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How to Help Parents of Children with Special Needs Using the Ring Theory

Alethea Mshar
Special needs mom and Blogger
09/12/17  11:20 AM PST
special needs parents

How to Help Parents of Children with Special Needs Using the Ring Theory

My son was going through yet another medical crisis, and everyone was worried.  Every phone call I got was somebody checking in on him, and when the report wasn’t good (because at that time it was never good), they would express worry and concern about him, about me and my husband and the rest of our family and everything else. Or if it wasn’t concern it was advice, most of which was entirely superfluous.  It made me feel like I was going to explode or implode or somehow simultaneously do both.  

The Ring Theory

Then my sister came along with this fabulous article about a “Ring Theory,” devised by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman.  The Ring Theory is simply summarized as “comfort in and dump out”, and it looks like this:

Being the parent and primary caregiver of a child with a disability and major medical diagnosis puts me in orbit right around my child, and essentially gives me a hedge against anyone dumping on me other than my child or spouse.  In other words, no matter how much friends and family members care about his wellbeing or mine, they absolutely mustn’t dump their concerns on me. Period.

The Ring Theory recognizes that a person in crisis and their primary caregivers require complete protection from carrying the burden of anyone else’s difficult feelings, and in fact, considers burdening a person in crisis or anyone in a smaller ring than yours “wrong”.  The article goes on to say that:  “Complaining to someone in a smaller ring than yours doesn’t do either of you any good. On the other hand, being supportive to her principal caregiver may be the best thing you can do for the patient.”

Be Careful with What You Say

Of course this doesn’t mean that you can’t say anything when you’re upset about a loved one’s child being in the hospital again; what it means is that you need to ensure that every single word you say to the child and primary caregivers is supportive, caring, non-judgemental, and comforting.  

When in doubt, silence is better than saying something that is anything other than supportive.  

You might need to process some big feelings when a loved one’s child has a disability or medical crisis, but pause and make sure that you aren’t burdening someone in a smaller ring with your concerns.

Why Does This Matter?

As the primary caregiver of a child with a disability and complex medical concerns, I am constantly treading water.  Sometimes the water is calm and I am doing alright, and sometimes I’m in the middle of a storm and barely keeping my nose above the surface, but no matter the situation, when someone “dumps in” on me, it shoves me beneath the surface and forces me to use crucial energy stores to cope with the dumping.  My child and the rest of my family and I deserve to have access to those energy stores for our own purposes, to survive and thrive and manage each day.  If you see us struggling to do things right, walk alongside us. Being supportive will do far more good than giving advice or expressing concern.  

And as the article says, just about everyone has a turn in the center ring eventually, and then you can say whatever you’d like.  

More Help for Special Needs Parents:


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