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Giving Attention to the Rest of Your Family

How to make sure your spouse and other kids get the attention they deserve when you have a special needs child

Marriage can offer support, love and laughter – along with balancing finances, chores, careers and philosophies. Enter a child into the mix and you've added more chores, exhaustion and less time together. And, if your child has a special need, there is increased worry, added appointments, emotional evaluations, therapy sessions and IEPs.

Subsequently, such marriages require more fine-tuning to stay successful. And what about your other kids? Here, experts offer tips on how to stay connected and supportive of the people in your family who may not have a special need, but are just as special to you.

Your spouse

1. Communication. One common mistake women make is defining who they are based on their child's disability. Some may not talk with their spouses about the everyday struggles with therapy, from transportation to practice. These moms can become resentful and emotionally drained. Men, on the other hand, tend to feel the burden of not being able to "fix" their child and withdraw from the situation or deny there's an issue. "This is very complicated stuff," explains Dr. Fran Walfish, family psychotherapist and author in Beverly Hills, Calif.

"Couples that collapse are the ones who hold their feelings inside," Dr. Walfish says. Couples should check-in with each other on a daily basis for even 15-20 minutes of uninterrupted connection: "This means that two willing partners shut off their cell phones and computers and commit to talking about the day and its stresses." These should offer each spouse the opportunity to be heard fully and completely, without one spouse emptying the dishwasher or TV surfing. The goal is to learn about the other spouse's day, share a smile, or offer support and most important, to feel heard.

2. Consider the other person's perspective. Dr. Walfish noticed that "often, one parent is working to financially support the family, and the other parent carries the burden of managing the kids 24/7. This imbalance often brings added stress to the relationship." One common problem is that one spouse may have to quit work to "take over" therapy issues. This can include numerous therapy sessions, testing, school meetings, learning the rights and laws for your child, and creating real world situations in which therapy can be practiced. It can be exhausting, emotional and lonely.

On the other hand, the spouse that continues to support the family financially has the added pressure of becoming the sole provider in a time of job insecurity. Being invaluable all day to a boss and then coming home to a busy house can also be overwhelming. Remember what the other spouse is doing to provide for the family, be it financially or emotionally.

3. Outside help. Elaine Hall, founder of The Miracle Project and a California author, suggests if spouses are not seeing eye-to-eye in regards to therapy, it might be best to get third party assistance. Dr. Walfish agrees. She suggests looking to the school district for help, as there is usually a school counselor that can offer free services to ease the financial burden. Monthly meetings can be placed on the IEP, so you can have a childfree discussion with all therapists.

If parents have different opinions on how to best proceed, therapists have the experience to offer pros and cons of varying options, and can help guide parents to a workable solution. Any questions and concerns should be addressed. This way, everybody will understand the course and reasons for future treatment and be confident in the plan.

4. Date night with no talks about therapy or child. Dr. Walsfish advises all couples have a regularly scheduled date night. The objective should be fun and stress-free, with no discussion of anxiety-provoking things like issues with the kids. Hall says date nights help build or strengthen intimacy within the couple, so if times do get tough, you have these great moments to fall back on.

While the disability of your child or financial restrictions may make weekly date nights impossible, be resourceful. There must be one hour a week you can make each other and your marriage a priority. Can you put on a favorite child's movie and sit on the back deck? Or feed the kids an early dinner and enjoy an adult dinner alone later. If you don't live near family, is there a neighbor willing to come over? Maybe one of the therapists can help once in a while. Lingering over dinners may take too much time and be expensive, but taking walks holding hands or playing card games are free.

5. Be grateful. Hall also encourages spouses to show gratitude toward each other to create a loving, enriching environment. Although at first it might feel forced to find things your spouse does to make your family's life better, you will begin to realize all your partner does to support you. Maybe it's picking up milk on the way home from work, or putting therapy into play, cooking dinner or gassing up the car. All of these things are easy to take for granted, but are helpful. If you think something nice of your spouse, be sure to tell them. The feeling of love will follow!

Your 'other' kids

1. Communication. Again, communication is key – for your spouse and your kids. Toby Glick, a school psychologist in Pelham, N.Y., presents workshops titled "Sibling Relationships in Special Needs Families." Because most kids sense they are developing differently from their siblings, she suggests parents discuss the disability to the typically developing child early on. Explain why the brother or sister with a disability may need extra help or attention in certain areas. As the children get older, the parent can start to discuss the diagnosis and what it means. By talking openly about it, Glick says feelings of anger, guilt, shame and fear can and should be recognized and accepted.

Laura Shumaker, author of A Regular Guy: Growing Up with Autism, agrees. She has discussed her oldest son's autism with his younger brothers from a very early age. She kept things simple in the beginning, explaining that their older brother's brain "worked differently and that it made it hard for him to learn and make friends." By discussing what their older brother may need help with and why, she clears up any questions or misconceptions the children may have. She then teaches her younger sons how to assist their older brother.

2.Play up strengths. Mary Calhoun Brown, award-winning author of There Are No Words, has a son with Asperger's Syndrome and Sensory Integration Dysfunction. She and her husband were always very honest with her son about his disability. Although she was concerned when play dates and invitations were not reciprocated, "our oldest son was so confident in who he is and the life he had settled into that he was very supportive (of younger siblings being invited to parties)… he has wrapped his self-esteem up in being an excellent student."

Many parents advised finding one thing that each sibling has a passion for, and is competent at – whether it is theater, building or sports. The goal is not perfection or even winning awards; it's finding a natural love and talent so each child has something that gives them fulfillment.

3. Celebrate the differences. Considering the world we live in, teaching empathy and diversity in a real-world setting will give your child a head start in a multicultural world. Mary Gardner, whose son has autism, encourages her family to expect, welcome and appreciate the differences in people. "My son knows he's different. But he knows that everyone is different."

Kirk Martin, behavior therapist and author of Celebrate! ADHD, wholeheartedly agrees. As a behavioral consultant to school districts such as Fairfax County, Va., he has encouraged the 100,000-plus teachers he's worked with "to proactively celebrate each child's gifts and passions… rather than focusing on the disability." When people are taught to focus on "what each child can contribute with his particular gifts," it keeps the focus on the positives.

4. Tools for teasing. Whether the disability is visible or not, there may be times when teasing may occur. Though unfortunate, it's also the reality, as teasing is not isolated to children with disabilities. Shumaker believes in helping kids cope if and when this takes place. Not only does she keeps lines of communication open so her boys can discuss it; she also helps them with active phrases ("only a small person points out other people's challenges") to help her sons use at the time the teasing occurs. She also encourages her nondisabled sons to educate others about her son's disability.

5. Don't let the disability run the household. Glick has noticed that there may be times the needs of the typically developing child might go unnoticed because of the demands of the child with the disability. This can cause resentment and anger – and it just shouldn't happen. Shumaker is careful not to let any of her boys get lost in the shuffle of autism. Whether making sure to attend sporting events or having a one-on-one dinner, all children in the family need to feel special and unique simply by being themselves.

All siblings will compare rules of the house, but there's no denying that if one of your children has a disability, unique situations will arise. Keeping communication lines open, focusing on skill sets, and modeling mutual respect will help the entire family.

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