SCIE Research briefing 18: Being a father to a child with disabilities: issues and what helps

Published October 2005

Introduction - What is the issue?

The topic of this briefing is the fathers of children with disabilities, impairments or chronic illness. The children's disabilities include physical or sensory impairments, learning disability, and chronic conditions such as asthma, arthritis, diabetes and congenital heart disease. This briefing focuses on fathers' experiences of their child's disability, impairment or chronic illness, and their resulting needs. Fathers of disabled children experience many of the same needs and concerns as mothers, but they do also have particular issues and needs. Fathers of disabled children are fathers first, and fathers of a disabled child second. Consequently, many of the issues faced by fathers of disabled children are the same as fathers of non-disabled children. Being a parent is an important and positive experience for many fathers, whether their child is disabled or not, and the value men place on being a father to their children is being recognised more and more.

However, some parenting issues may be more acute or exacerbated by having a child with a disability. For example, mothers and fathers of young children with a disability do experience more depression, as well as more parenting and child-related stress than parents of non-disabled children, and can also feel that their parental situation is more uncontrollable.

This has been found to be the case even when taking into account socio-economic factors. However, it must be noted that families vary greatly in how they respond to and cope with having a child with a disability, and how they respond is not determined by the severity of the disability but more often by other factors, such as the child's behaviour generally and the parents' access to social, material and emotional resources. The aim of this briefing therefore is to examine the findings of the research literature into the concerns and experiences of fathers of disabled children both generally and specifically. There is no policy or government literature on this topic dealing with fathers alone, so some of the sections below cover services and entitlements for parents of disabled children generally.

Key messages

  • Fathers of disabled children are fathers first, and fathers of a disabled child second. Many of the issues faced by fathers of disabled children are the same as fathers of non-disabled children
  • Fathers and mothers of disabled children have many of the same needs and concerns, but there can also be real differences in how they respond to their child's condition, what they do to cope, and what they find helpful
  • Fathers can be greatly affected emotionally by a child's disability impairment or illness
  • Fathers want information about their child's condition and development, what can be done to help, and what services are available to help their child and the family as a whole
  • Fathers tend to rely heavily on their partners for emotional support
  • Fathers want someone to talk to from outside the family about their worries and concerns, but are not very good at seeking for this type of help or support. They also prefer support groups made-up of men only because they feel more able to be open in such an environment
  • The needs of fathers can be missed by services, which tend to focus on support for the child and mother
  • Going to work is a common coping strategy of fathers and important for identity and self-esteem. Fathers want flexibility from employers and services so that they can respond to the needs of their children, attend appointments and be involved in the decisions and care relating to their child