How Dads are Impacted When Kids Have Disabilities

This post was originally shared  on Father’s Day 2011 and examines some of the ways dads are impacted when they have a child with a serious disability.

Last year, an interesting study was presented at the International Society For Autism Research suggesting that over 30% of fathers of teens and young adults with autism experience symptoms of depression significant enough to warrant clinical attention. That’s a striking finding. For comparison, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that 7% of American men will experience depression in a given year. Examination of contributing factors to the higher rates of depression seen among men with teen or young adult children with autism may help us better appreciate what it’s like to walk in the shoes of a father of a child with a significant disability.

Based upon the experiences shared by fathers of kids treated in our practice, here are four thoughts as to why they may be more vulnerable to depression…

The impact having a child with a disability has upon one’s career. Fathers of kids with disabilities face a conundrum. Their presence at home may be even more important than it would be if their children were “typical,” given the impact that a child with a disability has upon everyone in the family. At the same time, the need to make enough money to pay for necessary treatments that are partially covered or not covered at all by health insurance is often present. They may have to work longer hours to pay for their child’s medical care. They may not be able to risk changing jobs if the new job provides less comprehensive insurance coverage. They may not be able to accept a promotion involving relocation when a move would result in the loss of access to needed educational and treatment services for their child.

The end result for a father of having a child with a disability may be unfulfilled career ambitions along with ongoing pressures to provide adequate financial support over and above what would otherwise be necessary to pay for costly treatments.

The challenge of providing for your family after your work life has ended. In our culture, the construct that we as men accept the responsibility of providing for our families is so much a part of our identity that when we’re unable to do so, the experience can be psychologically devastating. As the father of 15 and 12 year old girls who are “typical,” the challenge of figuring out how I’m going to pay for their education is pretty overwhelming. But I can assume that each of them will grow up to be independent and self-supporting. What if your child is going to require lifelong care and support? What plans do you have to make in the event you or your wife are incapacitated? How will your child be cared for when you’re gone?

Your relationship with your wife may be different than you envisioned. It’s easy for women to invest so much of their time and emotion and energy in caring for and advocating for the needs of their child with a disability that they may not have much left to share with their husbands by the end of the day. You may have very little opportunity to spend quality time with your wife, because of the lack of available child care or the lack of funds for a night out together…hence the need for free respite. You may not get to spend the romantic weekends together that your neighbors and coworkers enjoy. There’s a very good possibility that your sexual relationship with your spouse is going to suffer. There’s also a good possibility that you and your spouse will be more isolated socially that you would be if you didn’t have a child with a disability. Where we live, parents tend to associate with other parents who share a common interest through the activities their kids are engaged in…sports, school, church, scouts, other extracurricular activities. Fathers of kids with disabilities are more likely to lack the networks of supportive relationships that other men enjoy.

You may silently grieve ambitions for your child that be unfulfilled and experiences with your child that you won’t get to share. In my mind, this may be the greatest risk factor contributing to depression for fathers of kids with disabilities and the factor least likely to be recognized and discussed. All of us envision the relationships we hope to have with our kids and the shared experiences we hope to enjoy together. If you have a child with a condition such as autism in which their capacity for social interaction is by definition impacted, that’s a huge loss. Fathers of kids with disabilities may miss out on the experience of walking out on the field with their son or daughter on Senior Night for their sports team, teaching them how to drive, having their child treat them to a round of golf, or having the opportunity to play with their grandkids.

Several years ago, a very successful businessman sat in my office and sobbed when the reality set in that his son wouldn’t enjoy the types of friendships he had enjoyed growing up as a consequence of Asperger’s Disorder. The father was regularly paying for classmates to accompany their son on lavish ski vacations in Colorado or trips to beach resorts for diving and surfing lessons in the hopes that friendships would develop that never developed. Some parents live vicariously through their kids, but we all want our children to experience the things we treasure the most. When they can’t, that hurts.

I wrote this post last year sharing some thoughts on how churches might be able to help. Please check it out. And if you’re able, get off your computer and go spend some time hanging out with your dad today.

The picture on today’s blog was taken on October 3, 1993, when my dad and I had the opportunity to attend the last Tribe game at the old Cleveland Stadium.

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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One Response to How Dads are Impacted When Kids Have Disabilities

  1. I am a grandmother of a little 11yr old girl who has cerebal palsy and my son is the only father figure in her life since her Papaw died of cancer he and i took care of her till he couldn’t do it anymote my son is her uncle and he loves her just like she was his very own.I try to help him as much as i can but she will not let me do many things like lifting her because after two failed back surgeries and lung cancer myself she is so smart that she knows it would hurt me his wife helps with her which i appreciate it but by the governments way of dealing with my son he can not even get a medical card for himself and there are times he needs one cause she is a full time child that has to have everything done for her and i know he needs medical care at times because it wears him out but he doesn’t complain but i wish there were some way he could get medical card to help him thats what would help him the most.He had to stop his job because she has to be lifted and carried she can not do things any other things kids can do.I think it’s unfair that he can not get some type of medical card.He is depressed and worries about his little girl so much and there is nothing i can do cause of my medical problems if there is a medical card for fathers that is the caretaker of their children would be a blessing.This little one is our life but i need him around to help her when i can not.

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