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Why Dads of Kids With Disabilities Need Support, Too

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I meet a lot of parents of children with disabilities and medical needs in my work and connect with many more through websites and online forums. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that most of them are moms, not dads. There are exceptions, of course, but it’s fair to say that the overwhelming percentage of parents I see are the mothers. So where have all the dads gone?

Approximately one in five children have additional needs of some kind. There is a huge range in how those needs may impact a child and their family. Across that wide range, however, there are families trying, and sometimes failing, to cope.

I’m a dad to an autistic teenager who has a learning disability and epilepsy, so I very much get how hard parenting a child with disabilities can be. What I have learned, is that I can only succeed if I am willing to reach out and accept help.

From personal experience, this may be why some dads seem to be so much less visible:

1. Working or distanced. 

Bringing up a child with additional needs or a disability is expensive, with the average cost of bringing up a disabled child being three times greater than other childrenwhile average incomes for families with a disabled child is 23.5 percent below the mean. It’s a double-whammy.

Parents often struggle to make ends meet while also providing the care needed for their children, and often this results in one parent taking on the role of primary wage earner while the other parent takes on more caregiving responsibilities (as well as sometimes some part-time work).

Living in 2019 though we are, it seems that where both parents are still in the home, predominantly the role of primary wage earner is taken by the father, while the mom becomes the primary caregiver and part-time wage earner. Sometimes, I hear of dads who, in struggling to cope with having a disabled child and due to financial pressures, they distance themselves by extending their work hours. They may then play golf on the weekend or retreat to watch football on their own, away from their family. It could be easy to judge dads who do this, but when I’ve met groups of dads, I’ve learned that many of them are failing to cope with the often self-imposed pressures of being “strong for the family,” and the fact that their child’s disability is the one thing they cannot “fix.”

2. Separated.

Parenting kids with disabilities can be tough. We have more to cope with than typical families do. 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 misplaced guilt that many parents sometimes experience, it can all add up.

Fifty three percent of families claim that having a disabled child causes relationship difficulties or breakups, which is considerably higher that the population in general, suggesting there could be a link between being an additional needs parent and family breakup. Thirty two percent of disabled children live in single parent families compared to 22 percent of other children. When families break apart, it is usually the dad who leaves the family home.

3. Ongoing support.  

It is vital that communities, organizations and churches look to provide ongoing support for families with children who have additional needs or disabilities. It is so important that these institutions or organizations look beyond simply including children and moms, but focus on dads, too. Can a church offer respite services free of charge so that parents can go out and invest in their relationship? Specifically for dads, is there someone they can call for support when everything feels as if it has fallen apart and everyone is finding it all too hard to cope? Are there support groups for dads to share their experiences and stories, to help each other to know that they are not alone, not the only ones dealing with stuff?  There may be financial pressures, are dads aware of resources that are designed to help families of children with disabilities?

There is plenty we can do to understand the stresses and strains that dads face, and to support them through these tough times with practical and emotional support.

Who do you know in your community or church who could use your support?


Originally published: January 28, 2019
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