Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Examining Distress of Parents of Children with and without Special Needs

Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Examining Distress of Parents of Children with and without Special Needs

Article excerpt

This study was designed to examine differences between parents of children with special needs and parents of children without special needs in levels of distress and community resource engagement. There were 29 participants. No significant differences were found between the two groups with respect to individual and marital distress, but parents of children with special needs had significantly more engagement with community resources. When analyzing parent total visits (PTV) and child total visits (CTV), the CTV for parents of children with special needs averaged just over 50 visits for a six-month period compared to 0.29 for the comparison group. Implications for practice, such as use of transdisciplinary teams, and for future research are discussed.

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There is a growing literature supporting the notion that birth of a child with a disability generates intense emotional distress for the family (Hughes, 1999; Pelchat & Lefebvre, 2004). Spratt, Saylor, and Macias (2007) discussed the stigma of having a child with a disability as one stressor for parents. Beyond the initial impact, "a child with a disability poses many crises over his/her lifetime.... Parents of children with disabilities must continually adapt to changing circumstances and needs of the child, with stress being a frequent consequence" (Hughes, 1999, p. 271). For this reason, Thompson and Upton (1992) reported that parents of children with a disability experience high levels of emotional distress, which can lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression that have social and emotional ramifications for the entire family (Pelchat & Lefebvre, 2004). While most people prepare for the additional financial cost of child rearing and physical changes in their living space, the emotional and psychological adjustments are often not anticipated. Even with a child who follows a typical developmental path, parents have to restructure their finances and time and redefine each family member's role (Pelchat & Lefebvre, 2004). The restructuring process presents even greater challenges for parents of a child with a disability, compounding the stress these parents experience (Harrison & Sofronoff, 2002; Hughes, 1999; Scherzer, 1999).

Although parents of children with special needs experience additional emotional distress, most families tend to regain healthy family functioning, or even thrive, and the quality of their lives resembles that of families in general (Ferguson, Gartner, & Lipsky, 2000; Stoneman & Gavidia-Payne, 2006; Van Riper, 2007). Yet despite such research findings, the notion that birth of a child with a developmental disability presents significant hardship for a family continues to frame the discourse on parenting a child with a disability (Lalvani, 2008; Marshak, Seligman, & Prezant, 1999). Parents of children with developmental disabilities do typically experience greater stress than parents with typically developing children (Hendriks, DeMoor, Oud, & Savelberg, 2000; Knapp, 2005; Smith, Oliver, & Innocenti, 2001; Spratt, Saylor, & Macias, 2007). The challenges range from the emotional distress of a diagnosis of a disability for their child (Ho & Keiley, 2003; Pelchat & Lefebvre, 2004) to coping with practical details, such as obtaining access to services for the child.

Beyond the resources that parents of a typically developing child have to seek out (e.g., pediatric care, child care, education), parents of a child with a disability must also seek out specialized resources (e.g., medical specialists, respite care, specialized child care, nursing assistance, nutritionists, and assistive devices, such as wheelchairs) tailored to the unique needs of the child. Pimm (1996) found accessing specialized resources is also likely to add financial burdens. For families already struggling financially, caring for a child who is disabled causes an even greater financial burden, ultimately increasing marital stress (Park, Tumbull & Tumbull III, 2002). …

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