the attorney helping us secure guardianship for Matthew. When it became clear that I was frustrated with all the time it was taking, and had missed an important detail, she expressed concern.

‘I’m worried you’re going to just do what’s expedient, instead of what’s best for Matthew.’

You could have heard a pin drop in my heart.  She was right.  God is calling me to slow down, engage and make some sacrifices for our son.  But it’s hard, and selfishly I don’t always want to.

I’m not sure what challenges you’re facing with your special needs child.  Each of our kids is so different.

And each of us is so different.  Some of you, like me, may sense that God is calling you to get back in the game.  Some of you are giving all you can, but feel exhausted and tempted to give up or step back. 

Staying engaged and trusting God with our special needs kids for the long haul can feel like running a race we haven’t really trained for.  It’s a challenge for at least three reasons.

Read the rest of this post at stephenjbedard.com…

Dads, Are You Making This Big Mistake?

(Or, How To Do Way Better Than I Did)

At the other end of the phone, you could hear a pin drop.

Then a deep sigh.

And then, from my (very handy) father-in-law, ‘What?!  You could have really hurt yourself!’

In my zeal to install metal shelving for my daughter, I had tried to cut it… using a blade for wood in my (power) circular saw.  (I’m probably fortunate to be typing this with both hands!)

Believe it or not, that was a landmark event in my life with a huge takeaway:

I don’t even know what I don’t know.

But unfortunately, I wasn’t savvy enough to apply that lesson to my parenting.  Not yet, anyway.

And I did a lot of damage to my kids in the process.  I’m writing this post to help you dads avoid making the same mistake.  Either now, with your own kids, or later, when you start a family.

Before you scroll down, just for fun, can you guess what my biggest parenting fail was?

discouraged young boy

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Big Hope For Exhausted Parents

exhausted parents with awake baby

Photo Credit: hannanik Flickr via Compfight cc

They didn’t quite say it, but they didn’t have to.  As I looked at the run-over-by-a-truck exhaustion on their faces, then at their bubbly one-year-old, the message was clear.

‘We’re sooo tired.  All. the. time.  We feel like we’ve lost our lives.’

Once upon a time, my wife and I were parents with young children, and we’re around a lot of them now. They have two things in common.  They adore their kids, and, they’re utterly exhausted by their kids.

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Trusting God With Your Special Needs Child

When you find out that your child has special needs, it can feel like your world has ended.

And, in a way, it has.

Still, those of us who have traveled down the path with Jesus know that we can trust him.  Often, though, this trust comes on the other side of some very hard lessons.

Matthew, our son with special needs.

Matthew, our son with special needs.

One World Ends

For me, October 2nd, 2003 had been just like any other afternoon.  That is, until the phone rang.  It was my wife, Sharon. She could barely even speak through her sobbing.  I’ll never forget what she finally blurted out.

‘The doctor thinks Matthew has autism’.

Autism?!  Back then, autism wasn’t big news.  I had heard of it, but that was it.  But based on Sharon’s frenzied reaction, I immediately sensed that it wasn’t good.

In the days and months to come, we tried a million different things and some of them helped.  But not nearly enough to give him anything like a ‘normal life’.

This was the first really big thing that went seriously wrong in my previously charmed life.  The first thing that my drive and intelligence couldn’t fix.  The illusion of my control was failing.  Fast.

Your Story

I know that many of you have your own October 2nd.  The day your own child was diagnosed with a condition you couldn’t fix, or, had something tragic happen.  The day that the life you had scripted went off the rails.  Or, maybe it’s just been a slow realization that things aren’t going to ‘be OK’.

Before I try to share anything else, I just want to tell you that I’m sorry.  Your circumstances and your child(ren) are probably different than mine, so I’m not going to tell you I completely understand.  I don’t.

But even though there are lots of things we can’t understand, there are plenty of things we can.  God has lessons for us to learn,  and our kids with special needs are often our best teachers.

So what can we learn?

I’m (slooowly) learning a million things through Matthew, but I think the most basic one is this:

God can be trusted.  No matter what.

In these last few moments, I want to invite you to think – or re-think – about this with me in the context of your own son or daughter. (Or other life circumstance).

