This tenth and final article in our “sweet spots” series explores how uniquely each of us expresses help and encouragement within a family impacted by special needs.
Who doesn’t love a good cheerleader? We all need encouragement, in one form or another. It is essential nourishment for our souls. Just as our bodies become starved and will die when deprived of food or water, our souls will wither and dry up without confidence, inspiration or hope.
One of the many challenges in a caregiving family is that we are typically exhausted and can be rather needy of extra encouragement. On a regular basis, I hear from special needs caregivers and families who view themselves as “high maintenance” in this area. Many struggle with feeling guilty about being so dependent in this respect. Many simultaneously resent that their needs are accentuated by their circumstances. You may understand what it feels like to push down the ache in your soul and try to be satisfied with whatever help and hope comes your way.
The exchange of love and affection is a form of encouragement. In their book Sharing Love Abundantly in Special Needs Families, Gary Chapman and Jolene Philo suggest that “caregiving parents who know about and implement the love languages say they are a simple and effective way of filling a spouse’s love tank and reinforcing the glue that bonds them together.”
Unfortunately, the isolating nature of caregiving can cause the emotional “love tanks” of special needs parents and other family members to run vulnerably low. This is even more true if the loved one needing care is non-verbal, requires intensive care or if anyone in the household is not being very expressive.
Surely there are countless ways to express love and bring encouragement. The Love Languages® are a powerful tool to help us. God’s Word tells us to keep on encouraging each other (Hebrews 10:24-25). But fatigue has profound influence on the tone, manner, and frequency of our communication. And we all know that words and expressiveness flow more freely among some of us than others.
Expressiveness is an interesting thing. God’s design of each person is infinitely personal and always purposeful (Psalm 139). He creates every individual with their own temperament — their unique types and degrees of need as well as their own unique capacities for expressing their needs, thoughts, and feelings.
Someone may think or feel deeply while also expressing those things freely. Another may think or feel deeply yet not express those thoughts or emotions in similar proportion at all. And there is every combination in between.
God’s design of each person is infinitely personal and always purposeful.
What that means in this area of encouragement is that the exchange of encouragement, love and affection will not always feel equally or adequately reciprocated within a family. You may be generous with hugs for your family member. But do they receive them with the frequency that they actually need them? Is your capacity for giving them limited by how God created you to be or because your circumstances have you distracted? These are the kinds of questions worth sorting out. It matters where we draw our energies from.
To make things even more complicated, we don’t always express ourselves in alignment with the way God designed us. Various factors influence this. Consider just a couple of examples. You may have learned certain behaviors based on how you saw encouragement modeled by your parents. Or you may have developed an expressive personality because gregariousness was highly valued in your upbringing. You may have grown up among siblings where competition for attention influenced the choices you made about how you expressed yourself. You may have observed expressiveness handled poorly leading you to choose a more subdued way of behaving. You may have a friend, spouse or child whose need for “strokes” feels so demanding that you’ve started to pull away. Your own withdrawal or outbursts of emotion may leave you feeling defeated, ashamed, or frustrated.
Why is it important to understand these nuances about needs and expressiveness? Because compassion blossoms from places of understanding. Understanding your own degrees of need and expressiveness helps you develop compassion for yourself. It can help you to see your own strengths, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities more clearly. Similarly, understanding the needs and degrees of expressiveness of those around you is also helpful. You can hold more reasonable expectations of others and feel even more appreciative when you recognize what sacrifices are being made to live and serve cooperatively. From compassion flow things like grace, patience, and respect.
The need for encouragement may be even more pronounced when someone is facing stresses like those involved in life challenges such as disability, health crisis, and financial strain. Personally, it means the world to me when someone spurs me on with encouragement, truth, and words of appreciation. And this is never truer than when I’m especially worn out, worried, lonely, or otherwise stretched by caring for my daughter.
When stressful situations erupt, the deepest needs of our souls will reveal themselves.
Are you one of those people who intuitively recognizes the needs and opportunities around you for bringing help or encouragement? Allow me to affirm the precious value of your gentle, tender-hearted spirit and generous ability to express things like empathy and support.
Be on guard, however, for that fact that a great capacity for serving and caring can make a person vulnerable to feeling taken advantage of, or taken for granted. It can be exhausting to be an encourager if you don’t feel that is reciprocated in some way. Being accommodating should not mean that your own needs are completely ignored. In any healthy family, even the caregiving family, no one person’s needs should dominate entirely. If this is an area of vulnerability for you, it will help to make sure you are voicing your needs clearly, directly and respectfully.
