Support for women and general support for families of children with special needs often misses the mark in making sure the fathers feel supported. Fatherhood programs have the important role of providing programming and support for fathers of children with special needs. By focusing on the unique feelings a father experiences while raising a child with special needs, fatherhood programs can better connect them to networks and groups with other fathers of children with special needs.
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. For example, 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.”
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.
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.
Tips & Best Practices
- Programs should focus on providing emotional support to fathers in particular, who are often overlooked in discussions on parenting children with special needs. This is important considering that parents of children with special needs often report lower levels of marriage satisfaction and increased difficulties with their partner. Often this assistance could take the form of fatherhood groups, allowing fathers to feel they are not in this alone.
- Spread awareness about the wide range of services and support programs that are available to fathers of children with special needs. From providing them with information on what schooling may look like to encouraging them to become their child’s advocate, fathers can use fatherhood programs to help show them the way.
- Program staff should provide information on specific developmental conditions of children, but also emphasize that every child is unique, and his or her needs will vary greatly. Listen to a webinar focusing on providing resources and support for fathers of children with special needs for more tips and insights.
Kindering has provided services for children with special needs and their families since 1962. Under the Kindering umbrella, the Fathers Network began to provide specific support for fathers in 1978, when it was known as the Fathers Program. The Fathers Network assists dads in becoming more competent and compassionate caregivers for their children with special needs. The program provides resources, information, and education; coordinates social activities for fathers and families; and facilitates biweekly discussion groups for dads. The program also offers referrals to family therapists who themselves have children with special needs, and holds a five-week group series, Unexpected Journey, for new mothers and fathers.
The University of Washington-Bothell conducted a 2012 survey of 146 Fathers Network participants. The study found that program participation had several positive effects, as quoted in a 2013 NRFC webinar:
- Anxiety decreased ‒ 97%
- Feelings of hopelessness decreased ‒ 57%
- Enthusiasm toward their child increased ‒ 69%
- Feelings of joy increased ‒ 67%
- Family relationships improved ‒ 77%
- Having someone to relate to increased ‒ 80%
How do fathers differ from mothers in how they process the special needs of their child?
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.
What are common coping strategies in fathers that practitioners often see?
Working is a very common coping strategies for fathers of children with special needs. Holding a job and being able to provide for the family are typically important parts of a father’s self-esteem and identity. Fathers want flexibility from their employers and their service providers so they can more successfully provide for their families and play an active role in their children’s lives.
What types of resources do fathers typically want?
A 2009 survey of 109 Family Connections participants indicated that fathers were particularly interested in financial information, assistance with developing parenting skills, information on their child’s special needs, ways to cope with stress, and how to create circles of support for themselves and their family.