Fathers and Children with Physical and Learning Disabilities

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The Law Of... being there for your children

With Learning Disabilities Week following father's day this year, Emma Pearmaine – Director of Family Services at Simpson Millar – looks at how fathers of children with special needs can be overlooked after diagnosis and can often end up on the sidelines.

Father and son

How are fathers affected by diagnosis?

When a child is diagnosed with learning disabilities it can be shocking, and difficult for parents to process. Mothers and fathers often react in different ways to a diagnosis of learning disabilities; it has been claimed that some men find it hard to deal with their emotions, and that they are less likely to share their feelings with family members.

With a number of factors at play for fathers of children with learning disabilities studies have shown that a large proportion suffer emotional difficulties and higher stress levels than other parents.

Emma explains a possible cause for these increased emotional difficulties amongst fathers:

"Some reports have highlighted that two-thirds of fathers of children with learning disabilities experience emotional difficulties in relation to parenting. The root cause of this is the ongoing perception that fathers are not permitted to show their emotions – many keep their emotions hidden and find it hard to share their experiences with others."

Most fathers react positively and adapt to the added pressures of raising a child with learning difficulties, with most that have been interviewed saying that they relish an active part in their child's life. Issues begin to arise from official definitions and professional practices, which fail to recognise a modern perception of fatherhood – this can lead to fathers feeling left out and effectively on the back foot in the raising of their child.

Other studies have highlighted that the higher levels of stress felt by fathers are not recognised by GPs, which is one of the possible anonymous outlets that could help support fathers that struggle to talk about their emotional difficulties.

What factors are at play for fathers?

In some families with a special needs child the archetypal parent roles become more pronounced, with mothers becoming the main carer and fathers focussing on work and providing for the family, Emma explains why this can act to compound emotional problems for the father:

"There seems to be a cyclical trend in the special needs families that I've supported, the father takes extra hours at work to provide the resources required for his child's care, in turn he misses the crucial meetings that could help him understand his child's diagnosis, and he then feels out of the loop and looks to work more hours to take his mind off his emotional difficulties."

"Being the main breadwinner is not the father's only role, with most dads taking on the responsibility of carer for both their child and the child's mother – in many cases fathers feel that they cannot discuss these additional burdens and again suffer in silence."

With 84% of fathers working longer to pay for the care required by their Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) children, it is no wonder that 40% miss the meetings that could help them understand their child's condition. With this increased responsibilities and a positive response to diagnosis by most fathers, official avenues should have recognised their increased involvement, however the Government's Special Educational Needs Code of Conduct still recognises mothers as having parental responsibility in cases of unmarried parents.

How can fathers be more involved?

This is a key question in cases of fathers of children with physical or learning disabilities, as feeling involved and taking part in meetings could go a long way to easing the emotional difficulties felt by fathers.

With the level of factors at play for fathers of children with learning disabilities it can be difficult to prioritise commitments, but as Emma explains the biggest hurdle for most fathers is work:

"The main stumbling block for fathers getting involved with their special needs child is work, as it is usually fathers that have more inflexible jobs that stop them going to meetings that can be arranged on short notice."

"A positive dialogue with employers is important, while some fathers who inform their bosses of their situation feel that understanding and sympathy wains as time goes on it is important to alert employers of the scenario."

"Employers usually allow flexibility when mitigating circumstances are in play, however if fathers feel that work is being too stubborn and is discriminating against the needs of their child it is important to seek legal advice to resolve a dispute at work."

Once a positive dialog has been opened with employers fathers will begin to feel more involved once they begin attending meetings for their child, whether this be at school or with a medical professional.

It can be at meetings that the second hurdle to a father's involvement presents itself, as Emma explains how stereotypical parental roles can establish themselves:

"Even when fathers attend meetings they can feel excluded, schools and medical professionals tend to have a habit of talking directly to mothers and can miss engagement opportunities with fathers."

"It is important that fathers actively try to be part of meetings, adding insights and asking questions so that the build a repertoire with the professionals holding the meeting."

Supporting Fathers

It is important that fathers get the support they need after their child is diagnosed with a physical or learning disability. A sympathetic and understanding point of contact that can help with all aspects of the father and child's lives is important - whether this is mediation within a family, help with an employer, or advice on dealing with schools and medical professionals.

At Simpson Millar we have vast experience of dealing with SEND disputes across a number of legal areas and our team of specialists – who appreciate the difficulties faced by families with SEND children – are always on hand to help.


To find out how we could help you please make a no-obligation enquiry or call freephone: 0808 129 3320.




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