“Raising an Extreme Child Requires an Extreme Marriage”
Eight ways to man the battle stations of matrimony when a challenging child almost blows it to smithereens.
In a country where over 50 percent of couples are doomed to failed marriages, 36 percent of marriages face infidelity, and all of us go through times that are hard, we are up against it! With marriage being such a challenge, throwing kids into the mix is a recipe for disaster in most cases. When you are raising children with special needs, you might as well walk down the aisle in a hard hat and a Hazmat suit, because, baby, you’re going to need them!
My husband and I dated for 3 1/2 years before getting engaged, and we were married two months later. We are now in our eighth year of marriage, and it has been mostly happy. We have gone through the stressors of changing jobs, buying and selling homes, and losing family members. We survived the births of two children who almost killed me both times. But when I say that nothing has brought us to our knees like parenting our son, I mean business.
We have a six-year-old son and a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter. Our son began showing signs of behavior disorders around 18 months. He was officially diagnosed at four and has picked up several diagnoses in the last two years. To date, he has: ADHD-severe/combined, Oppositional Defiant Disorder (OCD), Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and is Twice Exceptional. He functions on a mental level about three to four years above his real age, but he behaves like a two- or three-year-old.
We have gone through parenting classes, psychologist sessions, parent and family small groups, bible studies for parents, and I have read just about every article there is on self-help, homeopathic remedies for behavior disorders, and how to strengthen your relationship when your kids are challenging. There isn’t a coach’s playbook for this. This is real life, in-the-trenches marital warfare, and we need to be ready for it.
So here are my top eight tips for manning the battle stations of marriage when parenting an extreme child.
Keep Your Communication on Point
There is no greater key to a happy relationship of any kind. If you don’t know how someone is feeling, you can’t address a potentially hurtful situation. If you don’t know if you’ve hurt someone, you can’t prevent it from happening again.
So, men, talk to your women. We get it. You use fewer words than us. You need the TV off to really hear us. But we need to know you are there for us and you can fill the role of confidant. And, ladies, don’t make your man guess about your feelings. He doesn’t “just know.” I promise that you will both be happier if you say what you are upset about, so he can have a chance to course-correct. And, for the love of grade school romance, don’t text when you are mad! Your emotions do not come across accurately in a text message. I don’t care what emojis you use or how much you abuse the caps lock. Please make a phone call or talk to each other face-to-face.
Communication is crucial when it comes to parenting a child with behavior disorders because they are master negotiators, and they will manipulate the fool out of parents who don’t talk to each other. You are carrying a target on your back if there are cracks in your marriage. So hold tight to each other. Talk openly, especially in front of your kiddos. It is good for them to learn that grown-ups who care about each other can disagree and resolve conflict in a calm way. You can’t model explosive behavior and expect your child to act peaceably.
This may be the hardest step for me. I a Type A and like things my way, and I am also a die-hard competitor at heart. It sounds ridiculous to the more passive types, but I will go feral on my husband during an argument. Ten minutes in, I have basically blacked out because all I can hear are the counter arguments and refutations I have prepared against what he has to say. This kind of arguing would be great if I were a paid attorney, but I am a wife. I promised to love my husband, not compete against him. There is no prize at the end of a disagreement. I have won no trophies for arguing.
When you disagree with your spouse, and you will, try to remind yourself of the actual problem. Stick to the basics, and if it doesn’t relate to the current issue, zip it. It isn’t relevant. Yes, it makes me crazy that his clothes never quite make it to the hamper, but that has nothing to do with arguing over our son’s latest meltdown. This is not the time. Stick to the script.
Remember Where You Started
Rewind the tape to the day you met your spouse. What caught your attention? Why did you agree to go on that first date? What were the first few months like when you still got butterflies when he or she called and you were nervous before you were picked you up? In an exercise at a marriage retreat, the speaker had us write a letter to our spouse telling him or her what originally attracted us to them and why we were still with them now. That letter stopped me in my tracks.
As we grow in our marriages, mature, have kids, have grandkids, things change. How we feel changes. It seems hard to believe that the man I love has memories of the young, vibrant woman I was when we met 12 years ago because now, the wrinkled, yoga pant-wearing mama staring back from the mirror seems weathered and haggard from motherhood, career, and marriage. But he does. Tell each other. Whether you have to write it or text it or put it in a song, tell your spouse that you still see him or her for who he or she was, and you love who he or she has become.
