6 Thoughts for Dads of Children with Special Needs

Fathers who have children with special needs or kids with life-threatening diseases face daunting challenges. Not only are their families more financially stressed, but the emotional, physical and relational strains of caring for a child will impact the entire family.

But fathers do bring some unique assets and valuable characteristics to the picture, and whether you have a child with a physical challenge, a learning disability or an emotional problem, you might benefit from these six thoughts. (And if you have a special-needs child, please chime in on our Facebook page with your insights.)

1. Stay positive.

Fathers often set the tone for how the rest of the family copes with the child’s special needs. If you can be positive about the situation, interjecting hope and maybe even humor into your family life, your spouse and the other kids will likely follow your lead.

2. Be flexible.

It’s likely you’ll need to find new ways to interact with your child. For many dads, physical play is our primary way of relating, especially with young kids. But if what comes naturally to you doesn’t seem to work with your son or daughter, find an alternative. Hugs and playfulness are a good place to start, but keep looking for other points of connection and try to grow in verbally affirming your kids.

3. Be ready for a lot of meetings with specialists.

And you should know that some health or special services workers view dads as less capable or less tuned in than moms. (Maybe we have earned that stigma, maybe not.) But don’t let it discourage you; stay plugged in and keep learning about how to best meet your child’s needs.

4. If your special-needs child is a firstborn son,

… you can expect your experience to be even more challenging. For whatever reason, we tend to attach more of our identity with firstborn sons.

5. Ask for help.

Fathers in households where there are ongoing daily challenges like this are more likely to withdraw, divorce, and be vulnerable. We all need outlets to talk through the ups and downs and get support and encouragement, but far too few men will seek out the resources and help that’s around them. At the very least, all dads—in any situation—should be meeting regularly with other dads for that kind of support, and it’s more important for dads facing daily challenges.

6. Look for the good,

… even through difficulties. One young girl named Hope was diagnosed with leukemia at age two, and then tragically died only seven months later. But her father openly said, “My daughter’s cancer and her death have changed me to be more compassionate, to make the most of life, and do more things that really matter.”

Special-needs children will test any family, and while none of us would choose to endure the trials and tests that often come, they do help us develop perseverance and other virtues—not to mention that they prepare us to help other families who go through similar things. Life doesn’t seem fair sometimes, but our children still need us to do our best for them.

What would you add? What are your best tips for dads in special-needs situations? Share your thoughts at our Facebook page.

Action Points & Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  • What’s the biggest obstacle you face as a father because of some challenge or condition that your child has?
  • Try to be more conscious of the general mood of your household and try different ways to bring smiles and positivity when possible.
  • Have you ever felt belittled in certain situations because you’re a dad? How did you respond? What’s a positive action you can take the next time?
  • Have difficulties with a child added stress and conflict to your marriage? Take steps now to make things better—whether it’s counseling, weekly date nights, putting aside time every day to connect, etc.
  • Think about challenges you’ve faced as a father in the past. In hindsight, what good things came as a result of going through the hard times? Maybe perseverance? Higher commitment to your family? More closeness between family members?

For information about a mentoring program for fathers of special-needs children see the Special Fathers Network.

Watch the replay of the Fathering Breakthrough Event

Join Dr. Ken Canfield and a handful of friends and partners as we give an update about our efforts to inspire and equip fathers all over the world.

There may be no more important work than turning the hearts of fathers to their children, and that’s what this is all about. We’re seeking to repair, rebuild and restore effective fathering for the benefit of children and families everywhere.