Emotional support for mums with special needs children

Jenni Donato gave up her career as an environmental consultant after her daughter was born with developmental dysplasia of the hip. At the beginning of the year, she set up her own coaching organisation for mothers of children with special needs.


Having experienced at first hand the emotional challenges of dealing with a child with special needs, Jenni wanted to help other mothers.

There certainly seems to be a demand for what she is offering. She says interest has “exploded” since she set up Chance Coaching.

Three months in a body cast

Jenni’s daughter was not diagnosed with DDH until she was two which meant she had to have full surgery, was in a body cast for three months and had to learn to walk again. Jenni, who also has a younger son, says she noticed when she talked to other parents of children with special needs that there was help with the practical issues for their children, but nothing much in the form of emotional support for mothers.

She herself is now in the position where her daughter has just started at school and she has time to discover what it is she wants to do. She researched counselling and life coaching and decided she wanted to coach mums. She set up Chance Coaching as a not for profit community interest company. That means any profits it generates go back into the coaching business. Jenni has partnered with other organisations to give her access to clients. The main one is another Community Interest Company called Chance to Dance Stars, which is a dance school for children with disabilities. It was set up by the special needs nanny who helped Jenni after her daughter’s operation.

Changing mindsets

Jenni offers one to one coaching sessions over the phone and Skype. The aim is to change mindsets and get the mums to focus on themselves. “A happier mum is a good mum. I know that from personal experience,” she says.

“I get the mums to focus on themselves for a change. I ask them what they want their lives to look like. At first they look blank as they have not thought about themselves for years. It is a journey of discovery. I love that feeling of making real change,” she says.

She cites one woman who she helped change her career and move into childminding. With others she helps with daily routines and tackling pinch points during the day.

She says that she thought she would hear lots of stories from the mums about their children and that has not been the case. She helps them to develop a positive mindset. “Often women in this kind of situation are so busy looking after others that they lose themselves,” she says. “They can put up a wall which I try to break down by asking them about how they want to feel.  That is often a lightbulb moment for them.”

Although life coaching is unregulated, counselling isn’t and Jenni, who is an affiliate member of the Association for Coaching, is doing a therapeutic counselling course so she could understand what it offers. Coaching focuses on positive changes ahead rather than going over the past.

Going full time

As soon as her son, who is one, starts school Jenni plans to go full time and pay herself a salary. In the meantime, Jenni, who is based in Wokingham, works three days a week when her son is at the childminder and many evenings and weekends. She is taking on a funding manager so she can offer discounted or free sessions and is also building her PR with the help of Natalie Trice, founder of DDH UK. She has written a chapter in a book on her work and started an interview series to raise awareness about children with rare conditions.

Jenni is keen to continue to raise awareness for people with special needs, including those with invisible disabilities. Her daughter, for instance, does not now have a visible disability, but still has instability on one side as one leg is shorter. “That makes her more clumsy, but you would never guess it from looking at her,” says Jenni.  Her daughter has annual check-ups and will have them until she stops growing. She may need more operations, but for now she is okay.

Jenni wants to bridge the gap between families with children who have disabilities and others. “The disabled community is often kept apart, but they are just normal families with additional challenges. Before my daughter was diagnosed I didn’t know much about that community. Now I am part of it and I want to do everything I can to bridge that gap,” she says.

Jenni says her daughter is very positive about what she has had to face. “She always has a smile on her face, even when she was in the cast,” she says. “I have learnt a lot from her and I’m a better person for it.”

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