This is blog no. 6 in our 6-week series on How to survive (and even thrive) parenting your child with neurodevelopmental differences.
It’s common and even expected that your relationship will be impacted by having a child with complex needs. For some, this can bring you closer together in a united effort to understand and best support your child. For others, feelings of grief, anger, helplessness, daily stress and worries can sap the positive energy and connection from your relationship. The good news is that this doesn’t have to stay that way. When given time to adjust and by turning toward each other through this process, many parents can again feel like a team and re-imagine their relationship and family life.
It can be difficult to get on the same page with your partner. It is expected that you will each bring different experiences of being parented that shape your mindset and approach. It’s also expected that you will respond and understand your child’s diagnosis or needs in unique ways. This difference is OK. What’s most important is that you take the time to develop your parenting relationship and approach in a conscious way.
Supporting each other through this process can make a big difference in your experience of parenting as well as your relationship. To have a strong parenting relationship, you need to talk to each other about your views, feelings and collaborate in problem solving. You need to establish what’s important to you as individuals, and where you can come together to work toward a shared vision.
Here are a few important ways to help you move toward a more conscious and collaborative approach to parenting.
- Take time to identify and discuss your values as a parent, partner and family. A values-based questionnaire can be helpful to get you started. Do this independently and then come together with your partner to see what values you share, and where you may differ. This can give insight and empathy into each other’s differences and highlight where your values align or complement each other. Values are a direction (you can always take another step toward West), not a destination or place of perfection or completeness (you never actually get to ‘West’). It can be more helpful to ask yourself, what step or action can I take right now that moves me in the direction of my values as a parent/partner? Or in what way can I support the values or needs of my partner in this moment?
- Work toward developing a shared understanding of your child and how you want to parent. This may not come easily and can take a different path for each parent. The more that both parents are involved in specialist appointments, school meetings, and day to day activities of the child’s life, the easier it is for you to develop a shared understanding.
- Take control and responsibility for what you can do to ‘turn the ship’. Don’t wait for your partner to see it your way or for everything to be lined up. Make the effort to listen to, turn toward and meet your partner where they are in this moment.
- See your partner relationship as a separate entity that needs its own nurturing and attention. Spending time doing things you enjoy and being intimate as a couple can bring you closer – and remind you who you are beyond parents. See our tips of developing a support network to assist you to make this time. This is important for your relationship with your children too. Look beyond the ‘business’ of raising kids, therapy and life to focus on play and enjoying each of your relationships for at least some time every day.
- Get organised and share responsibilities. Stress and conflict is often related to the feeling that things are out of your control. Try to put some family routines into action and plan-out who will be responsible for what tasks and when. Having visuals to communicate routines and plans with your children, as well as a diary or planner you share with your partner, can help everyone feel more in control. One idea is to colour-code your diary based on type of activity, such as therapy/specialists, household, daily tasks, school, work, socialising, play, rest, and relationship. This way you can clearly visualise how much time is allocated to each and you can work to adjust this to fit a more balanced and manageable diary over time. Doing this together can help to ensure you have a balanced share of responsibilities as well as time for self-care and your relationship.
- Make time for collaborative problem solving and communication. This normally works better when you have a regular, set time in your schedule. As problems arise, note them down and try to postpone addressing them until the allocated time. This way, you can come together with a positive intention of working through problems (not simply reacting) and with less distractions. It also gives you space to calm and minimise unhelpful automatic responses (i.e. criticising, blaming, yelling). Sit down and look at your list before starting to consider what is really important and needs to be addressed. Often, many of the problems that felt huge at the time, are naturally resolved or no longer feel as big and can be addressed quickly. Having some basic rules about how you communicate during this time is also important (check with your values to guide what these rules may look like).
- Know when to get help. If either or both of you are feeling stuck with grief, anger, anxiety or despair, it’s important to get professional support from trained psychologist or counsellor. Even if you are going along OK, setting aside time to talk about your relationship with a professional can really cement the above steps and help your to be the best you can be, together.
Taking care of your relationship and planning how you can better work together is important for any relationship. But it is an especially important part of surviving and thriving parenting a child with neurodevelopmental differences.