Remembering where you started can solidify where you are now.
Have Fun Together
This is crucial. When times get tough in a marriage, it is easy to slip into a pattern that mimics being roommates or business partners, not lovers and friends. Mix it up. Don’t follow the same old routine. Try new things together, go on dates again, and make sure that you focus on conversation that doesn’t only concern your kids.
When you parent a child with special needs, he or she tends to soak up the majority of your thoughts and conversation. Don’t let it. Relax and have fun together. Even if you have to print topic starters or conversation questions from Pinterest, do it! Just as you are constantly changing and growing as an adult, so is your spouse. So get to know each other again! It is fascinating what you can find out!
Take Your Time
I am the world’s worst at this. Just ask my husband. I carry so much guilt when I do anything for myself, by myself, or with my friends. I guess it is ingrained with motherhood, but I struggle. However, when I do agree to take this kind of time to recharge, I always return to my family better for it.
The other side to this is taking time to refresh with friends. If I have learned anything in the 12 years I have been with my husband, it is that guys need bro time, and women need girl time. Even though I am a salt-of-the-earth tomboy, it is crazy how much better I feel after dinner, wine, and a pedicure with one of my close friends. My husband is the same. He is my best friend and confidant, but we argue sometimes about the kids or the bills. It is good for us to be around “our people” and vent so we can feel challenged, accountable, and encouraged by someone other than our spouse. Do it! You will thank me for it.
Give One-on-One Time
Our kids control our lives when they have special needs. Even if you have mastered dating your spouse and you have a steady babysitter that you trust (I envy you, if you do), you need quality together time. This doesn’t require a fancy date or leaving your house. If you are praying people, it might be setting aside time to read scripture or pray for each other. Maybe you prefer yoga or breathing exercises. Whatever suits you, do that thing together.
Don’t overdo it, especially in the wake of arguing or a tense time in your partnership. Start out with only five minutes and work your way up to remembering why this was important in the beginning. You want to feel wanted and needed, and your partner likely does, too.
Whether it means taking a new class, cooking a new recipe, or staring up a new hobby, it is crazy how learning together can bond a couple and strengthen a relationship! While experiencing something new together, you are creating lasting, happy memories. Remember there will be rough patches, so these are crucial to fall back on during those tougher times.
For us, this includes learning with our kids and learning for our kids. What I mean is this: I am a nerd at heart. If someone would pay me to be a student, I’d be in college forever. I enjoy researching, reading, and taking notes on new discoveries. I apply that eagerness to learn to our son’s diagnoses, so I can constantly comb the stacks of articles and studies about what he is dealing with. This also allows me to find more condensed versions of new research for my husband, who prefers to learn with his hands. We have watched videos and documentaries together and checked out short studies. They always spur great conversation to help us develop new strategies to try with our kiddos.
Let’s face it: If the old-fashioned way of parenting and discipline worked for our son, we’d already be parenting geniuses. But they don’t. So we press on…together.
Keep a Bedtime Ritual
This may seem trivial, but having this one constant can keep you from holding grudges overnight. Parenting a child with behaviors means you have no idea which version of your kid you will get—not only that day, but sometimes that minute. So if one of us has lashed out in anger toward our son’s choices, it is comforting to know that, by bedtime, we have to have worked it out. It is our ritual, after all.
This doesn’t include candles and séances, no Ouija boards or weird lovey-dovey stuff. For us, it means we will always, no matter what, kiss goodnight and say, “I love you.” Simple, right? Sometimes it isn’t. When I have gotten myself all worked up over something my husband did earlier that day, and I have already crammed myself as far to the right side of the bed as my body will allow in a silent protest against him, it takes all I have in me for that kiss and those three words. But it is so worth it. Because it might be tomorrow that I am the one needing mercy, grace, forgiveness, and a goodnight kiss when I am undeserving.
Parenting is messy and hard. Parenting children with behavior disorders is like navigating a hurricane-roiled ocean in arm floaties. We need each other. Put your pride aside, show respectful conflict management for your kids, and love each other through the difficult times. Your marriage will be much stronger for it!