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Tips for Your Marriage: While Raising a Child Who Has Extra Needs
Dr. Dale V. Atkins, March 2005

The key to living with a child who has extra needs is finding a "new normalcy"; one that works for you and your family. Finding the new normalcy is a process which takes time. It is filled with ups and downs. Everyone has to adjust. It takes time to find a way to function happily and productively where your child's abilities are stressed rather than the disability. Dealing with the challenges that are raised by having a child who has extra needs can serve to strengthen a relationship that is already strong or can tear at the fabric of a weak one.

All couples need to evaluate and assess issues related to their marriage apart from their child. There are more demands put on everyone in families with kids who have extra needs…there are new and different worries and concerns. More than ever, couples need to feel appreciated and their efforts acknowledged. Since progress is often slower than parents would like, focusing on what YOUR child does is essential, rather than comparing to other children in the neighborhood.

Everyone (the individual parent and the couple) needs time off…escape time…time away without guilt. It is essential for couples to grieve their loss individually as well as a couple and rebuilds their lives and their sense of self and, often, redefines their marriage. While this happens, there is often much discord and discomfort both internally and in the relationship. All couples say how important it is to have fun, develop their interests (together and separately), and to realize that their child is a whole child who happens to have a disability.

When couples are aware that only part of their responsibility is their role as parents, they can pay closer attention to one another as a couple. Those who raise children who have extra needs must take care of themselves and one another, nurturing their relationship apart from their children.

Here are some TIPS to keep your marriage on track while giving to the needs of your child:
• Realize that your child is a whole child who happens to have a disability. The disability does not define your child, you or your family.
• Take care of yourself and one another, and when needed, develop other sources of support and interests (separately and together) while nurturing your relationship apart from your child.
• Pay attention to the positive aspects of your life and your relationship, determining ways to acknowledge each other's effort and value.
Help each other and re-examine your roles based on what is needed for your relationship to thrive.
• Guilt and worry do nothing to enhance your time together. Give yourselves specific opportunities to share your feelings and concerns. That way you can maximize enjoyment during your free time together.
• You and your spouse will adapt in different ways. Respect, understand and try to share this process.

Also remember the following about raising a child who has extra needs:
• Being unable to control your child's disability does not mean being unable to control your attitude about it and your situation.
• Learn as much as you can about your child's condition and what is realistic to expect regarding the progression, treatment, research in the field, educational options, and life adaptation issues.
• Be open to what your child can and will teach you about yourself.
• Meet other parents, children, and young and older adults who have lived with similar conditions. Talk with them about their lives, specifically, what helps what doesn't, and the kinds of choices they made.
• Agree to treat your child just as you would treat any child, with high and reasonable expectations.
• Understand general child development issues so you can differentiate what is age appropriate behavior for ANY child and what is specifically unique to your particular child and may or may not be related to your child's specific condition.
• Be patient with yourself and your spouse as you see aspects of one another that you may not have seen had you not been faced with this challenge.
• Understand that much of your life needs to be changed. Decide what can be changed and change it. Life with a child who has extra needs means constant change. Much of that change is good.
• Identify areas of stress for each of you.
• Set attainable goals to help reduce stress (manageable ones over which you have control). Learn and use the stress reduction techniques that are right for each of you. The most effective ways of employing direct stress reducers when living with a spouse who has a chronic, progressive illness are: participating in activities that reduce stress, exercise, work, time out, prayer and meditation.
• Rely on coping mechanisms that have worked in the past and modify them so they work now.
• Be flexible and creative in reorganizing and redefining your priorities.
• Be aware of the importance of maintaining a balance and try not to criticize one another's styles of parenting or handling the situation. This can result in your spouse feeling incompetent and resentful.
• Find the balance between making time for parenting and for doing things as a couple that have nothing to do with children
• Discuss topics and make decisions together related to child rearing, educational options and medical procedures

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