Where Are All The Dad’s Of Children With Special Needs?

I meet a lot of parents of children with special/additional needs in my work and connect with many more through websites and online forums.  One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that the parents I meet are almost always Mum’s, not Dad’s.  There are exceptions, of course, but it’s fair to say that the overwhelming percentage of parents that I see are female.  So where are all the Dad’s?

Approximately one in five children in the UK have additional needs of some kind (source: UK Gov.) [1].  There is a huge range there, some additional needs are relatively mild in the way they affect a child and their family, in other cases this can be much more significant.  Across that wide range, however, there are families trying, and sometimes failing, to cope.  20% of the children in the UK is 2.5 million children, and the families that they are a part of.  Dad’s are part of many, but not all of these families, so why do they seem to be so much less visible?

Working or Distanced
Bringing up a child with additional needs or a disability is expensive, with the average cost of bringing up a disabled child being three times greater than other children (source: The Papworth Trust) [2]while average income for families with a disabled child is 23.5% below the UK mean (source: The Papworth Trust) [3]. It’s a double-whammy…

Parents often struggle to make ends meet while also providing the care needed for their child or children, and often this results in one parent taking on the role of primary wage earner while the other parent takes on more care responsibility (as well as sometimes some part time work).  Living in 2019 though we are, it seems that where both parents are still in the home, predominantly the role of primary wage earner is taken by Dad, while Mum becomes primary care giver and part-time wage earner.  There are, of course, exceptions to this trend!

Sometimes I hear of Dad’s who, in struggling to cope with having a disabled child, distance themselves by being out of home not just for work but socially too; playing golf at the weekend or disappearing off to the pub to watch the football for example.  It is easy to judge Dad’s who do this, but when I’ve met groups of Dad’s I’ve learned that many of them are failing to cope with the often-self-imposed pressures of being “strong for the family”, and the fact that their child’s disability is the one thing they “cannot fix”.

As a result, when I’m seeing parents at training or conference events, or online, who are looking for tips about how to support their child better in church, at home, and elsewhere, it’s often Mum that I see.  There are, of course, exceptions to this trend too, and these thoughts in no way devalue the amazing care that lots of Dad’s provide too!

Additional or special needs parenting is tough, with so much more to cope with than many other families have to deal with.  The stresses and strains of parenting a child with additional needs are 24/7 all year every year and added to the anxiety and even misplaced guilt that many parents will experience it can all add up.  But does this make it more likely that families where there is a child with additional/special needs or disabilities will fall apart under the pressure?

Well, 53% of families claim that having a disabled child causes some/major relationship difficulties or breakups (source: About Families) [4], which is considerably higher that the population in general, suggesting that there could be a link between being an additional needs parent and family breakup.

32% of disabled children live in lone parent families compared to 22% of other children (source: Buckner and Yeandle; Emerson and Hatton) [5].  Where families that include a child with additional needs or disabilities break apart, it is usually Dad who leaves the family home, leaving Mum as the lone parent.

Parents of children with additional needs or disabilities often feel excluded from a wide range of social activities (source: Mumsnet) [6], and this can be exacerbated by being a lone parent.  72% of carers responding to Carers UK’s State of Caring Survey said they had suffered mental ill health as a result of caring.  61% said they had suffered physical ill health as a result of caring (source: Carers UK) [7].  It’s tough being a lone parent of a child with additional needs.

Ongoing support
It is vital that churches look to provide ongoing support for families with children who have additional needs or disabilities.  It is so important that churches look beyond simply including children in Sunday School for an hour a week, or in the mid-week club night, but work with families to see how the church can stand with them and support them in other ways too.

