The stresses and strains of parenting a child with additional needs are 24/7 all year every year and added to the anxiety and even guilt that many parents will experience it can all add up.
It can make it more likely that families where there is a child with additional/special needs or disabilities will fall apart under the pressure, with 53% of families claim that having a disabled child causes some/major relationship difficulties or breakups (source: About Families).
What are the triggers for this, and how does it affect Dads in particular, including their emotional, mental and physical wellbeing?
Pre-diagnosis - worry
In the early stages there is the trigger for relationship breakdown as we are struggling with understanding what is going on with our child. Is there something wrong?
Are we just being paranoid? What’s wrong? Is it serious? How do we find out? Who do we ask? Do we want to find out? Secretly, are we avoiding this?
This period of intense uncertainty can be really difficult relationally, perhaps opening up cracks that were already there, perhaps opening up new ones as so much focus is on our child and not on each other.
Guys are not great at talking about their feelings but struggling with our feelings alone is not the answer.
Diagnosis – shock
Then we get a diagnosis for our child. In some ways it is a relief as at last we know what we are dealing with, but then a whole bunch of new questions come to us.
What does this mean? We don’t understand… how did this happen? Was this our fault… blame… did we do something wrong? Why did this happen? Why us? Why not somebody else?
Suddenly we are faced with the loss of the future plans we had for our child, for our family, for ourselves… it all lies in tatters. It can be devastating, we grieve for what is lost… and can turn on each other.
It can be a time of huge emotional, mental and even physical turmoil for everyone, including Dads, who can really benefit from being able to talk to someone.
Care for the Family have their excellent befriender service which matches families up with people who can chat with them who have experienced similar situations themselves.
‘Take 5 and Chat’ offer another way of linking families that are on the same journey and bringing them together for mutual support (and cake!)
Parents of children with additional/special needs often feel excluded from a wide range of social activities (source: Mumsnet) and so accessing services like this can be health, life, and relationship saving!
Five stages of grief
Most families that include a child with additional needs or disability will go through the five stages of grief, often many times.
This is a natural response to some big life changes, but it can be overwhelming for many families, including Dads, and a real trigger for relationship breakups.
Denial/isolation – overwhelming emotions, the inability to control them, fight or flight instinct kicks in… denial of the situation, blocking it out, hiding from it and hoping it just goes away.
It’s not unusual for families to split apart at this point.
Anger – reality, and the pain of the diagnosis, breaking through our denial. It can burn deep and cause us to lash out at those trying to help us.
It can be terribly destructive and can and does cause relationships to fail.
Bargaining - “If only we had…” trying to rationalize it, trying to regain some control of the helplessness and vulnerability we feel.
If we have a faith we might try doing a deal with God “If you make this go away I’ll…” trying anything to protect ourselves from the painful reality.
Depression – sadness and regret about the lost dreams, a deep sense of mourning for what is lost… coupled with a gradual and profound realisation that this isn’t going away.
Couples can easily drift apart here as they become immersed in their own feelings.
Acceptance – not a gift received by everyone. It’s not about being brave, but a gradual sense of understanding of the emotions that we are going through, of the changes that the diagnosis will bring for us, for our child, for the rest of our family, and a growing desire to move forward and make the best of things.
Things will be different, but they can still be OK. We are ready to embrace not what might have been, but what is.
There is a great story called ‘Welcome to Holland’ told by Emily Perl Kingsley that helps us to understand this cycle of grief, identify where we are in it, and to see that there is hope.
Dads should seek help and support as their family is going through this cycle, participating in counselling and pastoral support, as fighting it off or bottling it all up just doesn’t work and will adversely affect our health and relationships.
As guys we try to fix things… we can’t fix this alone, we need to get support and help if we’re going to help ourselves, our partner, and our kids.
Getting Dads together to share their experiences and stories, to help each other to know that they are not alone, not the only ones dealing with stuff, is really helpful.
Statistically, if a family with a child with additional needs or disability splits up, it’s almost always Dad that leaves. Talking saves relationships, saves our health, helps our family, and helps us.
Let’s be better at accepting that we are struggling emotionally, mentally, and physically with our situation, and seek the help that we, and our family, desperately need.