Q: My wife and I have a child with a number of special needs. Although we both love our child very much, there’s no question that parenting him has taken a toll on our marriage and the rest of the family (we have other children). Interestingly, my wife and I respond to the stress very differently. Is there anything we can do to reduce the tension, as well as improve our relationship as a couple, so our entire family is happier?
A: It’s nearly impossible to get accurate data on disabilities, but conservatively speaking, around 15 percent of preschool and school-age children in the US have one or more "chronic conditions." These could be anything from asthma and autism to cancer and cerebral palsy.
Having a child with a chronic condition-whether it’s a physical or mental one-puts a lot of stress on the entire family. Fathers and mothers have very different ways of reacting to this stress. Mothers typically worry more about the emotional strain of caring for a child and how the child will do socially. Fathers are concerned with more practical things, such as how to talk about the issue with family and friends, how the child will function in school, whether he’ll eventually become self-sufficient. Many dads also experience a heightened sense of responsibility and protectiveness.
Although mothers are generally more involved in day-to-day caring of kids with chronic conditions, fathers are affected just as deeply by the emotional strain and often have an especially hard time coping. Part of the problem is a series of vicious circles:
Some of dads’ biggest worries have to do with finances: can they afford to pay for treatments, tutors, and special medical attention, is their insurance coverage adequate, and so on. To combat those worries, dads may spend more time at work. That makes them feel better because they’re easing their financial concerns. Plus, for many men, their jobs are a source of satisfaction, a place where they feel in control. But the more time they spend at work, the less available they are to spend with their children and the less they’re able to be involved in treatment plans and meetings with professionals. As a result, they don’t get information first-hand and feel out of the loop. It’s a tough merry-go-round to get off of.
Not surprisingly, conflict, tension, and even divorce are more common in families with a disabled child. But fortunately, there are some ways of reducing the strain.
- Join a support group. Researchers have found that men who get involved with other fathers who are facing the same issues (in a guy-only environment) feel less sadness, fatigue, pessimism, guilt, and stress, and have more feelings of satisfaction and success, fewer problems, and better decision-making abilities than dads who don’t join groups. These benefits will rub off on your relationship with your partner as well.
- Explore every possible resource for help. If your friends are able to step in, that’ll help. But also check with your local school district to see what kinds of resources they have. In addition, About.com (specialchildren.about.com) has a good collection of resources, and Exceptional Parent magazine (eparent.com) provides info, support, and resources for parents and families of children with disabilities. Also, be sure to check out The Fathers Network (fathersnetwork.org), a site specifically devoted to helping fathers of children with disabilities.
- Play and communicate with your child. Researchers at the University of Florida did a study where they taught dads to use everyday activities like building blocks, puppets, cars and trucks, and bubbles to connect with their autistic children. But there was a twist. The fathers were instructed to follow the child’s lead, wait for the child’s response before continuing, and not give into the temptation to direct the play. The results were wonderful. "Fathers were more likely to initiate play in an animated way and responded more to their children during playtime," said Jennifer Elder, the lead researcher. "Children also became more vocal and were more than twice as likely to initiate play with their fathers. With the proper training at an early age, we feel that these techniques can help autistic children be more socially interactive and pick up language more easily."
One particularly interesting result that the researchers hadn’t expected was that a lot of the fathers trained the mothers and siblings to do the same thing. Elder and her colleagues had done similar studies training mothers and have very much the same successes. The only difference was that mothers weren’t as likely to teach the dads what they’d learned.