A Harder, Better, World Begins

At this point, you may be thinking, ‘Look, I already know that God can be trusted.  That’s old news.  And honestly, how does that help me?’

I’m a pastor.  For four years at seminary, the idea of God’s trustworthiness was hammered into us.  I knew all about it.  In English, Greek, and Hebrew.  But not really.  I knew about God, but I didn’t actually know or trust him very much.  (A pastor-neighbor later pointed this out to me!)

So we can know something intellectually, but practically have it make very little difference in how we think and act.  God uses the real stuff of day to day life so that our head, heart and hands begin to line up.

It seems like God does his best work through adversity and painful loss.  I often imagine what it was like for Abraham when God told him to sacrifice Isaac, his only son, the one he had waited 100 years for (see Genesis 22).

Those of us with special needs kids – in a way – know what it means to lose the kids that we love.  Sometimes the loss is complete, like the funeral I did for a friend’s son who had lived just a few hours.   More often, as with Matthew, the loss is less complete, but still very painful and real.  Unlike Abraham, we usually don’t have a choice.  But we are asked to respond in trust.  Will we?

It’s true that God called the whole thing with Isaac off just in time.  But before Abraham knew that, he was ready to trust and obey.

More than he had realized, Abraham had come to trust God.   ‘…now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me’ (Genesis 22:12).

Trusting God With Your Special Needs Child (Or Hard Circumstances)

If we’ll truly give – entrust – God with our kids, and keep doing that, we’ll trust him with anything.

When we do, God provides, often in unexpected ways.  In Abraham’s case, just after God spared Isaac, he ‘looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.  So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”’ (13, 14).  

Shortly after Matthew’s diagnosis, we found out his therapy costs would be $10,000-$15,000 a year.  Given our income, it may as well have been the national debt.  As that news sunk in, I got angrier and angrier at God for putting us in an impossible spot.  But, as our dinner guest – our largest donor – rang the doorbell – I figured I would fake it and at at least try to be pleasant.

Honestly, I couldn’t wait for him to leave so that I could wallow in our misfortune.  But as things wound down, he casually mentioned that, if we ever had a need, all we had to do was ask.  Before he left, he had written us a check for $10,000 – enough to cover all Matthew’s therapy costs for the entire year!  He did this every year until Matthew’s schooling was picked up by our new school district.

Before our friend’s visit, I ‘knew’ God could be trusted, but now I really knew.  Matthew is God’s son even more than he is mine, and somehow, some way, he will provide.  It’s a moment I’ve come back to again and again.

But back to you and your story.  Where are you struggling to trust God today?  It may be with your own special needs child, or, just some other really tough circumstance.  I hope that, no matter where you are, the following questions will help you to reflect and put your trust in the God who provides.

How are you (really) doing with trusting God with your special needs child or difficult circumstances?  How have you seen God provide for you specifically in the past?

 

 

Four Big Lessons For Your Thirties

30 was so strange for me. I really had to come to terms with the fact that I’m now a walking, talking adult.

— CS Lewis

If CS Lewis said it, it must be true, right?  Thirty – and the decade that follows – is a wonderful, ‘strange’ decade where we come of age.  Some time ago, I did a post on 7 lessons for our twenties, and here this occasional series continues with some lessons for our thirties.

30 Años eljoja via Compfight

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Dads, Stay Close To Your Daughter

(This article first appeared at desiringGod.org.)

Ugh.

After another difficult interaction with our teenage daughter, I felt like screaming. My wife patiently listened to my venting, and she calmly but firmly spoke words I’ll never forget.

“I know you’re frustrated. I get it. But you’re the parent. She needs more from you. She needs you to move toward her and stay close.”

I was too annoyed to respond, but I knew she was right.

Silly picture with my daughters Carissa & Anna.

Outtake with my daughters Carissa (left) & Anna (right)

Tough, Important Times

I suspect most dads with teenage daughters can relate. You may find yourself wondering where that sweet little girl went. The one who sat on your lap, followed your advice, and freely shared her heart while you played together with her toys and sang “Jesus Loves Me.”

