Book Review: Not What I Expected: Help and Hope for Parents of Atypical Children

The truth of this book and the truth of your journey from diagnosis to acceptance is that unless you acknowledge your own vulnerability and develop your ability for self-compassion, your growth as a parent will not fully be complete. Guilt and self-blame are heavy stones in your boat as you row down this river. Compassion for yourself is wind in your sails.” (p. 217)

It isn’t hard to find books about parenting children with special needs. It’s a little more rare to find ones that explain what parents need in order to equip and take care of themselves. And that’s interesting – because to be our best as parents, we do need to take care of ourselves. Not What I Expected is that kind of book; its purpose is to help parents understand what they may be feeling and work through the process of building a mentally and emotionally healthy life for themselves and their families.

Discovering that your child has special needs is the beginning of an emotional process in learning and problem-solving. Many of us have heard of the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Often the assumption is that we need to move through the earlier stages as quickly as possible so that we can be best able to function and help our child.

Actually, each stage has strengths, and each stage helps the griever to work through the steps they need to take. For example, denial and anger are often seen as unproductive, or a block to finding help, but denial also protects us from the intensity of our emotions so that we can make a plan, and anger can give us the impetus we need to make changes. Dr. Eichenstein draws from brain research as well as other sources to unpack the purpose and healthy expression of each stage, as well as pointing out what might keep someone “stuck” in a stage in a less healthy way. She also points out that working through these stages is not linear. As we heal and grow and encounter new stages in family life, we may move back and forth through these stages.

The author weaves anecdotes and helpful illustrations throughout the book, and she concludes with a chapter on proactive choices parents can make to help themselves towards wholeness, healing, and compassion. The importance of having a social network of support – family, faith-based, or cultural – is particularly important.

Parenting children with special needs is certainly a life-changing challenge. But as the author points out, our children make our lives richer and help us to grow in ways we may never have imagined.

Recommended for parents, clinicians and medical professionals, and those who care about families of children with special needs.


This review was originally shared on the Community Living Manitoba website.

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