Couples Therapy for Parents of Children with Special Needs

By Elizabeth Wilkins, LMFT-S, LPC, BCN, BCB

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Raising a child with special needs can be a challenging and rewarding experience. It routinely leaves parents feeling emotionally, physically, and financially drained. Whether your child struggles with ADD/ADHD, high anxiety, learning disabilities, extreme anger, or is on the autism spectrum, the daily challenges of parenting a child with special needs is not only taxing but can wear down even the strongest of relationships. It is common for parents of a child with special needs to lose touch, blame each other, and/or resent one another. Nightly conversations that used to be about supporting and caring for one another may have turned into quick scheduling sessions for the next day or week’s activities before each person passes out from exhaustion.When the intimacy of the relationship is lost, a couple can begin to feel more like roommates than partners. While figuring out how to rebuild that intimacy often seems overwhelming and arduous, marriage or couples counseling can help.

  • Every successful relationship depends on effective communication. If your child has special needs, strong communication skills between you and your partner are even more necessary. To deal with the day-to-day stress, both people in the relationship need to feel loved and appreciated. Unfortunately, one of the first things to go when stress spikes is taking the time to make sure your partner feels valued, respected, and understood.
  • Therapy can serve as a neutral environment for couples to talk about the different issues they face. It can also serve as a safe space to discuss the strong feelings or emotions that have built up over the years. Processing those emotions and learning to communicate about the effects of those feelings can be a healing experience in a relationship.
  • A therapist can teach couples ways of communicating so each person feels heard and validated. By building these skills and continuing to add to your communication toolbox, a couple can feel more confident and secure as they head into future challenges together.

Grief Work
  • Many times one or both parents may be grieving for the “ideal” life they had dreamed of for their child. Parents often start to imagine the wonderful things their child will do before he or she is even born. Maybe you dreamed your child would excel in school or sports, or maybe you just hoped they would have an easy and carefree life.
  • If you have a child with special needs, you may still need to grieve for the type of life you anticipated. At certain times of year or when your child reaches the age of expected milestones, you may experience a range of emotions, such as a sense of loss or sadness, disappointment, shame, guilt, or even anger. Because unresolved grief can lead to depression and anxiety, it is important that parents learn to acknowledge their feelings of grief, process the emotions together, and heal as they adjust to their child’s reality.
  • Though the stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, they do not necessarily move in an ordered or linear fashion. Someone who is grieving may experience all five stages or only a few, and some stages may be revisited. Men and women tend to grieve differently, and personal styles of grieving are usually influenced by personality and previous life experiences. In response, conflict can develop if one partner moves through the stages at a different speed or in a different order than the other.
  • Couples therapy can help parents not only process their grief, but also learn to adjust and cope with the stresses associated with the loss. By working through the grief together, a couple can find new meaning and a shared purpose.

Parenting Plan
  • Children tend to mirror the emotions of highly stressed, anxious, or angry parents. If you and your partner aren’t on the same page with your parenting styles, it’s likely your children will feel that tension and act out in response.
  • In addition, when a child is struggling with self-management skills, it is possible that one or both parents also have difficulty with self-management. While all children benefit from structure, routine, and consistency, children with special needs or those lacking strong self-management skills require structure in order to feel secure in their understanding of what is expected of them and what they can expect from the adults around them.
  • At the Tarnow Center for Self-Management, therapists can help parents work together to understand each partner’s style of parenting and how to compromise for the good of their child. The therapist can help parents create a behavior and discipline plan specifically tailored to the child or family, which may focus on emotional regulation, self-management skills, or anger-management skills. By working out strategies together, parents can rebuild a teamwork mentality and not feel as if they are in this alone.

  • As modern parents struggle to care for themselves and their families, taking time out for self-care may seem like an unattainable luxury. However, to remain a healthy and effective parenting team, individual and couple self-care is essential.
  • Caregiver burnout is a real thing. When your own needs are left untended for too long, resentment toward the very people you love and care for can take hold. In the same way that kids need time to relax, play, and “just be kids,” parents need time to pursue their own interests. Taking time to focus on things that are physically, emotionally, or intellectually stimulating is crucial to maintaining mental wellness.
  • It’s important to remember that self-care doesn’t have to be an all-day activity. Sometimes it might look like asking your partner to take care of breakfast in the morning so you can run or go to an early morning yoga class, or it might mean adjusting your monthly budget in order to hire a babysitter and go out on a date. Self-care looks different for every person and every couple, and a therapist can help you take a step back and assess what you can incorporate into your day for you and your relationship.

With the external and internal expectations of parents today, it’s no wonder that simply getting out of bed each morning can feel overwhelming. Add to that scenario the demands placed on parents of a child with special needs, and it’s easy to see how so many relationships struggle.

Marriage or couples therapy is an essential component for rebuilding and/or strengthening your relationship as well as your emotional and mental well-being. Whether that happens through learning new and effective ways to communicate, processing unresolved grief, building a new parental framework, or working to create time for yourself and your partner, you can begin to feel a renewed sense of strength and support.