Dr. Gary Chapman is the author of the bestselling “The 5 Love Languages” series. The five love languages are words of affirmation, physical touch, gifts, quality time and acts of service. Chapman and Jolene Philo recently co-authored “Sharing Love Abundantly in Special Needs Families: The 5 Love Languages for Parents Raising Children with Disabilities.” Chapman lives in North Carolina with his wife, Karolyn.
For those who don’t have personal experience with people with disabilities, how can they have conversations without sounding uninformed?
“Often, we are reluctant to talk to the parents about their child with special needs because we don’t know enough about it and feel uneasy bringing it up,” Chapman said. “But, it’s just like your child is to you. Just like you like to tell things about your child, they like to talk about their child. I think once we break that barrier and say to them, ‘How’s Johnny doing lately?’ Whether it’s positive or negative, they need to talk about it, and we’re expressing concern for them.”
What would you say to parents who might wonder why they had a child with special needs?
“I think there are many things that happen in life where the ‘why’ question is a normal, logical question to ask,” Chapman said. “The ‘why’ question with a child with special needs is a normal question, and sometimes we’re afraid to ask it because it seems like we’re questioning God. You look in the Bible, people ask questions of God. Read the Psalms and David often said, ‘I don’t get this.’ God wants to use everything in our lives for good, and He wants to do things in us through this child with special needs. He wants to teach us and other people things. They have a role to play in that … It’s been said, ‘When you can’t trace His hand, trust His heart.’”
When “typical” children are reaching milestones, how can families overcome comparison?
“Even when we see a typical child excel in school or sports, we compare them to other children,” Chapman said. “Just like we compare ourselves with other people. It doesn’t lead us to anywhere positive. God has made each of us uniquely different. There are no two children with special needs alike. So (think about) how I as a parent can help this child develop to reach their potential and to utilize their lives in a way to have a positive influence on others. Let’s remember, God has used people with disabilities in a very powerful way … even if all that child can do is smile, imagine how they can use that smile in some adult who’s been grumbling.”
How do you balance the time and energy you devote to your child with disabilities and your other children?
“Here is where the five love languages can be extremely helpful, because each of the children need to feel loved and each child has a primary love language,” Chapman said. “I say to parents, ‘The question is not do you love your children? The question is do your children feel loved?’ So with the stress on time, it’s very helpful if the parent knows what the primary love language of the typical child is because now they can use the time they do have and invest it in the best possible way to communicate to that child, ‘I love you.’ The second part is teaching the typical child that all of us need to feel loved: ‘You know, mother, daddy, you and Johnny have a love tank, so we want to fill each other’s love tank.’”
How do you discover the primary love language of a child with special needs?
Chapman’s first three questions apply to all children and the last three are added as a small difference to help parents find the love language of their special needs child.
1. What does my child like to do? “They are typically doing to you what they want. For my son, about the age of 4, when I came home from work, he would run to the door, grab my leg and climb up on me. He wants to be touched. That’s his love language. My daughter never did that. She would say, ‘Come to my room, I want to show you something.’ She wanted quality time.”
2. What do they complain about? “Like the 6-year-old who says to his mother, ‘We don’t ever go to the park anymore since the baby came.’ He’s complaining about it. He had her undivided attention and that’s not happening anymore. That tells you clearly his love language is quality time.”
3. What do they request of you? “‘Mommy, can we play a game together?’ If they’re asking for you to come and do things with them, they’re asking for quality time. Or if they say, ‘Could you give me a backrub or tickle my feet?’ They’re asking for physical touch.”
4. What calms my child? “If they’re agitated, what calms them down? If I come down and give them a hug, start saying positive things or if I start doing something with them, does that calm them down? Typically, one of these five love languages will be more calming than the other.”
5. What motivates them? “What love language causes or motivates them to use the abilities they have?”
6. Where does my child choose to spend their time? “If they spend their time playing with animals, probably physical touch is their language. If they spend their time talking, it’s either quality time or words of affirmation.”
How do married couples create spaces to “breathe” as parents of a child with special needs?
“Understanding your spouse’s primary love language and making sure you speak that on a regular basis will keep you emotionally connected while you’re going through all of those things that can put a strain on a marriage,” Chapman said. “We say the emotional glue of a marriage is tested when there’s a special needs child. In the book, we discuss some stress points.”
> Time: increased doctor, therapy and teacher appointments.
> Finances: such as the high costs of therapy.
> Guilt/grief: “Parents sometimes feel guilty they can’t fix their child. There’s grief when a child doesn’t reach the next milestone.”
> Isolation: Caring for the child can often become lonely for the mother.
> Geographic separation: such as when the child must have treatments out of town.
> Worry about future: Two parental worries are if the child dies too young or if the child outlives them.
> Lack of support from family and friends: “We’re not going to say, ‘If I can ever help, call me.’ We’re going to say, ‘I want to help in some way. Could I come and spend some time with the child so that eventually I can sit with them for an afternoon while you take a walk or nap? The parent has to go against their inclination that this is their responsibility and I can carry this load. I would say, ‘Don’t allow your hesitancy to think you’re going to burden somebody else by asking for help, but let the word get out to your friends and family.’”