Early Years

How Will My Child Adjust to Having a Hand/Arm Difference?
What do Children Think About Their Hand/Arm Difference?
What Will & Won’t My Child Be Able to Do?
A Few More Things to Consider


In this section I’ve tried to outline some of the major issues that you and your child will face, not only in the next few years, but throughout your child’s life. These issues include: Your child’s hand/arm appearance, how your child develops skills with that hand/arm, how your child feels about his hand/arm, and how your child’s hand/arm affects you. Be wary of thinking that “now you’ve got it all figured out” or “now everything is OK”, because it will change. You will change, and your child will change; but these issues will still be there. Don’t look for a fairy tale ending like “my child was born with a hand difference, grew up, was able to do everything perfectly, and lived happily ever after.” Aviva Bock, a psychotherapist in Newton, Massachusetts, states that it is essential that parents understand that, when raising a child with a hand difference, “These issues become part of the fabric of your life. You will check in with them often. There is no once and for all answer.”

How Will My Child Adjust to Having a Hand/Arm Difference?

The attitudes of others toward a child’s capacities are far more important than his possession of particular traits. The fact of any handicap is not nearly so vital as the reactions toward it of those around him.

Your Child’s Self-Esteem, Dorothy Corkille Briggs
Little Patricio

Many factors that will help your child adjust well are within your control. These include providing lots of support, helping to create a nurturing and accepting environment, exposing your child to others with hand differences (more about support groups below), and having reasonable expectations of yourself and your child. It is important to help the child to develop a strong sense of self esteem and to monitor the child’s emotional response to his hand/arm/limb difference.

On the other hand, you can’t control your child’s basic personality and temperament. If your child has an inquisitive nature, readily takes on new challenges, and perseveres despite setbacks, she will have an easier adjustment. If your child is temperamentally shy and more on the withdrawn side, she may find social interactions more challenging.

Children with congenital hand and arm differences make adjustments over the course of their development, sometimes in phases. A child who is well-adjusted as a preschooler may face greater difficulty as a teenager or vice-versa. But overall, most children are extremely resilient – a term used in the field of psychology to describe how individuals draw upon a source of inner strength to enable them to overcome hard times.

What do Children Think About Their Hand/Arm Difference?

What a child eventually thinks about her hand or arm is most shaped by the reactions and comments of those around her. Since her parents – and everybody else who interacts with her – knows about her difference much earlier than she does, their reactions cannot help but shape her own feelings about her hand/arm difference. As a sensitive being, your child learns to pick up on subtle things, such as body language, facial expressions, voice intonation, and even emotional responses. In the process, the child slowly internalizes others’ reactions.

Children may overhear things that others say about their hand/arm difference, some true, some untrue. Your youngster may repeat (and believe) what other children, in particular, say. For example, a small child may hear remarks and think that G-d is punishing him or that his fingers magically will grow as he gets older. One mother reported that her three year old girl with a hand difference said, “Mommy, don’t hold that hand. It doesn’t have any fingers.” This comment may have resulted from an unkind remark. Sometimes children try to hide their hand to avoid bringing attention to themselves after hearing criticism or teasing.

If your child says these things to you, or tries to hide her hand, or if you overhear her saying such things to others, it is important to work with your child to dispel such myths. Sometimes it may be necessary to speak to the parents of one of your child’s peers to inform them of the things their child is saying about your child’s hand. Just remember, when you talk to another parent, that most children are not intentionally malicious; that for many young children, reality and fantasy are indistinguishable.

What Will & Won’t My Child Be Able to Do?

Children with hand differences whose hands function well usually adjust well.

Children with Hand Differences: A Guide for Families Center for Limb Differences (1990)

Though your baby may be only two days, two weeks, two months, or two years old, you may be wondering what life will be like for your child with one or even two hand differences, or without any hands at all. I encourage you to write your questions down, no matter how trivial they may seem to be. Parents’ worries about what their child may be unable to do generally fall that into three broad categories: functioning in the world, social/leisure activities, and rites of passage. Let’s explore each of these.

Functioning in the world. How will my child tie his own shoes? How will she zip her jacket? Will he ever be able to open a bottle of soda? Will she be able to drive a car? Parents fear that their child will never be independent, needing to rely on the good of others to manage. My mother told me that whenever it rained, she always felt sad as she envisioned me – as a child and then later as an adult – trying to hold an umbrella with my “normal” hand while carrying a school bag or groceries with my “different” hand. One parent spent the first day of his child’s life practicing tying a shoe with one hand to convince himself that his child would be able to do this someday.

Social/leisure activities. Frequently, what saddens parents is that their child may not be able to participate in the activities that brought them joy, helped shape their character, or created life-long friendships. Playing a musical instrument, joining the cheerleading squad, or participating in a sport would fall into this category.

Rites of passage. Will my daughter be able to climb the monkey bars at the playground? Will my son be able to go fishing with his grandfather? Will either get asked to the prom? How will they wear a wedding ring?

Children with hand and arm differences mostly lead “normal” lives, and they do many of these things. Obviously, the degree of the impairment of the hand or arm will affect what and how much your child is able to do, but so are his level of determination and the extent to which you modify things for him. There are no universals here, since there is such range in the type of differences that children have. For some, tying their shoe laces will be very difficult, but not for others; the same holds true for manipulating scissors and opening jars. Most children will have some difficulty with holding the monkey bars at the playground and grasping handle bars on a tricycle.

A Few More Things to Consider:

Whose Agenda?
Watch for things that you may be pushing your child to do – things that may be reflecting your agenda – not your child’s wishes. Your child will want to please you and prove that he is worthy of your love by doing these things.

Tools to Succeed
If your child is going to attempt something, give her the proper tools to succeed. Work with her to solve problems creatively; since life will never be tailor made for her, this is an important life skill. Get a sewing machine or find someone who can alter clothes and sports items. Find ways to adapt equipment to your child’s needs, rather than expecting her to find ways to adapt her limb use to an inappropriate piece of equipment.

Your Child Doesn’t Have to be a Hero
It is important that all children – with and without limb differences – know at a deep level that it is normal not to be able to succeed at everything. Children do not have to be superheroes, even if they admire their power and strength. This is especially true of children have physical differences that make many activities more challenging. At the same time, the human body is amazingly flexible, and children with differences often have a resilience and drive that enables them to accomplish incredible feats.

If your child comes home crying because he can’t climb the monkey bars, the most helpful way you can respond is: name how much he wants to be able to do this activity, validate his frustration at not being able to do it at the moment, and offer comfort. After you have offered validation and child is in a receptive place, you can problem solve with your child. It may be helpful to ask some questions, of course matched to age/developmental stage, which can be extrapolated to making decisions about other activities as well:

  • How important is it that the child masters the monkey bars?
  • Is the motivation to learn the monkey bars intrinsic – coming from within – or extrinsic – have other children teased them or challenged them? There is no right or wrong with this, but it may be helpful to know whether the child wants to learn for themself or is responding to their desire to fit in or do what others can do. Or it may be a mixture of the two.
  • What would it take to learn this activity? Would the child need a special tool, regular practice, and/or help from an adult?

Modeling this process for problem solving will help your child for their entire life, as they will learn how to approach adapting activities.

© 2024. Laura Faye Clubok, MS, OTR/L, On The Other Hand Therapy