We are outsiders when we come into another culture. Foreigners. The guests. Our kids feel it too. They don’t fit the mold, and sometimes they have problems making friends and finding their niche at school, church, or in other group settings. But what happens when your child is WAY outside the mold? What if they have a learning disability? Or an emotional condition? What if they are in need of an educational resource that just isn’t available in the country where you live? Is it time to throw in the towel, and head home to where public schools accommodate special needs and therapy sessions are free?
No child really “fits the mold” but what do you do when the health and peace of your family is threatened by your child’s struggles? What happens when your role turns from simply “missionary mom” to “therapy mom?”
This year I’ve had to work through all of these questions. Both of my children go to a local bi-lingual international school that graciously offers a discount to missionary families. The school has great academics and a student body made up of nationals and expats. We quickly enrolled our daughter when we moved here two and a half years ago.
Fast forward to this past year, and things were not going so smoothly for my kids. My son, age 5, was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder which contributed to significant speech and fine motor skill problems in school. Doing academic work in both Spanish and English seemed to aggravate things. Meanwhile, my daughter, age 7, was a constant frustration to teachers as she began to work well above her grade level and question teachers and classroom routines. Rewards and behavior charts did not seem to be helping, and every morning was a battle to get her out the door to school, which she found “boring.”
I know that many of you reading this have been through far worse struggles concerning your children. You may have had to leave the countries where you are serving, or battle your U.S. public school system for services. I admire so many mothers that have done that. I don’t know how you do it, because I began to fall apart in my efforts to help my children succeed in school each week. We started to consider other options but because of our ministry schedule, my responsibilities, and our children's needs we felt homeschooling was not the right choice for our family at this time. I found myself praying, begging actually, for God to intervene. I didn’t know what to do as my son continued to fall behind, and the school was consistently sending negative reports home concerning my daughter.
Through all of this, I have been reminded of God’s great faithfulness. We seem to remember to count on Him for the big things like providing finances and helping our ministries. I have learned this year that He also cares about how our children are doing in school, and that He listens to a mother’s desperate cries. Through our children’s school, we were connected to a bi-lingual speech and occupational therapist that works with our son each week and gives us strategies to work with him at home. He made a dramatic turnaround in school once he started therapy. We were also connected with a bi-lingual educational psychologist, who gave us some direction concerning our daughter. We have been able to develop a good plan for her education in this upcoming school year. The fact that we’ve found these helpful professionals is evidence that God is working in our children’s lives.
But I must be honest, it’s not easy. These services are private and costly. They cut into finances that could be spent other ways. They take our family away from time we could be spending together, even serving together. My faith has wavered as I question why God would call us to a place where our children would struggle. In the States, resources would be free and I could connect with other families walking through the same thing. But that’s not the plan right now. The plan is to be here, and sometimes the plan includes “counting the cost” financially and emotionally.
I wanted to write this post to reach out to those of you who are in this same place. I know you are out there. I know there are many mothers who wish their child could just “go with the flow” and fit into the school system where you live. You may be thinking, "Other children seem to do it without all the issues...why can't my child?" I know that there are other moms who are homeschooling and trying to get through each day, balancing teaching and ministry, so that their child can get a good education in a way that works for that child.
So, how do you cope? What do you do if your child doesn’t “fit the mold” and you have to go to Plan B? I don’t have all the answers, but I wanted to share some practical things I have learned over this past year.
1. Ask people to pray for your child. This seems like a no-brainer. Obviously we are missionaries and we have people praying for us all the time! At least that’s what I thought but I had a fellow missionary mom here in El Salvador challenge me to ask for specific prayer for our children. When I know people are praying, I somehow feel less alone.
2. Research what your child needs. There are many articles, book reviews, and general information available on the Internet. We moms are good at finding out how to meet our child’s needs so take advantage of all the information that is out there. I've had to take time away from other things simply so I could dedicate time to researching how to advocate for my children.
3. Find out what resources are available in your host country. Depending on where you are, there may be nothing available but don’t make that assumption without investigating. Talk to local international schools that have bi-lingual students, or connect with someone in the U.S. Embassy. Because many services are provided in the States, many embassies also provide them to their employees and they may have a list of local therapists. We live in the capital, so we have some interaction with embassy workers, and I have discovered resources available to bi-lingual students through these connections.
4. Check with your insurance to see if they will cover some of the payment. In some countries, therapy isn’t covered by any kind of insurance but you don’t know if you don’t ask. Right now, we are working with our national insurance company to see if they will pay for a portion (even a small portion) of the therapy costs since some of it is medically related.
5. Get support from other moms. To be completely honest, I don’t have much support. That is one reason I wanted to write this post. I don’t know of any online groups specifically for parents dealing with special issues with their kids overseas. I’m sure they are out there, I just haven’t found them. I also don’t know of any in-country support groups either. Watching your child struggle is hard; we moms need each other.
Raising a child that doesn’t fit the mold is tough no matter where you do it, and adding cross-cultural and language issues can mean a lot more stress for everyone involved. I never anticipated this being a major struggle that I would experience as a missionary. But here it is. It is part of my life, and part of our family’s story and testimony to God’s work in our lives as we serve Him in El Salvador. I hope that you can be encouraged that you are not alone, and hopefully we can cheer each other on as we take this journey together.
I would love to hear your stories , and please add your own practical advice on this topic…I am new to all of this and still learning!