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Mark Arnold

Why additional/special needs parenting is like a circus

At times, additional needs parents can play many of the familiar roles of circus performers.

Photo: Ciocan Ciprian. Unsplash (CC0).

Additional Needs parenting can be a bit like a circus sometimes, maybe more than we would like to admit! 

Here’s a (hopefully) light-hearted look at how at times we can play many of the familiar roles of circus performers

Circus (noun): a travelling company of acrobats, clowns, and other entertainers which gives performances, typically in a large tent, in a series of different places.


Most of us probably play this role all the time… keeping all the balls in the air, desperately trying to keep them all going in the right direction even when other people are lobbing extra balls at us to add to the pressure. 

The only difference is that the circus juggler comes to the end of their performance and, with a carefully choreographed drum roll and “ta-da!!” from a trumpet somewhere, catches all the balls, takes a bow, and leaves the ring for a well-earned break.

Additional needs parents, on the other hand, need to keep on juggling forever like some crazed Duracell bunny whose batteries never run out!



The clown is jolly, full of laughs and jokes, but when you look closer you see that the painted-on smile can mask what is beneath. Clowns can be hilarious on the outside, the life and soul of the party, but inside can be hurting, struggling, sad.  

Additional needs parents can wear a positive face while being broken inside, the forced smile covering the pain within.  We can also look as ridiculous as a circus clown most days too… getting dressed at all can sometimes be a ‘win’, and vaguely matching clothes? #unlikely!

I’m reminded of the words to the song…  “But where are the clowns. Send in the clowns. Don’t bother, they’re here”.



Then there is the acrobat, swooping overhead or teetering on the tight-rope, carrying out amazing feats of balance and agility. Sometimes there is no safety net below to save them if they fall and so the risk is high. 

Additional needs parents sometimes have to summon super-human abilities to be everything, and everyone, that our child needs.  Sometimes we can even be in two places at the same time, and we are all equipped with eyes in the back of our heads as well as a natural ability to balance everything!



Oh, those times when we swallow the sharp things we’d like to say to people; perhaps to the unkind person in the supermarket who has just scored our parenting as ‘poor’, or been unkind to our child who was having a meltdown.  

Or the professional who still firmly believes that three years of reading books teaches them more about our child than our lifetime of parenting has.  Sometimes swallowing those swords hurts; sometimes we wish people knew how much their words hurt too.



And keeping the whole circus going, coordinating all of the different performers and acts, ensuring that everything keeps to time, is the Ringmaster.  

Additional needs parents are great ringmasters, the P.T. Barnum’s of their family, running the ‘show’ like clockwork and ensuring that all of the educational, health and care needs of their child are met, as well as ensuring that they are loved, valued and included.  

The former three might sometimes need a whip, the latter three just need us to be there, alongside them in the ring.


The tent

All circuses have a tent, the place where the show is held, where the equipment is all arrayed ready for the performances, where everyone watches the show. 

For additional needs parents it can sometimes feel like we live in a circus tent… everyone watching and waiting for something funny or tragic to happen, all the extra unusual equipment we may need for our child, and harking back to the days when there were performing animals in the circus, some parents would be familiar with the unusual smells!

Sensory tents can be amazing, wonderful places for us to explore and enjoy with our children, but sometimes they are used by venues as a place just to keep children with additional needs out of sight… “The special needs tent is over there…” when “over there” is out of sight, out of mind…

But if additional needs parenting is a bit like a circus, we are faced with a choice.

Either our version of the circus can be a tired, shabby looking one without much to interest or attract anyone; or it can be spectacular, a really awesome place to be, fun for us, our children, and anyone who cares or dares to turn up.  

Let our circus be the very best that it can be, performing to the utmost of our ability, and inviting others to join us for the show of a lifetime!

Roll-up!! Roll-up!!

Mark Arnold, Director of Additional Needs Ministry at Urban Saints. Arnold blogs at The Additional Needs Blogfather. This article was re-published with permission.




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