Examining the Reality of Divorce Rates for Parents of Children with Disabilities

articles Feb 13, 2023

(Photo 258330047 / Couple Child Disability © Yuri Arcurs | Dreamstime.com)

Based on my experience working with families for over 20 years, I have observed that many couples become more robust as they navigate the challenges of parenting a child with additional needs. However, it is important to acknowledge that some couples may experience the opposite and instead grow apart.

There is no question that parents of children with disabilities often face unique challenges that can make it difficult to maintain a healthy and happy relationship.

Although research indicates that divorce rates among parents of children with disabilities are higher than the general population, we see interesting findings when we look closely at the research data.

Parenting a child with a developmental disability does not increase the rate of divorce per se. Still, rather other associated challenges, such as challenging behaviours, complex medical needs, or children needing a high level of care, are the factors that are more likely to put pressure on the relationship and increase divorce rates.

In this article, we'll explore why people divorce and what couples can do to strengthen their relationships and support each other.

Challenges of Raising a Child with a Developmental Disability

Parents of children with disabilities face a variety of challenges that can put a strain on their relationship.

One of the biggest challenges is the increased stress and responsibility of caring for their child, including frequent doctor appointments, therapy sessions, special education programmes, and the emotional toll of dealing with the day-to-day challenges of caring for children with additional needs.

Additionally, parents may face financial stress due to the costs of medical care and therapy services. Because of the current waitlists in public services, families are forced to seek private assessments and interventions. These stressors can lead to feelings of worry, anxiety, and burnout, all of which can take a toll on a marriage.

When we look at parents in the general population, there is a greater risk of divorce during the early childhood years, before the teenage years, which can be related to the high parenting demands. After this time, the divorce rate decreases; however, there is a smaller increase again during midlife.

In contrast, parents of autistic children experience a high level of parenting demands beyond the early years and into adolescence and adulthood. Therefore, they are at a higher risk of stress leading to separation and divorce.

Another challenge parents of children with disabilities face is the impact of the disability on their family dynamics. Siblings may feel neglected or resentful, and parents may struggle to balance the needs of all family members, including their own. However, interestingly, research shows that parents of children with developmental disabilities who had more children were more likely to remain together -contrary to families that don't have children with developmental disabilities, as there is a higher incidence of divorce associated with a higher number of children.

Impact of Divorce on Children with Disabilities

Divorce can be particularly challenging for children with disabilities, and they may struggle with changes in routine and may have difficulty understanding the reasons for the divorce. Additionally, parents may have to navigate custody arrangements and financial support for their child's unique needs, which can be complex and stressful.

Research has shown that children with disabilities are more likely to experience emotional and behavioural problems after their parents' divorce. They may also have difficulty adjusting to new living arrangements and struggle to maintain relationships with both parents.

However, parents can alleviate this by supporting their children in adjusting to the separation by working together and prioritising the needs of their children.

How to Strengthen Your Relationship

If you are the parent of a child with a disability, there are steps you can take to strengthen your relationship and support each other. Here are some tips:

  1. Communicate: Open and honest communication is essential for any marriage, but it's crucial when caring for a child with a disability. Make time to talk to each other and share your feelings, concerns, and needs. It's also important to understand that you and your partner might have different views about parenting a child with special needs. Be willing to listen and understand each other.
  2. Take Time for Yourself: It's essential to take time for yourself to recharge and prevent burnout. As a busy parent, I understand that it feels impossible to find time for yourself, but you must find the time to rest and recharge, as this will benefit your physical and mental health. Taking time to yourself could mean taking a walk, practising meditation, or doing something you enjoy. Even doing something simple like meeting a friend for a coffee and a chat can help you feel better when you are overwhelmed. Remember that your partner needs time to themselves too. You may talk and arrange a time when you or your partner have some "me-time".
  3. Seek Support: Some family members and close friends will be happy to support you in whichever capacity they can, but you may need to take the initiative and ask for help. Be very precise about what you need. Rather than saying, "I wish I had time to myself", ask, "could you please babysit for an hour so I can go to a yoga class?". Also, child disability services have social workers who can advise you about practical supports and counselling services available to your family.
  4. Connect with others: Many parents find invaluable support in parent support groups. Here in Ireland, we have Down Syndrome Ireland branches, Down Syndrome Centres, Autism parents support groups and other community groups for parents of children with additional needs. My husband and I have found invaluable support by connecting with other parents of autistic children.  
  5. Learn together: It's crucial to educate yourself about your child's disability and the best ways to support them. Involve your partner in this process, so you can learn together and stay on the same page. Numerous organisations offer training programmes for parents, which can provide you with insights on how to understand and respond to your child's needs, improve your relationship with your child, and decrease challenging behaviours.
  6. Work as a Team: Caring for a child with a disability requires teamwork. Find ways to divide responsibilities and support each other in meeting the needs of your child and family. It's easy to feel overwhelmed when we have children with additional needs. Remember, your partner is most likely overwhelmed by all the responsibilities too. Communicate often to ensure you continue to support each other as much as possible.  
  7. Fun family time: Your child's needs may determine what leisure activities you can do together. You may feel sad and frustrated that you can't go to a restaurant or travel abroad together as a family. I understand how upsetting this can be; however, focus on what you can do together now. A trip to the beach, a weekend away in a family-friendly hotel, a movie and popcorn at home, or dinner at the local pizzeria may be possible. Aim to do something fun together as a family at least once a week. These activities can make family time enjoyable and keep your relationship strong.

Raising a child with a disability impacts families differently, so it's important to know and recognise the unique challenges that come with it.

However, there are things you can do to strengthen your relationship and support each other. Communicate with your partner and let each other know how you are feeling and what you need. Also, try and educate yourself about your child's disability, how to support their development and develop a positive relationship with your child. 

Your turn: What other tips would you give to parents to maintain a healthy relationship? Let me know in the comments below so we can support each other!

P.S. Do you want to learn more about how to prevent problem behaviour and how to respond when they occur?

I often teach a Masterclass on preventing and responding to challenging behaviours.
This Masterclass is suitable for parents and educators of children with developmental delays, Down Syndrome, intellectual disabilities, speech and language delays and autistic children from 2 to 6 years of age.


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