Family Dynamics Related to Raising a Child with Disabilities

Family Dynamics Related to Raising a Child with Disabilities

G. Emerson Dickman, J.D.

Over the years, I have recognized that there is often, but not inevitably, significant conflict in the relationship between the mother and father of a child with disabilities. Often the focus of professionals observing this phenomenon is on grieving and the parents being in different stages of the grieving process. Under such circumstances parents are apparently excused for being unable to communicate effectively. However, issues related to apparent atypical bonding between the mother and the child resulting in a concomitant neglect and estrangement of the father become a focus of family disputes, inevitable dysfunction, and chronic unhappiness.

Although the foregoing models may be informative and help to explain many situations, I find that many families struggle due to a lack of understanding regarding a perfectly healthy, adaptive response to the needs of a child with disabilities. For instance, when more than one person is involved, tasks required for survival are often divided along lines of skill and availability. In the case of a family with a child that has a disability, the stay-at-home spouse often assumes the responsibility of satisfying the disability related needs of the child.

This involves constantly expressing concern regarding the child, networking resources, and researching any information that may help define how best to meet such needs. Interestingly, the parent who has not assumed such role is often looked upon as less caring, less dedicated, less concerned, less involved, unappreciative, and lacking in support. In fact, the division of labor is a normal adaptive response to dealing with new challenges. The paradox in this situation is that if Dad was as involved in the process as Mom, conflict would arise immediately regarding who was more sensitive, more knowledgeable, more insightful, more effective, more caring, more dedicated, more informed, and just “more”.

In a situation where decisions have to be made on a daily basis, and sometimes on a minute-to-minute basis, there is only room for one at the top. Dad has to understand and appreciate the role that mom has assumed, and Mom has to understand and appreciate the role that circumstances have led Dad to assume.

Of course the roles could be reversed. I’ve just used the terms “Mom” and “Dad” to indicate the usual division of labor and not the inevitable division of labor.