Stressors on Families of Children with Disabilities

Psychological stress occurs when an individual believes that he or she does not have the necessary personal resources to deal with a particular situation. When the birth of a long-awaited infant is clouded by the diagnosis of disabilities, parents face a sudden loss of their dreams and a sense of failure. When a beloved older child shows unexplained delays and professionals confirm that the child has significant impairments, many parents are immobilized by the diagnosis and its corresponding demands. Stress is a call to action; too many calls to action can result in psychological and emotional overload. Parenting a child with disabilities can be a series of unusual and overlapping stressors that causes fatigue and low morale. (Singer et al)

Westwood, Palmer, and Owens (1998) provide a comprehensive list of stressors that can have profound impact on the parents of children with special needs:

In addition to the individual stressors cited above, parents of children with disabilities experience additional stress as they attempt to "straddle", or spontaneously cope with conflicting elements of living with a youngster with disabilities (Johnson, 2000). Focused telephone interviews with mothers of children with mild to moderate physical disabilities, who were of preschool to elementary school age, identified three levels of straddling:

Instant Feedback:
Parents of children with disabilities face the same stressors as parents of typically developing children, and cope with these stresses in the same way.

Nurses need to understand how difficult it is for parents to straddle their roles and responsibilities. Nurses can provide emotional support by allowing the parents to express their emotions in an accepting atmosphere. Johnson also emphasized the nurse’s role in preparing parents for anticipated grief work, reinforcing normalization strategies, and helping them separate their own issues and feelings from those of their child. It’s important to reassure parents that their experiences are typical and that they will learn to accept their child as he is.

Nurses who work with families are often in an excellent position to help identify stressors, develop coping strategies, and evaluate the effectiveness of actions to reduce stress. It is important that nurses be sensitive to the scope and severity of stressors on the family, and avoid adding to the stress when possible. Many nurses provide invaluable coaching to parents, mentoring them as they learn to collaborate with developmental and medical experts or identify and resolve conflicts.