Many factors can cause stress in families, including divorce, death
This is the sixth in a series of articles about 21st Century families.
Q: What other stressors are related to family types?
A: Continuing the "Stress and Coping Across the Life Cycle" article, a family situation not often discussed is that of families with special-needs children. These families experience grief about their children. There is lifelong stress as these children have developmental challenges different from non-special children. Parents first have to accept the reality of their children's conditions. The more serious the problems, the greater the stress.
A second family stress associated with special-needs children is the effect on the other children. Even when siblings understand the necessity for more time and attention for special-needs children, they still feel the effects of the disparity in time spent with them compared with special-needs siblings.
Coping with special-needs children requires coping strategies. Gathering information about these children is a must for parents. The rest of the coping strategies are no different than those needed for any parents. But the necessity for effective resources and effective coping skills for families of special-needs children is greater. These coping strategies include good cooperation from family members, social support from friends, activities, openness, and personal resources such as perseverance and resilience.
Another family type is the family caring for sick or elderly members. There is a lot of variation in the amount of stress. If the illness is stigmatized and has a negative connotation, there will be less support. Family members might be ashamed of the situation. If the illness is a family disease, everyone's anxiety increases. There are patients in family homes who are confused and get up and wander away at night. There also are family members with mental disorders who are difficult to handle and control.
Stress related to the death of a parent or child is high. If a death is expected or anticipated, it is easier to handle. Unexpected death is extremely difficult to accept. Losing a child is perhaps the worst trauma for the immediate family. In addition, if a person dies from AIDS or suicide, there is a stigma attached to the death.
The reaction to death and the ability of a child to accept the death of a parent depends on the quality of the relationship. For those who had a positive and close relationship with the deceased, acceptance eventually will follow. When a parent dies, and the relationship was conflictual and adversarial, closure becomes difficult.
In step-families, children experience the losses of the nonresidential parents. The children fantasize their parents will get back together, even when their parents are remarried. These fantasies can continue for years.
Children might not be ready for stepparents who try to be substitute parents. The expectations for the bonding in step-families usually is unrealistic. Children cannot develop bonds with stepparents and stepsiblings without time to develop relationships. Parents seem to forget the children had no say in their decisions to remarry or cohabitate.
Besides grief about the losses of their biological families, children have to balance their loyalties between parents and stepparents. Usually, family rules and traditions are not the same in step-families as they were in biological families. Adjusting to blended families is a tremendous undertaking for most children and might have long-term effects. Adult children might not marry, might doubt their abilities to do well in marriage and might carry poor self-esteem into their adult years.
Another type of marriage is the couple without children. PsychCentral website suggests some considerations for couples before deciding on children. Do both partners want children? A longitudinal study by Cowan and Cowan in 2000 found 100 percent of couples in which the husband did not want children were divorced by the time the children were 6 years old.
Experts have postulated some basic questions partners need to ask themselves when considering parenthood. First, what is one's motivation for having children? The desire needs to be personal and internal, not because family or society has this expectation.
Secondly, what is the quality of the marital relationship? Do partners agree on the important issues and have effective skills for problem-solving and conflict resolution when they don't agree? A third aspect is whether or not partners have good communication. Do they communicate their needs and fears? Parenting requires even more skills than marriage.
Furthermore, research has found marital quality is one predictor of parenting quality, and one of the most significant predictors. Parents need to understand the emotional and financial costs involved in raising children. That task is much more difficult than working in a job. The commitment is all-consuming and for a lifetime.
The final question for childless couples to consider involves readiness. Have they moved beyond the honeymoon phase? Marital partners should be in stable relationships for at least one to two years before having children.
* Next week's article will discuss effective coping skills for family stress in all family types.
Judy Caprez is associate professor of social work at Fort Hays State University. Send your questions in care of the department of sociology and social work, Rarick Hall, FHSU.