Dear Mr. Dad: Our 5-year-old daughter has several special needs. My wife and I love her unconditionally, but I have to admit that parenting her has affected our marriage. Part of the tension comes from the fact that she and I don’t respond to the stress the same way. Do you think there’s anything we can do to get on the same page?
The best thing you can do is learn to accept your differences. Fathers and mothers have different parenting styles, and the same applies when they’re raising a child with special needs. Neither approach is better than the other. And generally speaking, kids are better off when they’re exposed to both styles.
Unfortunately, accurate data on children with special needs is almost impossible to come by—in part because not everyone uses the same definition. Some include only physical or cognitive disabilities (including asthma, autism, cancer, and cerebral palsy). Others add in “invisible” disabilities such as dyslexia.
Parenting a child with any type of special needs affects everyone in the family differently. Mothers typically worry more about the emotional strain of caring for a child, whether the child will have friends, and how he or she will do socially. Fathers are often concerned with more practical things, such as how the child will function in school and whether the child will eventually become self-sufficient. And then there’s the financial piece, which can trigger an unfortunate vicious circle.
Dads are often worried about paying for treatments, tutors, and special medical attention, and making sure their insurance coverage is adequate. Many dads respond by spending more time at work or taking a second job. The problem is that the more time they spend at work, the less they’re available to be 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 may feel excluded. At the same time, the mother may interpret that dad’s extra hours at work as an indication that he doesn’t care about the child or that he’s dumping all of the responsibility in her lap.
Not surprisingly, conflict, tension, and divorce are more common in families with a special-needs child. These steps should make things a little easier.
• Join a group. Researchers have found that men who get involved with other fathers—in a guy-only setting—who are going through the same thing 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 try to go it alone.
• Explore every possible resource for help. If friends or relatives offer to step in, accept. And be sure to check with your school district to see what help they offer. You’ll also find some great dad-focused resources on my website at com/resources.
• Play more. Researcher Jennifer Elder’s Father-Directed In-Home Training (FDIT) program teaches dads to use everyday activities like building blocks, puppets, cars and trucks, and bubbles to connect with their autistic children. The dads are 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. You can do the same thing in your own home, just be sure to follow those rules. Participants report that the program “had a positive influence on their role as fathers and their relationships with their children,” wrote Elder and her colleagues. Specifically, “fathers were more likely to initiate play in an animated way and responded more to their children during playtime,” and children “became more vocal and were more than twice as likely to initiate play with their fathers.”
Originally published on Mr.Dad
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