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Mark Arnold

Where are all the Dads of children with Special Needs?

When I’m seeing parents 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.

Photo: Tina Bo (Unsplash, CC0)

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?



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 Dads 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.



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 offer a Dad’s service, or churches could contact Who Let The Dads Out

- 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

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, Director of Additional Needs Ministry at Urban Saints. Arnold blogs at The Additional Needs Blogfather. This article was re-published with permission.



[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]





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