By: Laura Arnold, Ph.D., CFLE & Colette Tano, M.P.P.


Laura Arnold, Ph.D. is a Lead Research Scientist at ICF where she works on research and evaluation projects related to adolescent and family health, healthy marriages and relationships, and effective programming.
Colette Tano, M.P.P., is a Child Welfare and Education Research Analyst at ICF where she works on providing support on the National Resource Center for Healthy Marriage and Families.



Being a parent of a child with developmental disabilities or special needs is full of many joyful experiences that come along with parenting, yet parents and children in these families also face unique challenges. Often after receiving the news that their child has a disability, parents experience a range of emotions and can have a difficult time shifting their focus from the idealized expectations that they had for their children to the sudden reality of raising a child with special needs.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in six children in the United States between the ages of 3 and 17 are diagnosed as having a developmental disability (DD) or delay. Research supports that strong relationships matter within families, and this is even truer in families where the day to day trials of raising children with developmental disabilities and other special needs can put additional stressors on relationships. These internal familial stressors can in turn have a negative impact on parent well‐being.

Additionally, many parents coping with the unexpected news that their child has a disability have expressed feelings of significant stress from external factors. For instance, in a survey of 2,000 parents conducted by Contact a Family, a UK based charity for families of disabled children, parents said that the challenges they most frequently faced were related to problems balancing work and family; increased financial worries; a lack of support and understanding from professionals; and, a lack of suitable services to support disabled children and their parents/care takers.

Tips for Supporting Parents

Service providers and other support organizations that work with parents of children with special needs have an opportunity to leverage the relationships within the child’s home to help lessen the influence of internal and external stressors on the family. For instance, family relationships that are healthy and stable are an integral source of support and protection against life’s many stresses and strains. Why not start right where the family is? In the home!

  • Build (or reinforce!) healthy communication patterns. Often when life hands parents a new reality they were not expecting, they can face feelings of isolation, desperation, and loneliness. Yet, what is needed most is for parents to know they are not alone. Healthy communication, both within the home as well as outside the home, is vital to the well-being of parents and individuals and in their parenting role.
  • Incorporate relationship skill-building activities into services. Service providers can increase the effectiveness of the services offered to parents by incorporating healthy relationship and marriage education into their existing programming. This could be as simple as placing pamphlets in a waiting room about healthy conflict management or could involve partnering with another organization to offer classes on financial management to parents.
  • Empower parents to work as a team! Caring for a child with a disability can be demanding on parents. As the saying goes, “it takes a village to raise a child.” Caregivers greatly benefit from having a team collaborating to support their childrearing, so why not build on the natural built-in support system that a significant other or partner provides!? Often it can be as simple as providing encouraging words to parents for them to feel motivated and empowered to continue their journey.

Relationships go through periods of change and challenges but having support systems in place and healthy relationship skills can go a long way toward helping parents create a loving and healthy home environment in which they and their children can thrive.


The National Resource Center for Healthy Marriage and Families (Resource Center) has a variety of free services and resources that providers may find will aid them in assisting families of children with developmental disabilities and special needs to achieve economic, emotional, and social stability. Our tip sheet on Building Strong Family Relationships and webinar on Stronger Families Through Healthy Relationships, Positive Parenting, and Economic Stability are just a couple of the free resources that the Resource Center offers. You can find more resources like this, and in-person and virtual trainings for agency staff and leadership, technical assistance for interested stakeholders, and multi-media resources, including videos and podcasts, on the Resource Center’s website