Parenting a child with disability can bring new challenges to your relationship with your spouse. It can also bring joy and closeness. Talking openly and valuing your time together can help you keep your relationship strong.
Positive changes in your relationship
There are lots of great things about raising a child with disability. It can make your family stronger. You might also find that you share parenting responsibilities more and talk more with your spouse.
You and your spouse might see your child’s disability differently, which is normal. This might mean you deal differently with your child’s behaviour and how you relate to him. This isn’t a bad thing at all. You might get lots of new ideas from the different ways you approach things.
To have a strong parenting partnership, you need to talk with each other about your views and feelings. Sharing your feelings can help you feel good about your relationship. And when you make time for regular catch-ups on how you’re feeling, it can also help you work together better as a team.
New challenges for your relationship
Caring for a child with disability can also bring new challenges and more pressures. Working together as a team to find solutions can help you to handle these challenges.
You might find that you have to pay for transport, equipment, medical bills or essential changes to your house, which can strain your finances. The National Council of Social Services (NCSS) can give you information on getting financial support for your child’s disability to cover equipment and other costs.
If you can, try to make decisions together about areas where you can save money.
Changes in employment and family roles
One or both of you might need, or choose, to cut your working hours to care for your child. This can change the way you divide up household tasks. You can talk together about ways to balance the workload with your spouse, and look at flexible working hours or job options.
If you’re staying at home to look after your child, try to get involved in nearby community groups and activities. This can help you feel connected to your community.
Children’s behaviour can be stressful for any relationship. If your child with disability behaves in difficult ways, it can help to decide together how you’ll handle it so that you’re consistent. Talking about this regularly is a good idea.
A psychologist or disability specialist can help you plan appropriate behaviour strategies to help your child.
Having a child with disability can mean that you and your spouse have less quality time together. Spending pleasurable time together, doing things you enjoy and being intimate as a couple can bring you closer – and remind you that you’re people, not just parents!
A family member or friend might be able to babysit, or your local disability service might be able to help you find respite care or babysitters who are trained in looking after children with disability.
Looking after yourselves and your relationship
It’s easy to get caught up in looking after your child’s needs, but looking after yourselves is important too.
Part of looking after yourself is finding time to do things you’re interested in – as individuals and as a couple. It might be sport, music or social groups. A bit of time out helps you feel good – and when you feel good yourself, you’ve got more energy to put into your relationship.
Raising children is a big job for anyone, and raising a child with disability can mean an even bigger workload. You and your spouse don’t have to do the same things, but sharing the overall workload of child care, domestic chores and paid work is important. You could think about doing a weekly chart of chores and responsibilities to make sure things are fair. This can also help you make time each week for yourselves.
Talking openly about your feelings and listening to each other without blame or judgment are great ways to give each other emotional support. Using ‘I’ statements can help – for example, ‘I feel as though ...’, or ‘I wonder if we could do this differently’. When you’re talking about difficult issues, you can show you’re listening by saying things like ‘I understand what you mean’, or ‘I didn’t realise you felt that way’.
It’s OK to laugh. A sense of humour can help you let off steam and see the funny side of things.
Working together on problems in your relationship
Conflicts and tensions happen in even the strongest relationships, and having a child with disability can create greater pressure on your relationship. The following strategies can help with sorting out problems:
Make a time to talk about things you’re worried about. Picking a time when your child won’t be around is a good idea.
Sit down together and focus on what your spouse is saying.
Try to say exactly what the problem is. For example, ‘I feel like I’m not getting any time for myself. I haven’t been able to get out for a walk for two weeks’.
Listen to your spouse’s thoughts and feelings without interrupting.
If you don’t agree with what your spouse is saying, try to focus on the problem, not on your spouse. For example, you could say, ‘I’d like to try a different approach this time’.
Brainstorm lots of different solutions to the problem to see what might work best. You can also talk about what the solution might look like. You could ask, ‘Are we both comfortable with this?’ or ‘Could we do this better?’.
Ask how your spouse is feeling after the discussion, and make sure that you both feel you’ve had a chance to say what’s on your mind.
Support will help you deal with stress and workload. For example, perhaps you could get a friend or a family member to look after your child while you and your spouse spend some time together.
Support can also come from:
peer support groups
professionals like psychologists or relationship counsellors
Other parents can be a great source of support. You can also share stories, advice and information with other parents in online forums for parents of children with disability.
When to get help to support your relationship
Learning about your child’s diagnosis and working through the challenges of parenting a child with disability can trigger feelings of grief for both you and your spouse.
It can take time to understand your child’s diagnosis and process your feelings about your child’s disability. You might go through a lot of different feelings – despair, guilt, denial, depression and eventually acceptance. This cycle doesn’t always follow a clear pattern, and you might feel all of these emotions at various times.
Every couple will deal with their child’s diagnosis differently. But your relationship might need attention if you experience the following:
loss of sex drive
withdrawal from each other
frequent arguments that you can’t sort out
If you’re worried about your relationship, the first person you should talk to is your spouse. You can deal with a lot of worries by talking openly – don’t be scared to talk about how you feel. You might also want to get in touch with a relationships counsellor or a psychologist.
Speaking of Children II: Dr Kenneth Poon on Self-Care for Parents of Children with Developmental & Special Needs
As you take care of your child with developmental or special needs, it’s just as important that you and your spouse find the space in your day to practise self-care too! Watch on for some self-care tips from Dr Kenneth Poon.
© raisingchildren.net.au, translated and adapted with permission