  • Can the church offer childminding services free of charge so that parents can go out and invest in their relationship?
  • Could the church offer regular pastoral support so that when it’s 2am and everything has fallen apart and everyone is finding it all too hard there is someone they can call just to talk and that that’s OK?
  • Could the church get Dad’s together to share their experiences and stories, to help each other to know that they are not alone, not the only ones dealing with stuff. Statistically, if a family with a child with additional needs or disability splits up, it’s almost always Dad that leaves; what can we do to hear from Dad’s and help keep them in the family?  Take 5 and Chat http://www.take5andchat.org.uk offer a Dad’s service, or churches could contact Who Let The Dads Out https://www.wholetthedadsout.org.uk
  • And if the family has already split up, and Mum (as is usually the case) is trying to cope on her own, how can the church offer practical support to help her get everthing done without having a breakdown herself?  Are there people in the church with practical skills that can help out?  Can some free childminding be arranged so she can meet up for some social time with friends, or go to the gym?  There may be financial pressures too, could the church signpost her towards support here e.g. Christians Against Poverty https://capuk.org

There is plenty we can do to understand the stresses and strains that families face, and to support both Mum’s and Dad’s through these tough times with practical and emotional support.

I’m Dad to James, an Autistic teenager with Learning Disability and Epilepsy, so I very much get how hard parenting a child with complex special needs can be.  We’ve had our share of ups and downs, there have been times when it’s nearly broken us, when we’ve wondered how we would continue to cope, but we’ve keep on going, supported by family, friends and faith.  People stepping up to help us and a real sense of God journeying with us.

As others have helped us, there have also been times when we’ve been able to help others in turn.  I want to continue to be there for my son, for my daughter and for my wife; for us to beat the odds and survive the pressures of special needs parenting; but we can only succeed if we are willing to reach out and accept help.  So we keep-on-keeping-on, knowing that we don’t journey alone.

Who do you know that you could help?


Mark Arnold
17th January 2019

See also:
‘Are Additional/Special Needs Families More Likely To Break Apart’

‘Additional Needs Parents; Disrupted, Resilient, Vulnerable, Broken, Loving’ https://theadditionalneedsblogfather.com/2018/05/11/additional-needs-parents-disrupted-resilient-vulnerable-broken-loving/

Image rights: © Harper Macleod LLP

[1] ‘Reforms for children with SEN and disabilities come into effect’ (2014) http://www.gov.uk/government/news/reforms-for-children-with-sen-and-disabilities-come-into-effect [accessed 17th January 2019]

[2]The Papworth Trust’ (2016)

[3]The Papworth Trust’ (2016)

[4] ‘Together and apart: supporting families through change’ (2011)
www.capability-scotland.org.uk/media/101061/about_families_report_2_change.pdf [accessed 17th January 2019]

[5]Buckner and Yeandle’ (2006); ‘Emerson and Hatton’ (2005).

[6] ‘Mumsnet parents: negative attitudes are holding back our disabled children’ (2014) http://www.scope.org.uk/About-Us/Media/Press-releases/February-2014/Mumsnet-parents-negative-attitudes-are-holding-bac [accessed 17th January 2019]

[7] ‘Carers UK: Facts & figures’ (2015) https://www.carersuk.org/news-and-campaigns/press-releases/facts-and-figures [accessed 17th January 2019]

16 thoughts on “Where Are All The Dad’s Of Children With Special Needs?

  1. You have hit several nails on the head with this post. Many dads, as you say, are present in their children’s lives but we still tend to encourage the stiff, upper lip in this country. Men are expected to have beautiful, well organised, perfect looking families and I suspect that many dads struggle with that image when their families do not conform. Therefore they try to maintain that image of perfection by distancing themselves from what is actually going on. They probably also feel so totally out of their depth that they can’t even remotely get their heads around what is really going on and how to handle it. The mums are so busy having to deal with the situation that communication breaks down. Mums have to get stuck in and work things out and because they succeed in doing that, men feel intimidated because they can’t necessarily work it out and the mums don’t have time or energy to teach them. It is exhausting for everyone!

    I like your idea of churches offering some child-minding time to help parents have some ‘us time’. It would seem like a good idea full stop and could build up so many relationships in the church alongside more understanding and tolerance acquired from walking in the families’ shoes. My children don’t have grand-parents; it would have been lovely for them if they could have had a relationship with an older person in our congregation who perhaps didn’t have grand-children. Perhaps when a comment such as ‘why can’t they control that child?’ or similar is heard, those around could encourage the speakers to help rather than criticise. When I was a singleton and someone had a crying child out shopping, I would think ‘poor child – what has that parent done to them?’. Now I think ‘poor parent’.