But now, things are different. One moment your daughter thinks you’re the Best Dad Ever, then says, “I can’t stand you,” the next. Trust and obedience are replaced by suspicion and endless boundary-testing. Sometimes it feels like you only see her when she wants something from you.

In these moments, it’s so easy to pull back. To tell yourself you’ve tried. To withdraw — bitter, angry, and hurt. To convince yourself all you can do now is pray and wait.

As someone who has failed significantly in this area, yet seen God work powerfully, I want to encourage and challenge you. To remind you that God has sovereignly placed you in your daughter’s life to model, as her earthly father, her perfect heavenly Father.

Fathers, your daughter needs you to stay close to her.

Our All-Important Foundation

If we want to be close to our daughters, we need to be close to our heavenly Father first, pursuing him as our greatest Treasure. Often busyness, apathy, interruptions from kids, and the pull of social media and entertainment make it hard to find consistent time with our Lord. But we need to persist, trusting that God “rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).

When we persevere, we’ll find with king David that God’s “steadfast love is better than life” (Psalm 63:3). And with the apostle Paul, we will learn to “count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). In many ways, maturity as fathers is simply coming to know and experience, more and more, how beautiful and awesome God is.

While I’m nowhere near as close to Christ as I’d like to be, desiring to move closer to him is transforming me — and my relationship with my daughters. As his greatness and grace toward me become more real, I’m finding it easier and easier to extend grace toward them too. And to be the kind of father with whom they want to be close.

Dads, I want to urge you to pursue intimacy with Christ as your highest priority. If you do, you’ll find that staying closer to your daughter will eventually follow.

Eight Ways to Stay Close

If we’re growing in our own thirst and desire for Christ, the rest of these will start to flow much more naturally.

1. Gently model unconditional love and grace (Matthew 26:30–32; Galatians 6:1). While we need to be reminded that we, as dads, need to be the humble “buckstopper” in our homes, many of us struggle with being harsh and angry. Our daughters need us to be tough on sin, but even firmer on their Savior’s grace.

2. Come alongside them in their insecurity and affirm them (see Judges 6:11–18, especially verse 12). Teen girls feel pressure to look a certain way, wear certain clothing, and be friends with the “right people.” We need to remind them that if they are born again, Jesus has made them acceptable forever, and that nothing can change that.

3. Protect them sacrificially (John 15:12–15). Our culture encourages girls to dress immodestly and find their identity in guys’ approval. So, our role as fathers, created in the image of the Great Shepherd, includes helping them understand how men’s minds work and what’s appropriate to wear, and (especially) helping them find their value in Christ.

4. Just listen (James 1:19). While we’re tempted to “fix” their problems immediately, our teen daughters mainly want us to listen, care, and understand. This often creates an atmosphere of trust where we can offer the input they need.

5. When you mess up, confess it (James 5:16). If we’re rooted deeply in Christ, we’ll find this easier and easier. I’ve been amazed at how quickly a simple but genuine apology often heals a rift with my daughters.

6. Be present. At home, we easily get distracted by our phones, television, and work. As we look at Jesus’s example, though, it’s amazing how much time he spent with his disciples — and how he gave them his undivided attention. Our daughters need positive male attention, and we have the privilege of leading the way, if we’re willing to set other things aside and engage them.

7. Remember that God has made each of our daughters differently. My two teen daughters are so different that sometimes we wonder if they’re really both ours! I love how sisters Mary and Martha come to Jesus with the same lament after Lazarus dies, yet Jesus responds very differently (John 11:23–35). What works with one of our daughters may not benefit the other.

8. Go on regular daddy-daughter dates. Most teen girls love to talk, eat, and connect. Several months ago I (re)started taking each of them out for breakfast every two weeks. During these undistracted times, they often share their hearts in ways they don’t at home, and they come away feeling special. And they are!

With God’s help, what steps could you take to move closer to your daughter (or son) during these crucial teenage years?

Dads, Notice & Praise Your Stay-At-Home-Mom Wives

Practical Advice From Proverbs 31

When I see all that my wife does for our family and home, I’m not sure how she does it all.  Wife, mom, administrator, accountant, food buyer, cook, taxi driver, keeper of the family calendar, school liaison, and (I’m writing in December) Christmas Season ninja.

