Analysis

How a child with learning disabilities can strain family relationships

A new report takes a closer look at how parents of children with a learning disability experience relationships with others.
Relationships

A new report takes a closer look at how parents of children with a learning disability experience relationships with others

Its not inevitable that the parents of children with a learning disability have poorer quality relationships, says Mencaps policy and strategic lead for children and young people James Robinson. However, a report from Mencap, Relate and Relationships Scotland points to the factors which mean that, in practice, parents of children with a learning disability often enjoy poorer relationships with each other, with friends and at work compared to their peers.

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A new report takes a closer look at how parents of children with a learning disability experience relationships with others

‘It’s not inevitable that the parents of children with a learning disability have poorer quality relationships,’ says Mencap’s policy and strategic lead for children and young people James Robinson. However, a report from Mencap, Relate and Relationships Scotland points to the factors which mean that, in practice, parents of children with a learning disability often enjoy poorer relationships with each other, with friends and at work compared to their peers.


A YouGov poll found that parents of children with a learning disability were more likely to be
in stressed relationships and have considered separating. Photo: iStock

Under Pressure: The Relationships of UK Parents Who Have a Child with a Learning Disability is taken from data gathered through an online YouGov poll. More than 5,000 people responded; of these just over 3,100 said they were parents and of these 9% (280) said that they had a child – of any age – with a learning disability.

As the title suggests, the report’s findings fit in with a wider picture of stressed and overworked families, with knock-on effects for the parents’ relationship. Parents of children with a learning disability were more likely to be in stressed relationships, to consider separating, and/or regret being in the relationship at all.  

Money worries

One of the biggest strains on a couple’s relationship was money worries. The second biggest major stressor was mental health problems in the family and this was different from other parents, for whom mental health was a much less significant problem.

The only issue which was less of a problem for parents of a child with a learning disability than for other parents was ‘other interests’, possibly because the demands of everyday parenting mean they simply do not have the time for other interests.  

Relationships between couples are not the only ones to suffer. Fewer parents (78% compared to 85%) reported good relationships with friends, and some were extremely isolated. A number reported no relationships outside the home at all.

22%

of couples sometimes regret being in the relationship, compared to 14% of other parents

Overall, the evidence suggests that parents of children with a learning disability are 70% more likely than the general population to have no close friends. This also fits with previous Mencap research suggesting that many parents feel judged and unwelcome when they are out in public with their children.

The other set of relationships were with colleagues and employers. A total of 40% of parents of a child with a learning disability felt that their employer’s ideal employee would be available 24-hours a day, compared to 31% of other parents.

This may be because these parents find it harder to respond to demands to work extra hours, or find employers are unsympathetic to the additional demands of a child with a learning disability.

Stories of joy

Poor relationships affect not just the parents themselves, physically and psychologically, but also the rest of the family. The report authors point to research indicating the specific damage that poor quality parental relationships can have on children with a learning disability. ‘The important thing to note is that if the relationship is improved the child will benefit as well,’ notes Mr Robinson.

‘We constantly see warm, rich relationships between parents and children,’ points out Mencap chief executive Jan Tregelles in her forward to Under Pressure.

‘We hear stories of the joy, new perspectives and often humour that having a child with a learning disability has brought. The strains come from inadequate support, and right now too many parents are being failed.’

Almost 1 in 6

couples said they have no close friends

Under Pressure identifies several options that could help improve these relationships, including short ‘respite’ breaks and better take-up of the benefits which, in turn, ‘passport’ people for further benefits. In addition, it suggests better identification and assessment of parents and family carers – not least because this makes it possible to work out where they are, what services may need to be available, and can target relationship support for parents who are in difficulty.

Family forum

This means relationship support acknowledging the specific pressures that these families experience. There is no point, for example, in suggesting a ‘date night’ to parents who cannot get a suitable babysitter and are exhausted by a child who wakes four times a night in any case.

18%

of couples sometimes consider separation or divorce, compared to 12% of other parents

‘We need more generic family support options, but also ones addressing those particular stresses and strains,’ says Mr Robinson.

‘A lot of families need to talk and interact with other parents,’ he adds, pointing to Mencap’s recently launched family forum.

‘They need someone who understands the pressures they are under. And they also need to know, when their child has been diagnosed, that there is another side to the coin and their child may well achieve: just differently to the way they expected.’ 

Compared to other parents, the parents of a child with a learning disability reported that they were more likely to:
  • Experience lower relationship quality – 34% were in a ‘distressed relationship’, compared to 26% other parents.
  • Cite money worries as a source of strain.
  • Feel relationship strain as a result of childcare or bringing up children – 18% compared to 12%.
  • Have no close friends. 
  • Feel lonely: more than one fifth (22%) said they felt lonely often or all the time, which was almost 70% higher than the proportion of other parents.
  • Feel down, depressed or hopeless at least ‘often’: 27% said they felt down/depressed/hopeless often or all the time, compared to 14% of other parents
  • Feel pressured to be available at work and prioritise work over caring responsibilities; 40% felt their employer’s ideal employee is available 24 hours a day compared to 31% of other parents.
They were less likely to:
  • Have good relationships with their own parents, children, and siblings.
  • Have good relationships with friends, work colleagues and/or bosses. 
  • Find time for ‘date nights’.
  • Feel good about themselves.
‘Our communication broke down for a while’

Ramya Kumar, from Swindon, describes life with her ten-year-old son Vishi. Picture with consent.


Vishi with his mother Ramya

‘Vishi was first diagnosed when he was small, but I knew something wasn’t right from around 18 months. It took my husband quite a few years to get his head round the diagnosis, and obviously that was very difficult – our communication broke down for a while.

‘Some kind of counselling would have helped us at that point: someone to support us and help us through step by step.

‘There have been times when it has been tough. And when you hit the lows, what do you prioritise – your child or your relationship?

‘More respite would help, because we could get away and talk it out – if we raise our voices at home, we’re aware that it will disturb him. We can’t even display what we’re really feeling.

‘Except for the postman, nobody comes here. Even if someone says let’s go out and meet up on Sunday we always say we can’t go, because of Vishi, and then people stop asking you to join them.

‘Or we’ve had experiences that make us not want to go out at all, like being invited out but asked to leave him in the garden in winter.

‘We wouldn’t change anything about him. But we would like some more support.’

 


Under Pressure: The Relationships of UK Parents Who Have a Child with a Learning Disability 

About the author

Radhika Holmström is a health writer 

 

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