Divorce & Parents of Children with Disabilities

Community Member

A recent article in the Washington Post said that parents of children with disabilities are more likely to get divorced. Although what is really being said is that having a child with, say, ADHD causes more stress within the parental relationship and this stress is what may lead to divorce.   Shankar Vedantam, who wrote this Washington Post article entitled, "Married, With ADHD:   Relationships Suffer Under Stress of Raising Child With Disorder, Study Finds" concludes that:

"Couples who have a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are nearly twice as likely to divorce or separate as couples who do not have children with the psychiatric disorder, according to a definitive new study that is the first to explicitly explore the question. The reason appears simple: Having a child who is inattentive or hyperactive can be extremely stressful for caregivers and can exacerbate conflicts, tensions and arguments between parents."

And it isn't just parents of children who have ADHD who appear to be more at risk for divorce.   There are statistics being thrown out there for parents of children who are on the autism spectrum as well.   It seems most people in the autism community are hearing these stats that up to 80% of parents who have a child on the spectrum will get a divorce.   Yet the source of this particular statistic is difficult to find as mentioned by Kristina Chew who writes a blog called Autism Vox.

So what is a parent to make of all this?   They are telling us that having a child who has special needs can cause stress for us parents.   Like Duh.   Tell us something we don't already know.   Maybe what needs to be discussed are ways of coping with the stress of parenting a child who requires so much of our time due to challenging needs and behaviors.

How can parents of special needs children deal with this stress and come together instead of breaking apart?

It is my opinion that one needs to first understand that each parent may handle the challenge of raising a child who has exceptional needs in very different ways.   I recall a conversation I had with a friend once.   She had a son who was about my son's age and this child also had autism.   My friend wanted me to speak to her husband to try to help him.   She told me that he just wasn't "getting it" and would not open up about discussing their son.   I was reluctant to enter such a situation and asked her what I could possibly do.   She wanted me to give books to her husband about autism.   I told her that this was something I could definitely do.   But then she added that the books had to all be positive as he didn't want to hear anything bad.   In searching through my books I had a very hard time finding any book which depicted autism without mentioning any of the challenges or hardships.   When I told my friend of my dilemma she told me not to bother because she didn't think he would read anything on the topic anyway.   Clearly they were both struggling in their own way.

While my friend had already dealt with accepting that her son had autism, her husband had not yet reached that stage.   She was researching everything in sight about the topic but he simply wanted to avoid talking about it because he didn't feel ready.   I can't tell you how many parents I have talked to where one parent hits the ground running by doing tons of research and obtaining services and therapies and the other parent may still be in denial that their child needs help at all.  This difference in where parents are in the process of acceptance can make for some very stressful times.   Both parties can feel alone in dealing with things.

One parent can have the perspective that their partner is doing too much, over reacting, or spending too much time with their child.   And the other parent can feel resentful for doing so much of the work, feel alone in their worry, and feel unsupported by their partner.   It is an all too common scenario being played out in households where children with special needs reside.

Parenting a child with special needs is not easy on a good day.   And it is even more difficult if parents are not on the same page as far as acceptance, expectations, and plans for the future.

Here are some conversation starters to help bridge that possible gap between you and your partner in working together to raise your child:* ** What does the disorder/disability/diagnosis of your child mean to you?** For some parents the diagnosis is confusing and some parents will deny the existence of challenges.   For others the diagnosis means worry over the loss of dreams they had for their child.  One parent I know wondered if their child who was on the autism spectrum would ever do normal things like go to the prom, fall in love, or go to college.   A parent I know who has a child with ADHD wonders if this diagnosis will prevent his son from ever holding down a job.   These worries, fears, and meanings attributed to your child's diagnosis needs to be discussed openly between parents.

  • What is your philosophy of how to help our child? One of the many disagreements which may arise is in the expectations of any education, treatments or therapies.   Some parents strive to help their child to become as "normal" as possible and fit into the mainstream, while other parents veer more towards accepting their child's limitations and making adaptations.   This topic needs to be addressed early on as these differences in expectations can lead to discord quickly.

  • What are our limitations of helping our child? There are some parents who do not believe in any limits to helping their child.   They will spend any amount of money, any amount of time, and will invest in any therapy which they believe will help their child.   I know parents who have spent all their money, have lost their jobs, their friendships, time with other children, and some eventually lose their spouse because no limits are set on what is done to help their child who has special needs.   These limitations need to be discussed and agreed upon by parents.   Compromise is critical here.

  • How shall we teach or discipline our child? When you have a child who has challenges and knows how to push your buttons it is very important to have a clear understanding with your partner of how to deal with your child's behaviors.   Professionals can be of great assistance here including teachers, therapists, and individuals trained in behavior management strategies.

  • How shall we divide up the tasks needed to best help and support our child? It helps to decrease resentment if chores and tasks related to your child's care are divided up.   It gets especially complex when both parents are working and are pressed for time.   Yet this still needs to be discussed because if one parent feels overly stressed because they feel that they are doing all the work then this resentment will come out within the relationship.     It helps to play to the strengths of each parent.   My husband is better at doing physical activities with our son and enjoys it so he takes him on long bike rides on the weekends.   I like to do more hands on activities and to teach so I do baking and arts and crafts with our son.

  • When do we spend time with each other? Probably the number one thing I can tell you to decrease stress within your marriage is to find time to be with each other without children.  You might feel selfish or even guilty for spending time away but I am telling you that it is necessary.   It is worth every penny to hire a babysitter on a regular basis or find some sort of respite so that you can get a break.   Join a gym, go for a walk, have a meal together, anything which rejuvenates you both.   It can't be all about the kids or you will lose your relationship with your spouse.   Make the time for yourselves and the whole family benefits as you will have more energy and stamina for when you are with your child.   It does no good for anyone if you are totally burned out and stressed out.   Remember the old adage, "If mama (or papa) ain't happy then nobody is happy."   How true that is**

I hope these tips are helpful to someone out there.   I know first hand how difficult it is to parent a child who has unique and difficult challenges.   It can take a toll on anyone's relationship.   But it doesn't have to.   Let's defy those statistics and do things to prevent the stress before it begins.   Sometimes the dissolution of a marriage is inevitable.   Yet there are some things we can do to increase the chances for a better outcome. How about you?   What problems have you encountered in your relationship due to parenting a child who has special needs?   Has anything helped?   Tell us your story.   As always we want to hear from you!