Stay-at-home-moms are amazing.

And yet, it’s easy for us to unintentionally take them for granted.  But as husbands, God’s calling for us is to notice and give thanks for all they are and do.

My wife, Sharon, snuggling at home with our son Braedon.

My wife, Sharon, snuggling at home with our son Braedon.

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8 More Ways You Can Love Your Family While You’re Still In School (And Beyond)

When you’re still in school, life can become full and the people we love most can start to feel neglected. And yet, we want to honor God’s call to ‘love our [very closest] neighbor as ourselves’ (Matthew 22:38).

How do we do it well?

Ojas' First ShootCreative Commons License Harsha K R via Compfight

This is the final post of a four-part guest post series for the Emerging Scholars Network‘s (ESN) blog, a terrific resource for connecting your life in Christ with your academic or professional training.

In Part 1 I explore the real reason we struggle so fiercely to balance our time at home with our academic work or professional training.  Part 2 tackles 3 specific, common issues behind that core struggle so we can fight against it more successfully.  In Part 3, I share 7 practical ways we can love our families (or anyone) while we’re still in school.  (Hint: most of these apply even when you’re out in the working world, too.)

To wrap the series up, I share 8 more practical ways you can make space to love your spouse and kids while you’re still in school.  (Or, just have a full, busy life.)

What did I miss?  I’d love to hear your own ideas in the comments section.

The Real Reason We Keep Putting Our Work First

Guest Post Series: How To Love Your Spouse, Kids (And Anyone, Really) While You're Still In School (Part 1)

How do you care for your spouse and kids while you’re still in school?  It sounds so simple, but those of us with families know that balancing time at home and work feels like an endless tug-of-war.

I’m thankful for the chance to guest post with ESN’s Scholar’s Compass blog on this topic on Sundays in April.  In part one of the series, I explore the ultimate reason why we struggle to over-prioritize our work at the expense of our families and others we love.

tug of war

photo by Oliver Tam via freeimages.com

By the way, if you’re not familiar with Scholar’s Compass, it’s a great blog dedicated to helping people in academia keep Christ at the center of their lives.  Definitely worth checking out!

Redeeming Halloween

Plus A Quick History Of Halloween

‘I can’t wait!  Oh yeah!’

Given the off-the-charts enthusiasm, you might have thought we had just announced our family was heading to Disneyland.  As it turns out, it didn’t take that much.  My daughter had just remembered Halloween – and lots of candy – was almost here.

Not all Christians greet Halloween with such enthusiasm, though.  Some parents don’t allow their kids to participate at all, worried that the holiday is steeped in pagan origins. Others think that’s a ridiculous overreaction and don’t give it a second thought.

Should Christian parents allow their kids to participate?  And if we do, how can we do it thoughtfully?

boo-ya!Creative Commons License debaird™ via Compfight

Pagan Origins?

Like many things, the history of Halloween is long and complex.  But its basic contours are pretty clear.

Halloween has its roots in traditions of the Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France.   Their new year began on November 1st, and served as the boundary between summer and harvest on the one hand, and winter and (happy thoughts) death on the other.

Celtic people celebrated the festival of Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-en’) on the night before their new year (October 31st).  During this time, they believed that the spirits of the dead returned to earth, not only causing trouble, but also enabling Druids (Celtic priests) to make prophecies about the future.  In a culture that was highly dependent on a natural world outside their control, these prophecies seemed to offer certainty as winter set in.

As part of the festival, the priests built massive bonfires, with people coming together to burn crops and sacrifice animals to the Celtic deities.  The people wore costumes and tried to predict each other’s fortunes, too.

Halloween In America

As people from these regions came to the United States, their traditions came with them and mixed with others to take on an American flavor.  Early ‘play parties’ included telling fortunes, stories of the dead, and singing and dancing. The holiday also involved mischief and ghost stories.  During the second half of the 19th century, people started to dress up in costumes, going from home to home asking for money or food.  Young women believed they could make predictions about their future husbands by using tricks of various types.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Halloween in America had lost most of its superstitious and religious underpinnings. Later, from 1920-50, the practice of trick-or-treating was revived and Halloween took on the form we’re familiar with today, with costumes and (lots of) candy.  These days, we spend about $6 billion dollars per year (or $80 per household) on Halloween, making it second only to Christmas in terms of commercial holidays.

