Stress from the Family Structure
Family structure strongly influences the needs of the family and the presence of stress in the family. As discussed, the majority of families no longer only consist of two parents and several children. The impact of different cultures, divorce, remarriage, recombination of families, other children with disabilities, and sexual preference of family members all may create stress and influence needs of families of children with disabilities (Parette & Petch-Hogan, 2000). Differing family structures provide additional challenges for the professional who is attempting to build partnerships and encourage family involvement. Examples of potential school-related problems encountered when children live in two separate households during the school year include:
- Variable amounts of time available for homework and school problems
- Pressures competing for family resources
- Additional parent conferences
- Households made up of only one adult
- Children with four or more parents
- Differing values in the two households concerning school behavior and performance
Stress, though, does not affect all members of the family in the same way (e.g., Beckman, 1991; Jaffe, 1991) and each family member’s need for support during times of stress may be different. It is important, therefore, to recognize especially that mothers and fathers within the same family often have different needs for support (Beckman, 1991). For example, mothers tend to report higher need for support than fathers do. In addition, the personal strengths (coping resources and styles) of each family member and the availability of support systems for the family often mediate the effects of stress (Seligman, 2000).
According to Hanline (1991), transitions and transitional events may magnify stress within a family, result in an increased focus on the special needs of the child, and may renew the feelings of sorrow previously addressed by the family. Further, these transitions may be more difficult because they may occur at different times than for children in other families. Following is a list of transitions and transitional events that may increase stress within the family.
- Diagnosis of the disability is made.
- Developmental milestones are missed.
- Younger siblings developmentally pass the child with the disability.
- Puberty begins.
- Significant birthdays are reached (for example, 16th, 21st).
- A medical crisis occurs.
- A behavioral crisis occurs.
- An out-of-home placement is considered.
The ability of parents or family members to handle the stress of these and other transitions and events is also affected by the number of stressful events or challenges that occur simultaneously. When multiple events occur, resources for coping may become depleted, and, thus, limit the ability to handle the additional event. Families and educators can work together to reduce the stress of transitions and critical events through discussion and planning for these critical times (Sandler, 1998).
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