    Mind you, perhaps sometimes we could start to ask for help instead of manfully/womanfully struggling on; people do like to help and even if it takes longer in the short term, think of the benefits in the long term. Just a thought…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Such important points you raise, thank you ever so much. When I’ve gathered Dad’s together to talk, it’s usually started with everyone trying to keep the “stiff upper lip” in place, but usually ends up with everyone pouring out stuff they’ve been holding in for years and many tears flow. There is a lot to do, but hopefully this message and this conversation will help some.


  2. An excellent article. It makes me feel sad that there is not more support in churches – either for mums or dads. After going to my church (which is excellent) for two years, there is no support available. They have lots of outreaches (the homeless, asylum seekers, Street Child) but the three services are aimed at families with young children, the elderly and students/20’s&30’s. As a mum of 2 autistic teens, I’ve not managed to make any close friends yet despite trying really hard – I don’t hear from anybody if I can’t make a service and neither child can cope with coming and consequently have no friends. If I can’t attend church, sometimes I go for two weeks without speaking to another adult apart from my husband (I can’t work as my son won’t leave the house which means that mostly I can’t either). Last year we didn’t even manage a single outing as a family. It is so lonely and isolating. I applaud Mark for trying to raise the needs of families such as ours.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the encouragement, and for sharing your story. There is a big need to reach out to families like ours. I totally get how isolating it can be to be unable to leave the house, we went over a year without James being able to leave the house from July ’17 to August ’18. Even now he will only come out to a few places. Important to know that you are not alone, there are others facing similar things, and that there are more and more of us trying to raise the profile so that people generally, and the church in particular, and more understanding. Cheering you on!


  3. In terms of blogging, it just seems to be an activity that men like less than women (generalising, obviously!). Maybe it’s the whole sharing your feelings thing? Or maybe they just don’t see the point? Those Dads who do blog give us a great insight into their side of things…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent post. I wish all Vicars and Pastors could read it: and pass the points on to the congregation, who could then stop this ‘we must all be the perfect Christian family at all times’ pretence! One of our kids (all grown now) was and still is ‘difficult’ compared to the perfect child – but neither the school not the medical people managed to diagnose or help. This is a small thing compared to what counts as ‘disability’ or even ‘additional needs’ but whatever it was/is, autistic spectrum/ADHA but high functioning, it nearly drove us apart, meant the siblings getting less time/attention. alienated everyone, and was definitely a ‘oh dear, not the perfect family at church … your description of how it affects parents is very familiar – Dad works hard, Mum feels she must be there for the kid … (and in our case, Dad would stay up all night alongside the one who struggled to write essays, but if you asked for a verbal answer would be able to tell you the answer to the question in the title ….) Anyhow, keep it up, the blog is a great resource if it can get the message out to churches …!


  5. Single dad here. I’ve been widowed 14 years now and have raised 2 sons since they were 8 and 10. The younger one has Special Needs (Down Syndrome). I’m just trying to keep up with life. My boys are now 22 & 24. The younger one is working a steady job and has a pretty full life. I help with Special Needs ministries in various ways. I am fortunate to belong to a church that has a Special Needs ministry and friends and family that support us. Our pastors are very supportive of people with Special Needs. I do notice that when I go with my younger son to programs, activities, camps, etc it is mostly moms bringing their kids(young adults now). I know both sides (being both mom & dad) and I don’t really have an answer to your main question. I guess it’s just the way things are. I would hope for myself I would be very involved in both my sons lives even if I still had a wife.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good to hear from you Toby, and it looks like you’re doing a great job. Single dads much rarer than single mums/moms but both often can find it hard without some support. Looks like you’re part of a great church and have a wider support network which must make a big difference. We need to hear from more dads to understand better how they feel about things, so thanks again for sharing Toby!


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