From a Father’s Perspective
Practitioners with personal experience with children with special needs and who work with fathers of children with special health needs describe the feelings fathers may experience:
- Loneliness and isolation
- James May, a pioneer in the area of fathers of children with special needs, pointed out that feelings of embarrassment about their child’s lack of developmental appropriateness and the tendency to have fewer social supports than women lead to high feelings of isolation for many men.4
- At a Fathers Network meeting in Columbia, South Carolina, one father remarked: “All the other dads at the lunch table talked about how successful their kids were in their little league football games the over last weekend … I’m just thrilled my son is out of pull-up diapers.5
- “Hunter-provider” anxiety
- Many men in fatherhood programs feel ineffective as they struggle to find steady employment and balance their roles as fathers, husbands, and providers. These feelings may amplify when they face the demands and costs of medical or therapeutic care for their children.
- Greg Schell of the Washington State Fathers Network reported that approximately 86 percent of children with special health care needs require prescription medications, 52 percent need specialty medical care, 33 percent need vision care, 25 percent require mental health care, 23 percent need specialized therapies, and 11 percent need special medical equipment.6
- Strained marital relationships
- Although divorce rates for couples who have children with special needs are nearly identical to divorce rates of other families,7 practitioners note that parents in these families often report low rates of marriage satisfaction.
- Ray Morris noted, “Having a child with special needs can put a strain on even the most solid marriage.”8
- Feelings of inadequacy
- According to W.C. Hoecke, some fathers say their partners have become “super saints” or “super educators.” They perceive their partners as “having all the information and answers” and feel their own perspective often is overlooked or ignored in dealing with their child’s issues. These feelings can increase if mothers are the “primary receivers of information” and fathers have to rely on “second-hand information” from mothers.
- A father in the Family Connection of South Carolina program said: “I feel I can’t compete with her level of informational knowledge about my child’s disability, treatments, or knowledgeable care for my child.”
Based on their experiences working with fathers who have children with special needs that span a broad spectrum, practitioners in the field also maintain that:
- Responsive fathering is a strong predictor of better developmental outcomes for children, including improved emotional regulation, communication skills, and cognitive and language development.
- Increased father involvement in early intervention services can ease the overall workload for mothers, reduce maternal stress, and strengthen family cohesion. However, fathers’ needs often are overlooked.
- Fathers and mothers of children with special needs have many of the same issues and concerns, but there might be differences in how they respond to their child’s condition, what they do to cope, and what they find helpful.
- If professionals are not involving fathers with father-specific services, they are missing important opportunities to maximize critical gains and supports for the children.
- Fathers want information about their child’s condition and development, what can be done to help, and what services are available to help their child and the family as a whole.
- Fathers want someone outside the family to talk to about their worries and concerns; however, they might not be very good at seeking this type of help. Also, most fathers prefer male support groups because they feel more comfortable sharing their concerns with other men.
- Working is a common coping strategy for fathers and important for their identity and self-esteem. Fathers want flexibility from employers and service providers so they can respond to their children’s needs, attend appointments, and be involved in decisions and care for their child.