Dads of Children with Special Needs Overview

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Many families face the challenges associated with raising a child with special needs, a term that covers a broad range of conditions or chronic illnesses. Approximately 20 percent of U.S. children under the age of 18 require special accommodations or services due to a chronic physical, developmental, behavioral, or emotional condition. About 65 percent of these children need comprehensive services in addition to prescription medications. Special health needs exist across a wide spectrum and may involve medical, behavioral, developmental, learning, or mental health issues. But all involve worries and concerns that often lead to feelings of isolation and helplessness for parents.

Although special health needs may not be the first issue that many fatherhood programs focus on, practitioners should be aware of the issue to fully meet the needs of their program participants. This page provides fatherhood programs with information on special and how programming can support fathers of children with special needs.

“Each father confronted with his child’s diagnosis responds in his own unique way, often displaying a range of emotions including lack of understanding and fear ... one thing fathers need to hear is that they are not in this alone ... there are other fathers facing similar issues and there are coping strategies and resources that can help.”
W.C. Hoecke, Family Connection of South Carolina 

“It is inevitable there will be dads in your programs having disabilities themselves, and also some having children with disabilities … Preparing effectively to meet, interact with, and support dads having special needs or children with special needs will take some planning.”
Greg Schell, Washington State Fathers Network

“We make the journey with dads because no man should be alone.”
Ray Morris, Dads 4 Special Kids

Tips & Best Practices

  • Many resources that provide information about parenting children with special needs are targeted towards mothers. Finding resources that are directed towards fathers helps them feel more secure in their parenting abilities. When fathers feel more secure they are more likely to become more involved in the lives of their children with special needs.
  • It is important for fatherhood programs to have staff trained to work with families with special needs. Properly trained staff can guide fathers to important information and build fathers’ confidence. This NRFC research brief provides more tips on how staff can encourage fathers of children with special needs.
  • A big milestone for children with disabilities is entering schooling. If families choose public or private schooling, there will likely be many questions. Schools have programs in place to aid children with special needs. Some schools even offer support groups. This fact sheet can help fatherhood programs and fathers understand what support schools offer students with special needs.
  • Couples who have children with special needs often report low marriage satisfaction. Couples counseling, workshops on communication skills, and handouts can be important components of programming to help support fathers of children with special needs.
  • Fathers can be overwhelmed with the challenges that come with raising a child with special needs. This anxiety can sometimes cause fathers to become less involved in their child’s life. Encouraging fathers to become involved in both the physical and emotional care of their children can help strengthen the parent/child bond and improve child development.

FAQs

How can I make sure that program staff are aware of special needs issues and prepared to assist fathers?

Most fatherhood curricula include handouts that illustrate the range of behaviors that generally can be expected at different stages of child development. By raising staff awareness (while acknowledging that children move through these stages differently) a program can encourage fathers to ask for support if they think that their child is experiencing a developmental delay.

What role should our fatherhood program play in supporting fathers of children with special needs?

Fatherhood programs can help facilitate support groups and learning. Fatherhood programs should help connect fathers to local resources. Assisting parents in understanding what government services are available can be a huge help to parents who may not be aware they are available.

How can I help fathers navigate schooling for their children with special needs?

Fatherhood programs can work to support fathers by advocating for fathers’ involvement in their children’s education. Providing fathers with ways to get more information to support their child’s educational development is another way to help fathers.

How does father involvement influence child development?

​​​​​​Father involvement in the life of a child with special needs has a positive influence on their development and social engagement. Children with special needs can gain stronger language and social skills when they have an active, engaged father.

What are families with special needs typically concerned about?

Special needs is an umbrella term for a broad spectrum of diagnoses. Provide families with information that will relate to the special needs diagnosis particular to them. Based on the special needs of the family, they will be concerned with medical issues, behavior issues, developmental issues, learning issues, or mental health issues. No matter what fathers and their families are concerned about, help them to be as informed as possible. 

What can other fathers learn from fathers of children with disabilities?

Fathers of children with disabilities often display a high degree of resiliency and commitment. Fathers of children with disabilities can experience more stress and have unique challenges to face when raising their children, but this also equips these fathers to handle other high-stress situation with a sense of calmness.

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