Why Additional Needs Parenting Is Like A Poker Game

Have you ever played poker? Maybe you’ve played recreationally, as I have, perhaps using tokens, matchsticks, or chocolates for the ‘stake?’ Maybe you’re a more serious poker player, with higher level stakes? Or maybe you’ve never played the game at all. This blog post isn’t about the rights or wrongs of playing cards, but whatever your experience of the game, there is a lot about poker that is very much like additional needs parenting.

We have to accept the cards we’re dealt. Just like in a game of poker, we usually don’t know what ‘hand’ we’ve been dealt until pre-natal testing or until the baby arrives. It might be at the moment of birth that we realize that our child has a disability or other additional needs, or it might be in later years. In the game, we might add to the cards we hold, just as in additional needs parenting our child may add to their list of conditions. James, my 17-year-old, was diagnosed with autism and a learning disability at aged 2. A couple of years ago, epilepsy was added to his list, and he is currently experiencing anxiety disorder.

In the game, we make the very best of the hand we’re dealt. As additional needs parents, we make the very best of all that our children are, and help them be all that they can be. We creatively look to encourage them and support them; we strive and fight to access the services and resources that they need. We accept them for who they are and love them unconditionally through it all.


Each day, sometimes several times a day, we can also get dealt a fresh hand. No two hands are the same. We never know whether the next one will be a ‘Royal Flush’ or just a random collection of cards. But we take the hand anyway and play our best game with it.

We can’t ‘fold.’ In poker, you can ‘fold,’ or chuck your cards in, ending your participation in that round of the game. As additional needs parents, we can’t fold, matter how hard it gets, and sometimes it gets very hard indeed. Our children need us, depend on us, and for their sake, we sacrifice everything to be there for them, still ‘in the game’ for their sake.

We get to play with experts and novices. Some of the people we play the additional needs parenting ‘poker game’ with are like us, parents trying the best for their kids, making the most of the hand they have been dealt. Others are professional ‘players’ who help and support parents and families. There might be friends, children’s workers and others who watch the game or help us out, but there are also the ‘card sharks’ who seem to look for ways to criticize our way of playing the game.

We show our best poker faces. Additional needs parents are experts at showing our best ‘poker face.’ Sometimes when asked how things are, it’s easier to put our poker face on and say, “It’s fine,” rather than try and explain to someone what life can be like as an additional needs parent. It can be just as hard retelling the truth of how the day has gone as it was to live it the first time, especially to a horrified listener who has absolutely no frame of reference for our life. We might let our poker faces slip a little when talking with other additional needs parents though, people on the same road who have experienced what we’re going through, who ‘get it.’

Sometimes we get a 'Royal Flush.' Some days, all goes well. It’s like getting dealt a ‘Royal Flush,’ the best hand in poker. On those days, in those moments, it’s great to be thankful for them. The term ‘Royal Flush’ also has another meaning in our house, when the evening routine for James has gone smoothly and easily. Our five cards are ‘poo,’ ‘bath,’ ‘hair wash,’ ‘teeth cleaned,’ and ‘bed’—at a decent time! Whatever a ‘Royal Flush’ means for you, they are good moments when they come!

The game never ends. Some poker games can go on for hours, days even. Additional needs parenting is for life. The game never ends, until either we—or in some cases our child—pass on. Until then, we play the game to the best of our ability, using all the skills, gifts and experience we’ve got. We help new players to understand the game and how to play it well. And despite the days when we’re dealt a terrible hand, when it just all goes wrong, the days when we get a good hand and it all goes well make up for it. Good days are like the best ‘game’ ever!

The Bible doesn’t talk much about playing cards, although it is generally disapproving of gambling. While gambling is not a debate for this blog post, Proverbs 13:11 gives us a final, important link between poker and additional needs parenting:

“Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gathers little by little will increase it.”

As the wealth of our knowledge of our children and their additional needs builds, day-by-day, month-by-month, year-by-year, we gather understanding. As we grow in love, we see the fruit of all that understanding in the relationship we have with our child—fruit that is everlasting.

Ready for another hand?

Mark Arnold is the Additional Needs Ministry Director for Urban Saints Church, Luton, Bedfordshire, UK. Follow his writing at https://theadditionalneedsblogfather.com