Judy Grossman, DrPH, OTRDr. Grossman is a family therapist and Associate Director at the Center for the Developing Child and Family at the Ackerman Institute, New York, NY.
At best, family relationships are challenging, but raising a child with LD or ADHD can create stress that ripples through the entire family. Concerns about a child with learning challenges can impact relationships between siblings, parents and children, and even extended family. None, however, is more vulnerable than the relationship between partners, which sets the tone for the rest of the family.
Reactions to a child’s personal and academic struggles coupled with differences in child-rearing practices often create conflict or tension in a marriage. In addition, problems in the marital relationship may impact feelings of adequacy and competence in the parental role.
When there are unresolved marital issues, a child may become the scapegoat for family problems. In such situations, relentless focus on the child’s problems may divert the parents’ attention from their interpersonal issues; this in turn creates additional stress for the child.
Ideally, partners should take a team approach to parenting, including shared responsibility for decision-making and child management. This requires knowledge of the child’s specific issues, communication, and support. Parents should discuss differences and develop cooperative practices.
As the partnership improves, there will be more time to focus on other children, the marital relationship, and personal needs.
Use the following guidelines to examine issues that may be affecting your relationship with your partner:
- Beliefs and Emotions. It’s not unusual to experience ambivalent feelings toward your child: sometimes you feel supportive, loving, and patient; other times you feel frustrated and discouraged. Help your partner express a range of feelings (anxiety, shame, frustration, anger). Talk to each other about your feelings regarding your child’s condition, his school experience, and the future. Do you blame yourself for not recognizing the problem sooner? What are your concerns about the diagnosis? How do you feel about the services he’s receiving?
- Family History. Talk about your family histories. Did anyone have LD in your family and, if so, how was it handled? Do you recognize intergenerational patterns or personal characteristics that are similar to your child’s?
- Parenting Practices. Agree on a consistent approach and cooperative practices to address expectations, discipline, homework, and extracurricular and family activities. Although different parenting styles can be complementary, it’s important not to give your child mixed messages.
- Parent-Child Time. Talk about how each of you can encourage your child’s unique strengths and abilities through sports, creativity, or social activities. Do you each spend time with him fostering his interests and talents?
- Family Roles. What family roles have you assumed and what do you expect from each other? Is one parent overly involved and too protective? Is the other withdrawn and too uninvolved? Discuss your respective responsibilities with regard to ongoing demands such as homework, chores, communicating with the school, and general decision-making.
- Family Stress. Discuss other sources of family stress that may contribute to conflict. Does work, family, or social responsibilities compromise your energy and commitment to each other? Do you spend your time together arguing about the “problem” child so that inadvertently he is the scapegoat for family problems?
- Coping Skills. Talk about how you manage family stress. Do you communicate effectively and work together to solve problems? Are there sufficient resources to deal with problems such as time, money, information, practical assistance, and emotional support?
Raising a child with learning differences or ADHD can cause tension and conflict or it can energize a family and promote resilience. Since the adults’ relationship sets the tone for the rest of the family, find time to connect as a couple. A supportive family environment helps each family member develop confidence and self-respect.
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