Should We Participate?

So what do we do with all this?  Given Halloween’s history, should we participate?

You won’t find the word ‘Halloween’, of course, anywhere in the concordance at the back of your bible.  Or, any passages that address it in a pointed way.  So, we need to leave significant room for discussion and freedom in terms of our practice.

There are though, principles that can guide us.  Let’s look at some of them by asking a few questions.

  1. Is it wrong to participate in something with pagan origins?  This is a fair question, and as we’ve seen, Halloween is steeped in traditions that involve worship of other gods.  But in recent memory, Halloween has become a purely secular holiday with no practical associations with its pagan origins. Furthermore, Halloween also has connections to All Souls’ Day, a long-standing attempt of the church to offer a healthier alternative.  (Although it, too, had elements that aren’t biblical.)  So, our participation in Halloween’s modern incarnation does not in and of itself involve false worship, and we shouldn’t reject it on those grounds.
  2. OK, so it’s not wrong in and of itself, but couldn’t my participation confuse the people around me?  With our secular neighbors, I think the opportunities for confusion are pretty limited.  The only thing our family avoids is having our kids dress up as angels, devils or witches (or similar).  The bible does clearly mention that behind our world lies an unseen, sometimes evil, world that influences it in powerful ways (see 1 Corinthians 11:14-15, 1 Peter 5:8 for just two examples).  Witchcraft in the bible is forbidden because it’s an attempt to exhibit God-like control over our world instead of relying on the Lord (e.g., Deuteronomy 18:10-13).  And when people meet angels in the bible, they generally respond in fear (e.g., Luke 2:10).  You don’t hang out with an angel over a cup of coffee at Starbucks.  So, because of our culture’s tendency for trivializing spiritual things, we try to avoid those aspects of the holiday.  (Which are thankfully pretty minor.)

In a nutshell, then, I think Christians have real freedom to participate in Halloween without guilt or reservation so long as they aren’t glib about things that have spiritual weight.

An Awesome Opportunity

More than that, though, it’s a great opportunity to build relationships with our neighbors, teach moderation, and model generosity.

  1. Building relationships.  When else do you get invited over to the houses of everyone in your entire neighborhood?  OK, so the invitations aren’t exactly personal and you don’t get to go inside, but it’s still pretty cool.  And fun.  If you’re intentional and prayerful, you can have some great (if abbreviated) interactions with neighbors who want to connect.
  2. Not playing into stereotypes.  Fairly or not (probably both), sometimes Christians are portrayed as awkward, isolated and weird in our culture.  There are certainly things to take a stand for, but based on what I see in the bible, Halloween isn’t one of them.  When we participate, we join our local community and avoiding playing into stereotypes unnecessarily.
  3. Teaching moderation.  Remember that $6 billion figure from up above?  Well, $3.5 billion of that gets spent on candy.  That may make your dentist drool, but your chompers and the rest of you can only take so much.  And honestly, I struggle not to over-indulge in my kids’ take-home haul.  (Especially the Reese’s peanut butter cups.)  So, Halloween is a great opportunity to model moderation and help our kids do the same.  As Paul put it, ” ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful… and ‘I will not be enslaved by anything’.” (1 Corinthians 6:12)
  4. Practicing generosity.  Christians have a reputation (some of it fair) for focusing on rules and restrictions. Halloween is a great chance to chip away at that and bless the people around us.  What if we gave away full-size candy bars?  Or were known for having the best candy on the block?  There are other ways to practice creative generosity, too.  In our family, we give our kids (more than) their share of whatever they bring in, then donate the rest.  (One year, for example, we found a program that sent the extra candy to our troops overseas.)

When it comes to Halloween, it’s easy to either write it off, or, just participate without much thought.  With just a bit of thought, it gives us a chance to think more biblically, hopefully landing at a place that’s more nuanced and blesses both us and those around us.

Let’s live it out: Where does your family stand on Halloween?  How does that play out specifically in your practices?  Share it with us in the comments below!