“I’m not sure we can make it through this:” How parents of special needs kids can lessen stress and have a healthy, happy marriage.

By Jeffrey Marler on January 29, 2015 in Blog with No Comments

Janet felt the resentment building and tried to squash it down, as usual..

Another disastrous trip to the grocery store with Daniel. She put the groceries away and sat down at the kitchen table, chin in hand, staring at the wall. “I can’t go on like this,” she thought, every nerve standing on end. Every ounce of patience exhausted.

“It’s not fair.”Happy Marriage autism

Something had to change. She needed help. But what?

Janet’s husband has a prestigious job that requires him to travel, leaving her to take care of the day-to-day activities. Of course, she once had an exciting career—which she had no regrets about leaving when Daniel came along, but still…

Most days she sucked it up and was fine. Dealing with a tall, pre-teen, severely autistic son wasn’t easy—it was getting harder to wrestle him to the ground when he was having one of his…moments. And taking him out in public was stressful. He looked like any average kid, so people were prone to stare, shake their heads in disapproval, or even make nasty comments about her parenting when he had a meltdown.

One time some lady even called child protective services. What a nightmare.

Some days she dreamed of running away somewhere, and this was one of those times. She thought of her husband, who had been away for a couple weeks. “Must be nice.” He did get to escape.

The familiar jealousy and resentment tried to creep in again.

Janet shared how she was feeling with her husband, and they decided to look into getting a service dog. Janet researched the idea and found that children with autism often benefitted from interacting with dogs, which are loving, non-judging companions that can alleviate stress. And it wouldn’t hurt that her son could learn a little about responsibility in caring for the dog.

kids special needs marriage home

They decided to get a sweet, obedient female German shepherd. It was a great decision for their family—the benefits she’d read about held true.

Now, when she has to bring Daniel along to the store, she also brings the service dog. When people see the dog, they are aware of Daniel’s disability. Instead of judgmental stares, their faces light up when they see the dog. All focus is off of Janet and Daniel and on the dog.

What a relief.

Even if your child’s learning challenges aren’t at Daniel’s level, you can probably relate to the tension, resentment and stress. Maybe your marriage is already on the rocks.

Now, I’m not saying go out and buy a German shepherd. I’m just saying you don’t have to be a victim—there are real things you can choose to do to that make a hard situation a bit less stressful.

As parents of a wonderful daughter with Williams Syndrome, my wife, Edie, and I have walked through some pretty rough terrain together. We’ve shared emotional ups and downs, disagreements, mental exhaustion, the resentment of not being able to have a “normal” life, and the worry that all our efforts would be fruitless. It’s stressful on a marriage, to be sure.

special need kid happy marriageBut I want to encourage you:  you can do this. It might not look like what you expected. Other people probably aren’t going to understand, and some of them will be downright rude. Your marriage will be tested, pulled, stretched and squeezed.  You will spend tons of time on the phone with specialists and filling out paperwork. You may have already experienced some of this.

Whether you’re newbies as parents or seasoned pros, I’ve listed some suggestions below that have been helpful in my own experience as a father, and that of parents I’ve worked with in my office over the years. If you’re willing to lay the groundwork, you can serve the needs of your child with less stress and conflict, and even strengthen your marriage bond. So read through these and see if you can begin to incorporate any of them into your routine—even just one small change is a step in the right direction.

Have a conversation about your fears and concerns. You’re both coming from different backgrounds, perspectives, and priorities. Don’t assume your spouse feels the same as you do about the situation. Your wife may be optimistic about your child’s future, while all you see is hopelessness…You may be ready to get your family members on board, but your wife is nervous about being judged by them… You are ready to look at long-term strategies to improve your child’s development, but your husband wants a quick “fix.”

You may be feeling tense right now, just thinking about such a conversation.

It’s important the two of you really understand each other, so if you find it too painful or upsetting to discuss these feelings on your own, I’d recommend you seek a family therapist who can lead you through these issues.

If you’ve never experienced going to a family therapist before and are unsure, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. The therapist will be able to identify emotions, stressors, and tensions that arise in the family dynamic and offer solutions that you may not have considered. And in the long run, you will learn how to communicate more effectively with your spouse as you get used to honestly expressing your emotions.

communicate family parent special need kid

Gather a support group of friends, family and professionals. This will vary depending on your child’s needs, but the important thing is that you don’t feel like you have to “go it alone.” Even the bravest of knights had an armor bearer.

The process of finding friends who will be helpful can be tricky, I admit. Some friends who were close before you had a child with special needs may drift out of your life. If that happens often enough, you may get discouraged and give up on friendships altogether!

But look around—who has offered to help? Who has expressed an interest more than just a casual, “How are you?” Perhaps you’re acquainted with someone who has faced similar situations who could offer advice. Ask if you can “pick her brain” for information—people love to be asked their opinion. You never know; she could end up becoming a life-long friend.

You can encourage more understanding and invite help just by making a list of things that would make your life easier—people really have no idea, even those who are close to you. When someone asks how they can help, you’ll already have the list together, so then it just becomes a matter of matching the task to the person.

Don’t be proud—if someone offers to help, take them up on it!

Another great option is to join a support group for parents with special needs kids. You could find a group that is specific to your kid’s diagnosis, such as an autism group.  Others who have done this find it refreshing to be in an understanding environment, around people who accept your child for who he is—without worrying about disapproving stares or offensive comments that are common in other public places.

At the bottom of the page I’ve included a list put out by Focus on the Family with some practical ways to reach out and establish various kinds of relationships. Try some of them and let me know how it goes.

Help each other to see the half-full glass.  Amidst all the appointments with doctors, therapists, teachers, etc., it can become a habit to focus solely on the things that are causing problems—the things your child isn’t doing, can’t do, or will perhaps never be able to do.

