SEN parenting, Stoicism

Stoicism for special needs parents – could the philosophy of the ancient Stoics be helpful when bringing up a child with disabilities?

four_caryatids_erechtheum_acropolis1Many modern philosophers and health practitioners believe that the ancient philosophy of Stoicism is still highly relevant today.

According to the Stoics, the route to a peaceful mind lies in being clear about what we can and can’t control in our lives.  Some things are simply out of our control and we should not waste energy on trying to change them. We should expect to come across hard times and embrace them.

According to Stoicism, misfortune is all part of life and is just accepted – carry on regardless.  It’s all ok!

That’s all very well, you may be thinking, but what about those people out there who are really suffering – day in day out? People living with chronic illness, disabilities, depression, bereavement and grief?

And when it’s our children who are suffering, it’s harder still to make sense of. As parents, it’s our job to protect our children and it’s very hard to see them facing the constant challenges that their disabilities bring. The pain we feel for them is very real, as is the grief for the life that they ‘should have had’. Isn’t it human and perfectly natural to grieve and to feel pain and loss when something really bad has happened to our loved ones?

In my experience, yes absolutely. And it is also very easy to get trapped into this mindset. ‘It’s not fair, it should never have happened, he didn’t deserve this.’ And to feel resentment at the rest of the world for the prejudice and lack of acceptance that people so often demonstrate. It’s not surprising that many special needs parents feel so isolated and that they and their child are ‘hard done by’ that they have to face all these challenges.

It’s enough to keep us angry for a lifetime, living in a perpetual state of resentment and regret and forever dwelling on the injustice that life has served.

Could a stoic approach be helpful to parents of children with disabilities? Many of us are just too exhausted to find solutions, coping mechanisms, we just function. Just getting through another day can feel like a miracle. When we are praised for our strength and resilience, or even for how stoic we are, we can’t help but wonder ‘what choice do I have?’

After many months working with a very good counsellor, talking about my own son’s brain injury and associated challenges, I’m realising that acceptance is key. Yes this is hard, it’s very hard. And that’s ok. I can’t fix it. That’s ok too.

(I’m still working on this mindset..)

The Stoics taught that we should see things as they are, without prejudice or expectation. This approach helps us to accept what can’t be changed, take action where we can and to move forward with courage and persistence to overcome our obstacles. This is much easier when we are not overwhelmed with negative emotions and judgements about how things ‘should be’.

It is clearly not an easy philosophy to apply to parenting a child with disabilities. The fact remains that there are numerous obstacles to overcome. All too often, it feels like an uphill struggle and a constant battle. It is very difficult not to make judgements about how things ‘should have been’.

But we all need a code to live by, tools to help us make sense of it all and to help us navigate the minefield while trying to make sure that our own needs and the needs of our children are met.

From what I understand, Stoicism does not mean shrugging off our challenges; and it doesn’t mean that we should not feel our pain. More that we learn to let go of the negative stuff we cling to – the anger and frustrations. To keep our thoughts ordered and controlled so we can face those challenges with strength and inner-stability, which is surely something worth aiming for.

There seems to be a common misconception that the Stoics were cold and unemotional. To feel and overcome emotions is not the same as not to feel them at all. There is an excellent explanation on this topic here, by author and psychotherapist Donald Robertson.

So, for those out there facing a life less ordinary, yes it is true that we have a lifetime’s work ahead of us. Perhaps, if we can try to face the day to day challenges using the cardinal virtues that the Stoics referred to (wisdom, courage, morality and self-discipline), we may begin to feel some inner-peace.

I have been reading a great book on this topic, one I would highly recommend. It’s called ‘Stoicism and the Art of Happiness’ – Donald Robertson.

“It does not matter what you bear, but how you bear it” – Seneca

1 thought on “Stoicism for special needs parents – could the philosophy of the ancient Stoics be helpful when bringing up a child with disabilities?”

  1. Thank you so much for this intelligent and understanding consideration on Stoicism as it touches your challenging life. It is not an easy ‘philosophy’ to uphold, but then life itself is difficult, so it would be foolish to expect it to be easy all of the time. As you obviously well know, life with disabilities is far from easy, but having a backing such as Stoicism, can help to make sense of it all.

    Like

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