Effects on Your Marriage
Research shows an increased percentage of marital dissatisfaction in families with children who experience emotional disturbances. Because parents have varying levels of distress tolerance and coping, individual differences can be magnified when a couple is under stress. For example, an introverted spouse may become even more withdrawn when under stress, leading the other parent to feel unsupported or neglected. As you read the sections below, you may wish to identify talking points to share with your spouse.
Increasing your ability to see eye-to-eye and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with your partner, spouse, or co-parent will strengthen your marriage and family, and optimize your child's recovery.
Receiving the Diagnosis
Any time a family member receives a mental health diagnosis there is a natural sense of grief and loss that occurs. Some parents may experience a sort of “kicked in the gut” feeling, others may be sad and withdrawn, and still others, angry with themselves, the child, the situation, or God. In fact, theory and research on the grieving process indicate that parents may have any or all of these reactions, and may alternate between emotional states. Regarding your marriage, the most important factor is that you are able to communicate with each other about what you are experiencing individually and as a couple, and that you allow each other the space and time to process whatever feelings you experience in response to your child's condition.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five stages of grief: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, and acceptance. Developmental psychologists have learned that not everyone experiences all of the stages in response to loss, and that they can alternate, and even overlap. Overall, the goal is to accept and move through the changeable process, not to “finish grieving.”
Because a large part of your child's recovery will involve reassurance that his world is safe and manageable, it will be important for you and your spouse to assess your parenting styles. Diana Baumrind, in her classic work, identifies three different parenting styles: Authoritarian, Permissive, and Authoritative. Authoritarian parents take the reins of control fully, and adhere to strict rules and expectations for their children. This style can create submissiveness or resentment, and is reflective of attitudes in the 1940s and 1950s. By contrast, Permissive parents exert little control, generally allow children to do as they wish, and give lots of room for children to explore and learn from their own mistakes. If extreme, this style can create confusion, and possibly even a feeling of neglect. It mirrors the focus on self-expression and self-esteem prevalent in the 60s and 70s. Authoritative parents are able to strike a balance between these two extremes and share control and decision-making with their children. Because the child is given some power to make decisions, but has consistent parental input, this style tends to foster self-reliance and self-control. Other family patterns that influence parenting styles include the degree of emotional closeness versus distance, flexibility versus rigidity regarding rules and expectations, and variations in the amount of supervision and advice parents provide to their children.
Because children with anxiety often experience an inner sense that things are out of control, it is especially important that parents be on the same page whether or not they live under the same roof. Although it is typical for parents to differ in their approaches to childrearing, you can create a unified front by ensuring consistency in the following elements of family life:
Establish clear rules about activities and curfew
Be clear about bottom-line expectations for behavior
Agree to consequences for breaking the rules
Determine how you will positively reinforce progress
Brainstorm and arrange fun outings as a team
Streamlining your parenting styles can go a long way to creating a sense of cohesion in your marriage, and in the family as a whole. You may wish to attend a parenting group or class to learn a new approach together to enhance your child's recovery.