One in three parents of a child with a learning disability are in distressed relationships
7th July 2017
It’s clear that good quality relationships are central to our health and wellbeing. At Relate, we know this directly from our work in the counselling room and online, as well as from the wealth of research evidencing this. Our landmark The Way We Are Now survey of the UK’s relationships, provides an important window into the health of our relationships. Today we’re publishing the latest report from this series of research reports – Under pressure: The relationships of UK parents who have a child with a learning disability. It examines these parents’ relationships with each other, their families, friends, and wider social networks, and compares these with the relationships of parents who do not have a child with a learning disability. Learning disability is often not well-understood, and little previous research has looked at the pressures on parents’ relationships. Relate and Relationships Scotland were therefore pleased to partner with learning disability charity Mencap to produce this report.
Sadly, it doesn’t make for easy reading. Our data shows that parents who have a child with a learning disability often experience unnecessary strains on their relationships. These strains are over and above the pressures which any relationship may come under, this can result in a negative impact on parents’ wellbeing. On average, we found that parents who have a child with a learning disability:
- Experience lower couple relationship quality (over a third are in relationships which would be classed within clinical practice as ‘distressed’, compared to less than a quarter of other parents)
- Are less likely to find time to spend together as a couple (for example ‘date nights’)
- Are more likely to say that finances and problems finding childcare put strain on their relationships
- Are not likely to have a network of friends, and a shocking one in six do not have a single close friend
Isolation is clearly a major concern as over a fifth feel lonely often or all the time. The damaging impact of these pressures on parents’ wellbeing is clear as they are less likely to feel good about themselves, and more likely to feel down, depressed or hopeless.
However, this is not an inevitable consequence to parenting a child with a learning disability. Myths and misunderstandings around learning disability often give rise to negative attitudes, but there’s nothing which automatically condemns parents to poorer relationships. It’s a question of support.
We found, therefore, that parents who have a child with a learning disability are often experiencing unnecessary pressures on relationships stemming from a lack of support. For example, financial strains may be increased due to additional costs as they may have difficulties accessing specialist childcare or they may have to give up work or reduce their hours meaning less income. In addition to this lack of support from professionals, difficulties accessing support may lead them to feel isolated. Too many parents are living with the daily toll this takes on their relationships and wellbeing.
Unhappy relationships can be damaging to parents and their children, but it needn’t be this way. Relate, Relationships Scotland and Mencap are drawing attention to these pressures to highlight the families’ unmet support needs and to call for a package of support for parents of children with a learning disability including: better access to short breaks services, improved childcare support for parents of children with a learning disability and targeted relationship support.