by Kathleen Welch-Torres, Ph.D.

“Kids don’t come with instruction booklets.”

Kids don’t come with instruction booklets. It’s not uncommon for parents to feel alone and at a loss as to what to do when children come into their lives, as well as when their kids reach new developmental stages. Although this is true for all parents, parents of children with special needs can feel even more isolated. But no one needs to go through the ups and downs, challenges and joys of parenting alone. There are parent support groups throughout the country that meet both in-person and online, where parents can share and offer support to each other.

Here is more information about what they offer parents:

1. They have answers to your questions. Your pediatrician can offer you a lot when you attend appointments. But there is nothing like hearing from another parent who has walked your path when you are struggling with a picky eater, or an inconsistent sleeper. By talking with other parents, you may hear ways of coping with challenges that you never thought of before. If you have a child with a disability or mental health condition like Autism or OCD, you can find groups that provide insights that are particularly fitted to your family’s situation. And with the internet, they are only a few clicks away, even if you live in a remote area.

2. You’ll know you are not alone. It’s one of those days. You come home from work, and there’s a message from your child’s teacher that they have misbehaved in school, the dog needs to be walked, and your teen is ready for a fight about taking the car Saturday night. Parent support groups help you make connections with other parents who understand how you feel, can lend an understanding ear, or perhaps even offer helpful advice.

3. They are great places to find resources. When you connect with parents through a parent support group, you’ll find yourself “in-the-know” about your community’s best childcare options, discount toy retailers, the best children’s books, sources of information for special-needs children and more.

4. They are a safe place to express yourself. We all feel angry or overwhelmed sometimes. While it’s OK for your child to know you are human and have feelings, you don’t always want to vent the worst of it in front of your little ones. Your parent support group is made up of people who “get it,” and you can feel OK about letting it out in their presence.

5. You’ll find people who celebrate with you. When your child gets an “A” in school, or the lead in the school play, you want to celebrate. Childless friends might not always understand the big deal, but people in your parent support group will understand your gleeful response. Children with special needs often are slower to develop than their typically developing peers. So, it may not be comfortable to talk to just anyone when your special-needs toddler says his first word, or your older child learns to walk on her own. A parent support group that specializes in parents of special-needs children will be full of people who understand the magnitude of your child’s accomplishment and the depth of your pride.

Ask your pediatrician or mental health provider about parenting support groups in your area. Or, search the internet for groups near you. If your child has a disability or mental health disorder, ask about groups that specialize in bringing together parents whose children have that in common.

“No one needs to go through the ups and downs, challenges and joys of parenting alone.”