Working Together to Parent a Child With Special Needs

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Parenthood. It’s a journey that, when we enter into it, we’re not exactly sure what to expect. For many of us, it’s a bumpy journey with some smooth roads along the way. We get onto the parenthood road thinking it will be exactly like our idyllic own childhood—or nothing like it, if ours was rocky—while integrating our presently held values.

Many parents—though certainly not all—split parenting duties with a spouse or long-term partner, ex-partner, or another adult. When you take the experience of parenthood and multiply it by two, you can end up with either alignment or misalignment. That alignment is known as the co-parenting alliance (Abidin & Kobold, 1999). Misalignment in any parenting relationship can be downright ugly—but when a child with special needs is involved, it's even more critical that parents align themselves effectively to ensure the child is getting the care and support they need.

The Co-Parenting Alliance, Defined

Let me begin by defining the co-parenting alliance. In essence, it’s how parents split up the responsibilities of the home as well as the care-taking. In some homes, mom may tend to the inside of the house, as well as manage homework, doctor’s visits, and play-dates, while dads tend to the outside of the house and take the lead on sports and extra-curricular activities, maybe even finances. These more "traditional" configurations are not as common as they once were, and there are countless other configurations that are possible as well. But however the responsibilities are split, parents are aligned when they talk about and agree on household rules, expectations for behavior, school performance, consequences, and household finances.

Notice that I’m not calling it the "parenting alliance"; it's the "co-parenting alliance" because of the need for there to be an agreed-upon balance. That balance doesn’t necessarily have to be exactly equal, but it does need to be agreed upon. For example, one parent may become the breadwinner and handle few household matters, while the other parent handles the majority of the day-to-day chores and child-related tasks. The roles can be taken on by either parent—mom or dad, husband or wife, or whatever works for you.

Abide by the three rules of homework. Number one: "Eat the frog," says Ted Theodorou, a middle-school social studies teacher in Fairfax County, Virginia. That's shorthand for "Do the hardest thing first." Rule number two: Put away the phone. Homework time can't be totally tech-free (computers, alas, are often a necessary evil), but it can at least be free of text messages. Rule number three: As soon as assignments are finished, load up the backpack for tomorrow and place it by the door. This is a clear three-step process that kids can internalize, so there's less nagging from you. (Yes!)

This all can be a bit tricky when you have a child with special needs, and this is when co-parents need to be especially on board. Which therapies? How often? What treatment plan is best? When the two of you are not in agreement on these or other complex issues, it can be a significant source of stress on the marital and parenting relationship.

Building the Co-Parenting Alliance: Know Your Parenting Style

Do you have an idea of which type of parenting style you have? The first step to strengthening your co-parenting alliance is to recognize your parenting style and understand how the two of you differ and agree.

According to Diane Baumrind (1991), there are four possible parenting styles: authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, and uninvolved. They differ on four variables: disciplinary strategies, warmth and nurturance, communication styles, and expectations for maturity and control.

Authoritarian parenting – this is the parenting style that most of us were raised with. “Do as I say, no discussion, no room for negotiation, or else!” There are high demands, low emotional responsiveness, and failure to obey results in punishment. This parenting style results in children who are anxious, angry and don’t learn to think for themselves.

Authoritative parenting – parents are firm but flexible, willing to listen to their child’s perspective and negotiate consequences, with a focus on setting boundaries and limits. When a child breaks a rule, consequences consist of taking away items or privileges with the opportunity to earn them back. This parenting style often results in children who are responsible, cooperative and self-reliant.

Permissive parenting – parents wish to be their child’s friend, have few expectations and demands. There is little discipline, low emotional supports, and they avoid confrontation for fear of being disliked. This parenting style often results in children who are anxious, scared, and feel unprotected.

Uninvolved parenting – parents don’t know much of what’s going on in their child’s life. They fulfill basic needs (e.g., food, clothes), but with little emotional connection. This parenting style often results in children who feel abandoned, are emotionally withdrawn, they learn to provide for themselves, and fear becoming dependent on others.