Self-advocacy skills can be challenging for some who are naturally servant-hearted. Make it a priority to find at least one person you can go to whenever you need a boost of confidence or be reminded of your great value.
When a cooperative environment is established in your home and within your caregiving team, each person is willing to develop understanding and compassion for each other. You’re able to appreciate that each person is unique and considered by God to be His masterpiece (Ephesians 2:10). You will also realize that each of us is in process. In other words, we’re not perfect yet. The caregiving team or family that lives cooperatively, learns to appreciate the special strengths that each person contributes and has compassion when anyone struggles with their weakness.
Compassion blossoms from places of understanding.
Be aware that some people in your caregiving circle may not appear to need a lot of encouragement or attention, when in fact they actually do. Pre-teen siblings, for example, may be maturing enough to appreciate that mom and dad are stretched thin and learn to seek affection in other places. Or they may act out with negative behavior because it seems to be the only way they will get their need for attention met.
Any of us can fall into similar patterns of negative, even ungodly, behavior in attempts to get the deepest needs of our souls met. When stressful situations erupt, the deepest needs of our soul will reveal themselves.
The reality is, the world will always fall short and disappoint us. We are all inherently selfish and struggle to live cooperatively with each other. We need God’s help.
Your Divine Cheerleader never ever gives up on you.
God has your back.
Your caregiving family will thrive when it features faithful encouragers while making God the primary Source. Seek the Lord for provision of the support you need to stay refreshed, motivated, and reminded that there is great purpose in your situation and role.
As a cooperative and encouraging environment is cultivated in your home, everyone will find a growing sense of freedom and acceptance. You’ll be more compassionate and supportive in each other’s weaknesses. And each person will be celebrated for their own strengths.
TAP YOUR CAREGIVING STRENGTHS BY BEING SPECIFIC, GENEROUS AND GENUINE WITH YOUR EXPRESSIONS OF LOVE AND RESPECT
If you’re energized by giving encouragement or help to others…
- Serve your family and caregiving team by frequently reminding them they are seen, valuable, loved and appreciated by you and by God
- Pray for opportunities to give spiritual, emotional, or practical encouragement where it is needed
- Avoid using encouragement or acts of service to manipulate others
- Keep healthy internal boundaries while also being clear and direct about your own needs
- Be specific with your words of love, affection, appreciation, and affirmation
- Learn to be compassionate and patient with those who demand a great deal of attention
- Help others learn to rely more on Jesus to feel loved and secure than on anyone else
- Cultivate intimacy with Jesus to meet your own deepest needs for love and security
The Bible offers an abundance of guidance for people who are generous encourages or helpers:
God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the earth.
Just say a simple, “Yes, I will,” or “No, I won’t.” Anything beyond this is from the evil one.
No wonder you can’t believe! For you gladly honor each other, but you don’t care about the honor that comes from the one who alone is God.
2 Corinthians 9:7
You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.”
I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down deep into God’s love and keep you strong…then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.
Lord Jesus, thank you for giving me the heart to serve my family and others. Your works are wonderful, and I know this well. I confess that sometimes I take on “yokes” that don’t belong to me or to me alone. I also resent when my burdens feel unequal to the load others are carrying. Help me to care for others as You call me to — no more and no less. Be my Source of comfort and strength so I don’t become weary or start to feel taken for granted by others. Show me how to express my own needs clearly and respectfully. Teach me if there be any impure motivations for my expressions of love and care. Fill me with Your Holy Spirit to be genuinely and generously compassionate. In Your mercy, Jesus, send more helpers and encouragers to my family so that our family can thrive and so that many will know You are alive, accessible, powerful, and good! Amen
Tell us in the comments what helping and encouraging looks like for you and in your family!
Lisa Jamieson is a caregiver consultant, pastoral counsellor and author of popular books and Bible studies including Finding Glory in the Thorns and Jesus, Let’s Talk. Lisa and her husband, Larry, live in Minnesota with the youngest of their three grown daughters, Carly, who has Angelman Syndrome. Together, the Jamiesons founded Walk Right In Ministries in 2008, a non-profit organization building faith and community with special needs families.