Module 4: Adjustment to the News of Having a Child with Special Needs

The Four Stages of Adaptation

When parents receive a new diagnosis or move into a period of transition with their child, this can lead to significant stress and intense emotions. The four stages of adaptation described below are part of a normal process of adjusting to a diagnosis or transition. By understanding how they work, parents can better predict their emotions and reactions, and not think they are somehow “failing” when they feel a sudden rush of uncomfortable feelings. The stages help us see how we grow through the crises and hard times of our lives. The struggles and challenges of caregiving present sorrows at times, but also opportunities for personal growth and competence.

  • Surviving – What you do to keep going when you are feeling helpless because something out of your control has taken away your child’s equal chance at life.
  • Searching – a time of acting, of moving forward from the reactive stage of surviving. The awakening of a source of energy, the beginning of a sense of control over your emotions and life, a time for seeking understanding about your child, family and self.
  • Settling In – seeing the world for what it is and seeing yourself for who you are. It is moving beyond the intense emotions of surviving, feeling less of the sense of urgency of searching and gaining a greater sense of control and balance in daily life.
  • Separating – the normal, necessary process in development, which occurs in tiny steps 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 stages described here are not linear, but rather depict a circular, dynamic relationship. A person can move into a new stage and then move back to a prior stage as new challenges are faced. It can be empowering to know that there is not just one way to adapt.

Please watch the following video: Adjustment to Diagnosis

Video from Delta Gama Center for Children with Visual Impairments

Content adapted from SEEC’s Parent to Parent (P2) peer mentoring program. Available at

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