Once you know what parenting style you each have, discuss with your partner different ways you can work together and balance your conflicting (or overlapping) parenting style. When raising children, with special needs or neuro-typical, the Authoritative parenting style is ideal because there are clear boundaries established and maintained as well as consistency. There is also flexibility and openness to hearing the child’s perspective(s) but without the pressure to succumb to children’s desires and wants. Instead, there is an understanding that parents will hear what is being expressed, validate it, but not necessarily agree or grant permission for what is being requested or demanded.

This parenting style also provides nurturance and affection as well as interaction between parent and child, which can be missing within the other parenting styles. The ultimate goal of parenting is to raise well adjusted, happy children. This parenting style is most associated with this outcome.

Don’t Negate—At Least, Not Openly

Chances are, as parents, you won’t agree on all matters all the time. However, in the meantime, don’t negate or undermine another parent’s rule or consequence. Even if you don’t agree, if one parent has set a rule or circumstance, go with it. You can discuss it and make changes moving forward but avoid negating it or making statements such as, “That’s ridiculous. I don’t agree with that,” or “I wouldn’t have done that.”

Play with your children. Let them choose the activity, and don't worry about rules. Just go with the flow and have fun. That's the name of the game.

Speak to your spouse at a later time when your children are not within hearing distance. That may mean you will need to grab a cup of coffee to discuss so that little and big ears can’t eavesdrop on the conversation.

This is important because there are more decisions to make and more topics for the two of you to have different perspectives about, especially as they relate to your child with special needs. I strongly encourage you to listen to each other’s ideas about decisions to be made for your child and to understand that there are times when the two of you will need to negotiate or create a plan of how to approach a school meeting or school placement, amongst the many other decisions that need to be made on a somewhat daily basis.

Create the Circle of Trust

Connect with your family on a regular basis. Hold family meetings and let your kids talk about what’s going well and not so well in your house. Have regularly scheduled movie night. What about a pizza night once a week? Have dinner as a family at least 3-4 times each week, regardless of how crazy your schedule may be. At the table, talk about the highs and lows of your day. It will spark all kinds of conversations. Keep the family connection going as it keeps thoughts and feelings in open communication. Your children will feel like their voice matters. When a problem arises, you can problem solve and brainstorm together. This way, you child sees the impact of expressing a problem and working together cooperatively towards a solution.

It's very easy to feel disconnected as a family when your daily care can be intensive. By having this time a few times per week, it will help you all to connect on topics that are relevant to the entire family as well as lighter and even fun topics. For example, where to go on our next family vacation, what game do we want to play, where do we want to go out to eat on Saturday night to celebrate a family member’s birthday or anniversary? This also gives time and space for each family member to connect without the focus being on the child with special needs only.

Creating this circle of trust also helps to create a foundation for the family relationship so that in moments of stress, all family members can rally to help in an effort to return to homeostasis. With the understanding that it’s not if the family will return to homeostasis, but rather when. This also brings acknowledgement that the family system is a system where each part counts, and no one person’s presence or contributions are greater or less than the others.

Often, You Were a Couple Before You Became A Family

It may be difficult to remember that time when it was just the two of you. When you agreed on the daily activities of your home and activities. When you think about it, the number of decisions were fewer. There were two people to take into account. If you family is anything like mine, our personalities and preferences are vast. We don’t agree on how to tackle projects or homework. We disagree a lot.

Try to always be the adult you claim to be and have the emotional self-control to offer firm guidance, support and moral leadership. Sympathise with them but try not to solve their problems for them.

The stress of parenting a child with special needs can sometimes take a toll on your marriage. Having time to connect a few nights per week and just the two of you as a couple will give you the bonding time that each one of you have missed or have become angry or resentful for its absence. Connecting often and having open discussion about major decisions regarding therapies, doctor’s visits, school placement as related to your child with special needs, as well as to your other children, is essential in order to avoid burnout or feeling alone or lonely in parenting and in the marriage.

The benefits of co-parenting are lasting and positive: children are less stressed, less anxious and there are fewer instances of depression for both children and parents. There is also increased marital satisfaction. Children experience greater success in their relationships outside of the family. Parents are also able to invest time into social relationships with other couples and families (Feinberg & Kan, 2008).

In co-parenting, practice makes perfect. The more you practice being aligned, the easier it will become!