But it’s possible to acknowledge the “half-empty” part—the frustrating, grieving, dream-crushing part—without “living” there. Resolve to deliberately celebrate the gifts and talents your wonderful child has been given. Focus on the things you, as a couple, can do that are helpful, rather than dwell on the things that you can’t change.

Be careful though—in your desire to stay optimistic, you could come across as critical of your spouse’s attitude, and that will lead to conflict. So, for example, instead of responding to a critical comment with, “Why are you always so negative?” you could tell your spouse a funny (or amazing, or brilliant, or upbeat) story of something that your child did that day. You have the power to turn a negative into a positive. Focus on that.

parent family communication

Schedule your communication time. If you don’t schedule it, it won’t happen. Parents of special needs children don’t have much time for themselves, as it is. If you want to be successful in your marriage and less stressed, make it a priority to keep the communication channels with your spouse open by setting aside 15 minutes (or whatever time works for you) every day.  During that time you can:

  • go over schedules and appointments, so no one feels left out of the loop.
  • discuss important decisions that need to be made, so both of you have time to have input.
  • express concerns and/or celebrate achievements.
  • communicate your thankfulness for your spouse’s role—a little appreciation goes a long way.
  • evaluate if the load is being shared appropriately, and give each other permission to be honest about any issues of resentment for the tasks they’ve been maintaining.

Do whatever you need to do to make your life even a little bit easier.  For Janet and her husband, getting a service dog was a solution that alleviated many aspects of the stress in their lives. Maybe for you it’s the stress of knowing you can’t keep up with the mountain of housework, and the constant mess is driving a wedge between you and your spouse.

So get a house cleaner to come a couple times a month. There’s no shame in that.

Even if you think you can’t afford it, can you afford to have so much tension in your life that your marriage is suffering? Maybe someone who has offered to help in the past would be willing to pay for a maid to come once in awhile. You may have to swallow your pride, but there are solutions for you.

Identify the things that make your heart race in panic when you think about them, or those things that cause you and your spouse to argue regularly. Can you delegate any of those things to someone else?

Be as organized as you can be. There’s nothing that breeds stress like being disorganized. I’m not saying you have to be like Miss Moneypenny;  just make sure you can find what you need when you need it.MARRIAGE HAPPINESS FAMILY

Some have found it helpful to keep some sort of records, whether an Excel document or other system,  of the contact information for all the doctors, therapists, school personnel, or anyone else who has in the past or is currently working with your child. Then anytime you have an appointment with someone new, you can print off this list and bring it with you.

Take an afternoon and create a booklet or packet that has all the information about your child that someone who doesn’t know her would need to know. This is especially helpful for kids who are non-verbal or limited in their speech.

List the child’s disorder, the symptoms and characteristics, known behavioral issues, and your contact info. Include the child’s personal likes and dislikes. Highlight special abilities and include pictures that show past achievements.

You could use this booklet as a tool to inform your family and friends of your child’s needs, so they can understand your situation and how to interact with your child better. But it also would be nice to have it available if someone offers to babysit, or to hand to a teacher if your child goes to preschool, for example.

Final Wordmarriage relationship special need kid

The bottom line is that being parents is the most humbling experience on the planet. And when your kids need extra help that most parents don’t have to even think about, it puts extreme stress on your marriage. You’re going to have to be proactive, stay connected, think ten steps ahead and let go of pride–with each other and with all your relationships. Save your pride for when your child does something AWESOME!

I’d love to hear about solutions you’ve found that have alleviated tension in your marriage. Why not take a moment and share your ideas in the comments, below?

In the future I’ll be sharing more ways parents can be better prepared for challenges unique to having kids with special needs. As always, if you have any questions or concerns, feel free to contact me.

Dr. Jeff


Relationship builders from Focus on the Family

The author of the article (see below) shared how he and his wife approached making and keeping healthy relationships. Have you tried any of these? Do you have other suggestions? Let us know in the comments section.

Invited teachers to our home for dinner to get to know them

Chaperoned field trips when additional help was needed

Answered calls and notes promptly so people knew we were caring individuals

Wrote notes of encouragement to others in challenging places in life

Thanked people who helped us at church as well as family members who reached out at various times showing concern and/or compassion

Tried never to make people feel as if they should help us

Allowed others to help us

Asked for help when needed (We’re still learning this one!)

Tried to stay connected to those we love in our lives

Shared our joys and struggles only with those willing to listen

Desired to be transparent in our struggles so that others didn’t think we had it all together

Did not take advantage of others’ help

Took chances in building relationships by learning with whom we could share, what we could share and with whom we could or couldn’t cry

Prayed with and for others, including doctors, teachers, family and friends

Provided meals for others as we were able

Watched others’ children when needed

Helped others in practical ways when needed

Accepted advice and counsel from our parents, friends, doctors, teachers, aides and even our children

Accepted meals with gratitude and always wrote a note of thanks

Tried to show appreciation without criticism, expectation, whining or complaining about how those who helped did things differently from us

When someone offered some service, wrote down their name so we could ask them for help when we had need (a list that came in handy a number of times)

 (from http://www.focusonthefamily.com/parenting/parenting-challenges/parenting-a-special-needs-child/feeling-isolated)

Jeffrey Marler

About Jeffrey Marler

Jeffrey Marler has written 44 posts in this blog.

Speech Pathologist, Communicator, Listener, Researcher, Therapist, | Southlake, Texas Dr. Marler is an internationally recognized clinical researcher. At ASPIRE – Innovative Language Interventions, PLLC, you receive care and treatment from a professional with 28 years of experience with learning disabilities and 15+ years as a speech-language pathologist. Dr. Marler has a PhD in Speech and Hearing Science with an emphasis in auditory-based learning disabilities. Connect on Google+

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