Parents, in general, are under a significant amount of pressure during the coronavirus pandemic. Those who have been able to switch to long-term remote work arrangements are simultaneously helping their children stay engaged with online learning while schools remain closed, and some are also caring for aging parents or children with special needs.
For parents of children with autism, a new study finds that they’re facing a high degree of stress because of the isolation, disruption of children’s therapy services and respite care, and worry about finances and the risk of illness for their children and themselves.
What can parents do to alleviate stress during a time when public health guidance requires physical distancing? Research suggests that co-parenting—when two or more adults (parents, grandparents, family members, friends) work together to share caregiving responsibilities—can be an important source of support for parents of children with autism. This is true in “normal” times, but particularly now when many families are hunkered down at home with only each other to lean on.
In a 2015 study, over 150 mothers and fathers of children with autism in Australia completed questionnaires about several aspects of their parenting experience. They rated their co-parenting—how well they communicated and worked as a team, and how much they respected their partner’s caregiving commitment and judgment. Parents also answered questions about their stress and their confidence in their parenting role.
The findings? Parents who had better co-parenting relationships also tended to have less parenting stress. “The most important source of parenting support for many parents is the support they receive from their parenting partnership,” explain researcher Chris May and his colleagues. Parents of children with autism may feel more isolated from friends and family, which makes co-parenting support from partners even more significant.
In a 2017 study, May and his colleagues explored why a sense of confidence and competence in your co-parenting might be helpful. To capture a range of perspectives, they interviewed 11 cohabiting couples—mothers and fathers—who reported experiencing either relatively low or high stress.
The researchers explored how parents adapted as they started to understand that their child had autism, how they experienced a sense of partnership in their parenting, and how they expected their partnership would influence their child’s development. For example, they asked parents questions like “How important is your parenting relationship with [your partner] likely to be in determining [your child’s] progress?,” “How do you keep your parenting relationship working?,” and “Has anybody ever talked to you about parenting teamwork in relation
to parenting a child with [autism]?”
The study found that parents who felt greater confidence in their co-parenting tended to be better able to cope with learning of their child’s diagnosis, have stronger motivation to do what they could for their child, and have greater hope for their child’s development.
“A sense of solidarity was experienced by parents when they felt they were on a ‘shared journey’ that involved appreciation, camaraderie, and compromise,” explain May and his colleagues. “This sense of ‘both trying to head in the same direction’ was an important factor in . . . linking a sense of purpose and shared direction to their ability to keep their relationship working.”
How to strengthen your co-parenting
How can parents of children with autism strengthen their co-parenting relationship? Psychologist Linda Raffaele Mendez and her colleagues designed a co-parenting training program that aimed to promote resilience in families of children with autism. In a recent study, they evaluated their four-week Together We Are Stronger group program with seven couples in the United States. According to their preliminary findings, parents who participated in the program had more cohesion in their relationship, better co-parenting, and more hope at the end of the program compared to the start.
Here are some recommendations from the program to help parents be stronger together.
1. Reflect on your family history and values. Co-parents can work together to think about what exactly your family values are and how they are tied to your personal and family history. Once you’ve identified your shared values, you can become better aware of what you want to instill in your children and how you will work together to do that. This reflection can consider your children’s special needs so you can adapt your approach for your children to best embrace these values.
For example, for families who value experiencing shared joy and laughter, you may reflect on what delights each family member and how you savor, mark, and remember these moments together. For families who value love, you can reflect on how receiving love at different times, in different ways, and from different people has sustained you. You can also think together about how each of your different expressions of love grow in widening circles—for self, family, pets, friends, teachers, therapists, neighbors, community, humanity, and nature.
You can also create a family time capsule with mementos and symbols of your most cherished values that will maintain the connection between you and your future family members. With a clear understanding of these values, co-parents can write a family mission statement as a way of summarizing this reflection and discussion.
2. Talk it out. Co-parents can practice actively listening for better communication and teamwork. You can look for opportunities to use confirmation communication, which can help your co-parent feel more valued. This includes saying something accepting or positive to your co-parent, like “That was really brave of you,” or asking for more information so that you can understand their thoughts, feelings, or behavior better.
You can also try to avoid disconfirmation communication, which can make your co-parent feel devalued. For example, replying to them by dismissing, interrupting, ignoring, or saying something irrelevant or tangential can communicate rejection.
Co-parents can practice using “I” statements to communicate your personal needs. “I” statements are a tool to help make clear that you are expressing your perspective rather than blaming your partner. “You” statements like “You don’t help me take care of stuff around the house” can lead to defensiveness. In comparison, “I” statements like “I feel frustrated when I can’t get my work done, because I’m taking care of all these household chores” can help show that you’re owning your feelings and set the stage for collaborative problem solving.
Practice planning for and having uninterrupted “check in” times, which last 10–20 minutes every day. Prepare an activity for your children during that time to minimize distractions.
3. Be there for each other. Recognize that working together as a team can reduce your overall stress. Share with each other what increases your stress levels, talk about what you need from one another, and make a plan to help reduce each other’s stress. For example, write down something that your co-parent could help you with and put it on the refrigerator. Simply doing one thing your partner needs can go a long way in helping them manage stress.
4. Use optimism and humor. Notice the tone of your thoughts on a weekly basis. Do they tend to be more optimistic or pessimistic? During your check-in times, talk to each other about how you might shift your perspectives if they tend to be more pessimistic. Invite your co-parent to help you find ways to do that. Also, recognize how humor can help relieve stress. When was the last time you laughed together or made light of a difficult situation?
Of course, parenting children with autism comes with many gifts in addition to these challenges. Parents can have many positive experiences related to caregiving, like a growth in their appreciation for family and family closeness, appreciation for new opportunities and knowledge-building, and understanding about differences, abilities, diversity, and community. It’s not surprising that parents of children with autism who feel less stress tend to have more positive parenting experiences.
When parents practice strengthening their co-parenting relationship, the positive effects can cascade over to all members of the family, including their children.