Marriage and Special Needs

Understanding and quelling conflict.

A child's learning and attention issues can be some of the biggest struggles families face. Learning disabilities and special needs may have tremendous effects on not only the child, but also the parents' relationship. It's common for parents not to see eye to eye when it comes to a child's learning disability (LD), which may lead to tension and conflict. These difficulties are only made rougher by the fact that each parent may experience big differences in how he or she copes with a child's learning and attention issues.

I know that what I'm writing is not true for every family, but it is true for mine and many families with whom I work as a speech-language pathologist. While I may be generalizing a bit, I believe that some parents have a harder time than others in accepting their children's learning disabilities or challenges. Understanding varying viewpoints may enable mothers and fathers to work together as a team to best help their child and maintain a strong marriage.

Moms, dads, and conflict

In my speech-language practice, I often find that one parent in particular is highly attuned to a child's learning struggles and emotional needs. Whether by conscious choice or due to work schedule constraints, this parent is at the front lines of communication with school teachers and staff and taking the child to therapy appointments. The other parent also cares very deeply about the child's success but has to heavily rely on a spouse to discover what's happening secondhand. Being removed from the situation, this parent may deny there is a problem or feel unable to help.

In my opinion, one parent in a marriage is usually more accepting of the truth and willing to seek answers to a suspected learning problem than the other parent. And this is where the conflict between partners often begins. Time and time again, I've seen situations where one parent feels that the child's struggles come from a problem like a learning disability, but the other parent feels that the child may just be lazy or unmotivated. I hear sentiments like, "If only she would concentrate," and, "Why can she learn complicated dance choreography, but she can't memorize things in school? She must not want to."

None of this is to say that certain parents care less about their children's learning struggles than their partners do, or that they always doubt an LD diagnosis. They likely display concern for their child's learning issues, but they just don't know how to help.

Moving beyond conflict

When one parent is in denial of a child's learning or attention issues, it's damaging to every aspect of the family relationship. The opportunity for open, honest communication — which is important in any family but crucial when a child has a disability or special need — is cut off. As marital counselors around the world will note, communication between partners is the key to a healthy relationship. That translates to open, trusting dialogue between partners, especially on difficult topics surrounding a child. I know from personal experience that it's easy to recognize the need for communication, but it's sometimes hard to make it happen.

For years, it was exceptionally difficult for me to communicate with my husband, who did not truly understand the depth and breadth of our daughter's LD. I tried talking to him when we were alone but could not get through to him. On one occasion in our family's LD journey, my husband agreed to go to a child psychologist with me. To my dismay, he sat there with his arms folded and legs crossed, with an expression on his face that clearly conveyed he did not want to be there. That session was a disaster, and we never tried it again. It was so disappointing to me but not really surprising. It took many more years until my partner truly became invested.

My husband finally did realize our daughter had an LD after we got a diagnosis from a neuropsychologist. He then regretted not listening for all those years. To his credit, he apologized to me and to our daughter for his lack of understanding. Most importantly, his change in attitude allowed for open communication between the three of us. He became a tremendous support to me, and a real champion for our daughter's needs.

I certainly have seen, and continue to see, couples where both partners are well versed in LDs and together bring their children to therapy. Both parents can also be very strong advocates for their children. I love when parents attend their child's speech evaluation as a team. The couple are aware that something is wrong, even if they can't quite put it into words. And once a disorder is identified, the parents are accepting and ready to move forward and get their child help.

Parents who work together to help a child learn and grow appear to have less conflict within the family and between themselves as a couple. The child feels the support due to a shared understanding of her needs and acceptance of her strengths and weaknesses. We all know that no one is perfect. Being open to discussing various learning styles and your child's specific learning disability can only enhance your partnership and your child's life.

Three Top Tips

  1. Make every effort to be a team. Attend meetings, evaluations, and consultations as a team to better understand your child's learning and attention issues.
  2. Believe in your child's ability. As parents, you must recognize that learning challenges are very real and can be quite frustrating at any age.
  3. Have a positive attitude about the future (even when it's hard to imagine it). Higher academic institutions are continuing to realize that students with learning and attention issues need support.