What's So Hard About Parenting a Child With a Disability?

Not everyone understands that child disability impacts the entire family.

Posted May 15, 2017

“I don’t understand what’s so hard about being a parent of a child with a disability,” a family member informed me the other day.  “It’s not like YOU have to deal with ADD. Or anxiety.  Or depression.  It’s not you who can’t finish a paper for class, remember to do the laundry, or can’t get out of bed in the morning.  Now that’s hard.” 

Oh, where should I start? Perhaps I should check the first sentence of my research manuscript in progress, “Child mental illness impacts the entire family, and previous research has consistently found that parenting children with mental health disorders is psychologically distressing.”  I do suppose, however, if it was a contest between parent and child, that, in this case, the child would “win.”  However, the results of my study of 146 online posts found that parents of children with mental illness have a range of parental concerns; the most frequent one is the effects of children's illness on themselves, specifically feelings of helplessness, their need for advice on their own coping, and the stress of child discipline.  Parents frequently also express worry about child symptoms, especially poor academic performance, and have questions about efficacy, side effects of, and their children’s noncompliance with medication.

Or let me return to a recent classic in my field of psychology, “Parenting Stress” by Kirby Deater-Deckard, published in 2004.  Dr. Deckard writes that “compared to parents of healthy children, those of children who are disabled, impaired, or critically ill are far more likely to be acutely or chronically distressed (p. 59).” One reason, which overlaps with the findings from my study, is that mothers and fathers feel little or no control over the symptoms or severity of their child’s condition, no matter how “good” of a parent he or she is.  However, in contrast to a disease like cancer or cerebral palsy, parents of children with mental illness are frequently considered as potential originators of their children’s problems, either passively through genetic transmission or more actively and toxically through the home environment they provide. For example, has any article written for parents of children with physical disabilities or chronic illness begun in a similar fashion as this one posted on www.attitudemag.com?  “Most parents are good parents. But if your son or daughter has attention deficit disorder (ADHD), ‘good’ may not be enough. To ensure that your child is happy and well-adjusted now and in the future — and to create a tranquil home environment — you’ve got to be a great parent.”  So not only are parents expected, as most parents are, to do their best, parents of children with ADHD are told they must do better than best.  Ironically, as Deater-Deckard points out, such expectations may lead to long term problems in parents’ own mental health, including higher levels of depression and anxiety.

Now let me be clear. I am not a believer in letting abusive or neglectful parents off the hook. But I do think, on this day after Mother’s Day, that we should give parents of children with mental illness and other disabilities – emotional or physical – the benefit of the doubt. Just as phrases such as "All you need to do is try harder/get out of bed/calm down” are useless to children and adults with  ADHD, Major Depressive Disorder, or Bipolar Disorder, let us please suspend the use of supposedly helpful messages to their parents to “lighten up,” “quit overreacting,” and "look on the bright side". It never hurts to be sympathetic and just listen.


Deater-Deckard, K. (2004).  Parenting Stress.  New Haven: Yale University Press.