Coping with disability in the early years

When your child has a disability, the stress of parenthood can be amplified. You may still be reeling from the shock of your child’s diagnosis, or from trying to get clarity on what their condition involves. The impact of parental stress on your relationship can be hardest to cope with in the early years [1]. 

The first few years of your child’s life are essential for the child’s development, and also for you as parents. Learning some coping skills early on can make you more resilient, setting up the way you’ll deal with stressful situations in the future, so it’s worth spending some time getting it right [2].

Learning how to cope


Coping is a skill, and – like other skills – it can be learned and improved. Think of coping as the set of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that get you through difficult or stressful situations [3]. It’s much easier to change your thoughts than your emotions, so the first step towards learning to cope with difficult situations is to approach them with the right attitude.

When you’re stressed, you might feel like running away and hiding, or you might just wish things were different. While this might help in the short term, you probably already know that it’s not an effective long-term solution. Take the time to talk things through with your partner and look for solutions. Try to take on an attitude of problem-solving as you face each issue – getting into the habit of doing this will help you cope and support each other better in future [4].

For example, if your child is prone to bouts of anger, you may feel tempted to try and placate your child, or avoid situations where an outburst would be particularly embarrassing. This can become extremely stressful for parents who have a child who has, or is developing, behaviour that challenges. It’s so important to seek help early.

Discussing problems while they’re not actually happening can make it easier to stay calm when they do happen. With the example above, you might find it gets easier to keep your cool, and hold the space while your child’s anger runs its course, leaving a way through to understanding the cause of the outburst.

When you have time, find out about any help you may be entitled to, and strategies you can use to deal with their behaviour. Have a look at Contact's information on behaviour, including their guide to Understanding your child’s behaviour. Then you and your partner can sit down and talk about how you are going to deal with the next outburst. You can also develop a long-term strategy to deal with behaviour issues.

This particular issue may not reflect your experience, but it can help you see how you can start to approach your own difficult situations in a different way.

Learning to cope with problems this way can help you build your resilience over time, protecting you against some of the stress associated with parenting a disabled child, and making you less prone to argue with your partner. You may have to take it turns being ‘the strong one’ – knowing that you’re looking out for each other will give you a better chance of keeping up this positive attitude as a couple [4].

As an added benefit, you may also find that you can pass these skills on, and teach your children how to cope with anxious feelings and stressful situations. When your children are also equipped to cope with the challenges they face, it can take pressure off the whole family. They will be able to have more independence, and you will feel more confident in their abilities [3].

Learning to be a parent


For many of us, becoming a parent will be the first time we ever have to deal with very young children. Parenting is one of the hardest and most rewarding jobs we’ll ever do, and most of us learn ‘on the job’.

Parents of disabled children have said that attending a parenting programme has been helpful in improving the quality of their parenting, and their understanding of parent-child relationships. There is also good evidence to show that participation in a parenting programme improves the mental health and wellbeing of the parents themselves as well as of their children [5]. Parenting programmes may be run by local authorities, charities, faith centres, or private individuals. If you feel it would be helpful, you can search for courses near you on the National Institute of Parenting website.

Sharing the burden


During the early years, it can also be useful to figure out how you’re going to cope with all the extra work that having a young child in the house creates for you and your partner. Much of the conflict between new parents comes from a feeling that household chores and parenting responsibilities aren’t being shared fairly [6]. 

Talk about how you are going to share these responsibilities. You won’t necessarily be able to divide things up equally, particularly if one of you is working full time and the other spends more time at home, but having the discussion can help you both feel that things are fairer. It can also help you prepare for the lifestyle changes as you learn to adjust to supporting your child’s needs.

As time moves on, your child’s needs will change. Keep talking to your partner, and make sure you’re both still happy with the arrangements – if you need more help, ask for it, and if you’re worried about how well your partner is coping, check in to see if what else you can do.

Early years education


Finally, take some of the burden off by making use of your local service providers. Early years education can help your child learn valuable confidence-building and social skills like playing with other children, taking turns, and sharing [7], all of which supports their cognitive development and independence, and can help you feel more confident and less stressed.

All early years education providers must take steps to include and support disabled children, and children who have, or may have, special educational needs. They are required to register with Ofsted if they offer free early years education places. For information about your options, including nurseries, playgroups or childminders, and how your child should be supported up to the age of five, see our information on help in the early years.  

References


[1] Durtschi, Jared A., Kristy L. Soloski, and Jonathan Kimmes. 2017. ‘The Dyadic Effects of Supportive Coparenting and Parental Stress on Relationship Quality Across the Transition to Parenthood’. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy; Hoboken 43 (2):308–21.

[2] Douglas, Tracy, Bernice Redley, and Goetz Ottmann. 2016. ‘The First Year: The Support Needs of Parents Caring for a Child with an Intellectual Disability’. Journal of Advanced Nursing 72 (11):2738–49 

[3] Frydenberg, E., Deans, J. and Liang, R. (2014) Families Can Do Coping: Parenting Skills in the Early Years Children Australia, Volume 39, Number 2, pp. 99–10.

[4] Peer, Justin W., and Stephen B. Hillman. 2014. ‘Stress and Resilience for Parents of Children With Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities: A Review of Key Factors and Recommendations for Practitioners’. Journal of Policy and Practice in Intellectual Disabilities 11 (2):92–98.

[5] Parsonage, M., Khan, L., and Saunders, A. (2014). Building a better future: The lifetime costs of childhood behavioural problems and the benefits of early intervention. Centre for Mental Health

[6] Newkirk, Katie, Maureen Perry-Jenkins, and Aline G. Sayer. 2017. ‘Division of Household and Childcare Labor and Relationship Conflict Among Low-Income New Parents’. Sex Roles 76 (5–6):319–33.

[7] Griggs, J. and Bussard, L. (2017). Study of Early Education and Development (SEED): Meeting the needs of children with special educational needs and disabilities in the early years. London: DfE.

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