Article 4 in a series

This article covers the fourth stage of adaptation, Separating. Be sure to read the articles on this site covering the other three stages:

Stage 1: Surviving

Stage 2: Searching

Stage 3: Settling In

The life you want for your child

As a parent of a young child, the Separating Stage may seem like a long way off. One thing to remember is that it’s never too early to begin thinking about the life you want for your child. Sit down together as a family. Talk about your child’s likes and dislikes. Make a plan to support him so he is included in family and community activities. Meet with family, friends, teachers, and community. Start building the dream that is your child’s future.

The process of Separating

Separating is a normal, necessary process in development. It happens in tiny steps all throughout childhood. Each step of separation is a step toward independence as your child grows up and away from you, and as you let go, one safe step at a time.

The process of Separating includes both emotional separation between you and your child, and physical separation, which may happen earlier or later than typical for children who do not have a disability. When Separating becomes a focus, there is an increased emphasis on teaching your child skills for community living and on preparing yourself to let go.

Separation for children with disabilities often has to be initiated, planned, or supervised by parents. This is not part of the natural order of things. But parents and children do separate, and there is a time for parents to expand in new directions. Separating is one more step in your personal growth.

As a parent, you must often make a special effort for your child to have experiences that allow for feelings of independence and growth. Your child may need extra time or intensive training to acquire the knowledge and learn the skills that will increase future choices of living, working, and socializing in the community. 

What your child needs for successful separation

Every day you work to help your young child grow, learn and develop. It can be helpful to keep in mind that what you work on now are things your child will need when it comes time to separate many years in the future:

  • Self-esteem, persistence, and a sense of humor
  • Daily living skills
  • Pride in physical appearance
  • Living skills practice
  • Self-discipline
  • Understanding and living with a disability
  • Learning to meet challenges
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Letting go, a parent's role in the Separating process

When it comes time to separate, your role as a parent narrows to the things you can do to “let go,” or help your child make the separation successfully. Some important ways to think about this role include:

  • Letting go means getting tough on certain issues
  • Letting go is recognition of your efforts, and a sense of freedom from parenting
  • Letting go means giving up some control, allowing others to share in caregiving and teaching
  • Letting go is admitting you can't make your child's disability go away. Accepting what your child can’t do is an important part of it
  • Letting go feels like you are losing something, and you are. There is no point in pretending that it is not going to leave an empty space in your life
  • Letting go means reactivating some issues you dealt with in the Surviving and Searching stages

Also see Building Independence: Let Your Child Grow.

Obstacles to Separating

As with some of the other stages of adaptation, there may be obstacles to Separating, including:

  • Child-related obstacles—Communication needs, social skills or safety issues
  • Parent-related obstacles—Concerns about how much to protect or pull back, time or support team issues
  • Community obstacles—Lack of programs, lack of services, resources or funding; lack of transportation or scheduling problems, and negative attitudes in the community
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About the Four Stages of Adaptation

The Four Stages of Adaptation model was developed by Dr. Nancy Miller, a psychotherapist and social worker. She worked with four moms over a period of five years and distilled their experiences into the book Nobody’s Perfect: Living and Growing with Children Who Have Special Needs. The model came from conversations with the moms, experiences working with families, and the writings of many parents and professionals.

Dr. Miller’s book was published in 1997. It is highly recommended, but as of June 2014 it is not currently in print. Look for it at your local library or used book store, or look for a used copy at online booksellers.