The Favorite Child

A Psychologist Explores Family Dynamics

Are Children With Special Needs Favored?

The impact of children with special needs on family dynamics.

When talking about The Favorite Child on the Leonard Lapote Show (NPR in New York City), a listener called in to talk about his child with special needs. This child was his favorite, and his other children were resentful. Special needs children generate unique family dynamics: Some parents favor these children while others resent them. Children with special needs are seldom overlooked. It is more likely that other children in the family are overlooked. Some spouses resent the attention their partners pay to the child with special needs. These variables are among the many generating tension, spoken or not, within families with children having special needs.

All Children Have Special Needs
Using the word "special" to describe the needs of children with physical, mental, intellectual, or emotional impairments sets competition in motion. All children in families want their parents to perceive their needs as special, as having those noteworthy characteristics connoted by the word "special," and for their needs to be the focus of unadulterated attention. When children trust their parents to be attentive to their needs, secure and confident children are likely to develop.

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The hurt feelings of the children in the family who aren't handicapped are not assuaged when parents attempt to rationalize the needs of siblings with handicaps as "special." Rather the shame or guilt of these children mounts as they struggle with feelings of jealousy. Ultimately this discontent reverberates throughout the family: siblings, living with resentment or anger, become vulnerable to displacing these feelings on to their siblings with special needs. Relationship with parents becomes strained. In general, the stress experienced by all family members grows.

Parental Needs
The limitations experienced by children with special needs vary greatly. The needs of some children may be focused on their unique learning styles while those of others may be broader, such as those of children who are severely retarded. Regardless, parenting children with special needs demands more of parents than parenting children who do not have unusual developmental lags. Some parents resent these increased physical, emotional, mental, or financial requirements, and they feel inadequate in meeting the needs of their child. In the extreme, these children are scapegoated for their parents discord. More commonly, these children are vulnerable to believing themselves responsible for their parents' feelings of inadequacy and for the strain that their developmental delays bring to the family. Not being a source of pleasure, these children tend to be the unfavored child.

In contrast, some parents flourish when meeting the challenges of their children with special needs. Caring for these children affirms their sense of competence, and, as a reward, these children grow up as favorite children.

Children with special needs can give the lives of their parents focus and meaning. One father recounted that caring for his developmentally delayed child provided him a basis for making important career decisions. "Before my son was born, I changed jobs often. I didn't stick with anything. I was always angry that I wasn't promoted. Now, it is different. I had to keep my job because I need the insurance benefits for my son's care. So, I've been at this company long enough to be promoted to manager, which I really like. My son needs me to take care of him like no one else ever has. I won't let him down. I feel about him the way I have never felt about anyone."

One mother told me that caring for her autistic child was her "passport to heaven." Another recounted that prior to the birth of her child with special needs, "there was nothing special about me. Now, I feel like my life has a purpose. I am doing something - being a devoted mother to my handicapped child - that my sister never has."

Some adults prefer parenting younger, more dependent children. As children mature and become more self-sufficient, the required parenting skills shift, often challenging these parents in ways they don't want. Children with special needs, especially those with more pronounced needs, do not challenge their parents in the same way. A sixty-year-old man with multiple handicaps described his mother as "a sweet woman who didn't have confidence in her ability to do much of anything but take care of a baby. I gave her something to do. I could never leave her side so I didn't challenged her like my sister did. But, even when I could have done more for myself, I didn't. She did it all for me and I didn't know any better. I remained dependent on her until she died."

Other parents look to their children with special needs to fill emotional voids inside of themselves. These parents commonly are lonely in their marriages and these children provide them with companionship. An adult woman talked about her mother's attachment to her brother who was retarded. "My father traveled frequently" she said, "and my mother drank the whole time he was away. Then, my brother (with retardation) was born. This saved Mother. She stopped drinking. She devoted her life to caring for him. He was the center of her life."

Family Dynamics
A child with special needs impacts everyone in the family. By virtue of their needs, more family resources, such as time or money, are probably allocated to them. The overall responses of families are complicated.

The woman cited above, whose mother drank prior to the birth of her brother, reported that as a child, she was happy that her mother stopped drinking. She associated this pleasure with her brother's presence and consequently, felt positive about her brother. On the negative side, as an adult, this woman recognized her resentment directed at her mother for overlooking her; and, she realized that while having been her father's favorite child emotionally saved her as a kid, that relationship alienated her from her siblings. As an adult, she continued wanting her mother's acknowledgement and  struggled to form healthy adult relationships with men.

Before having children, most adults have romanticized visions of parenting and no idea of what is entailed when parenting children with special needs. Many marriages end under the strain of parenting these children. Sometimes one parent is resentful of the child's needs; other times there is resentment for the attention the other parent pays to the child. Some parents, who are already emotionally limited, crack under the strain of having to parent a child with special needs. Many of these parents walk away from their marriages.

Families can become bifurcated with one parent aligned with the child with special needs and the other parent with another child. If there are additional children, they may have their own sub-group, "the overlooked kids," or each may live in emotional isolation.

Healthy Families
While families with children with special needs are vulnerable to particular dysfunction, Wendy Eckel describes in her book Educating Tigers one family's journey in coping successfully with a child diagnosed as having special needs. Her story exemplifies the strategies described in my book The Favorite Child:
• The need for both parents to express freely and openly to each other their fears and apprehensions;
• The need for both parents to work jointly in monitoring each other's expectations and treatment of all children in the family, including those of the special needs child;
• The need for all children in the family to freely, but respectfully, express feelings generated by their sibling with special needs.

 

Dr. Ellen Weber Libby, a clinical psychologist, is a psychotherapist in Washington, DC, and is the author of The Favorite Child (January 2010.)

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