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Finding Balance: Family Therapy Can Help

Kathy and Will (not their real names) have been married eight years and are the parents of 3-year-old Addy. Kathy is seven months pregnant and scared. She and Will have been fighting a lot lately about how to handle Addy. After weeks of talking about it, Will has agreed to try some family therapy to see if it would help.

Addy has Down Syndrome. This family has been through a lot. Addy had two heart surgeries before he was six months old. He has hearing problems. Like most kids with Down, he has been slow to grow, slow to walk, and slow to talk. Also like many kids with Down, he is adorable and affectionate.

Will works long hours as a plant manager. They have been fortunate that they can afford to have Kathy leave her job as a third grade teacher and be a stay-at-home mom for now. They both say they are committed to doing the best they can for Addy and that they are looking forward to the new baby too. What’s the fighting about?

“I’m exhausted,” says Kathy. “Addy still wants to be carried most of the time and he’s getting big. I take him to an early intervention program three mornings a week. I’m learning a lot about how to help him and he is getting a chance to be with other kids. We’re trying to help him learn to accept limits and walk on his own.

“I know Will works hard but he comes home and seems to think that he should be able to relax. He is a big support in his own way but he doesn’t seem interested in what the physical therapist and speech and language specialist says we need to do. I often feel like he’s undermining me. My mom helps me a lot but I can’t ask her to do any more. I don’t know how I’m going to manage Addy and a baby too.”

“I think everyone is asking too much of Addy,” says Will. “Life is going to be hard enough on him without us being hard on him too. Yeah, I think it’s time he walked on his own but he’s making some progress. And he is communicating. I think the language stuff will come naturally if we just give him some room. When I get home I like to relax and I think Addy does too. He goes to that EI class most mornings. Kathy pushes him a lot. She and her mom spend hours working with him. You should see all the stuff they’ve got to stimulate him and to help him learn. I know she’s working hard to help him but I think we should let up in the evenings and just be a family together.”

Family Therapy: Getting on the Same Team

Will and Kathy do have a lot going for them. They clearly like and love each other. They both love their son and are committed to raising him well. The second pregnancy was planned. They had always talked about having at least two kids and saw no reason to change that dream. Will has a good job and Kathy is grateful to be able to take time out from her teaching career to give Addy the extra attention he needs. Why can’t these two lovely people get on the same team?

Ask any parent of young kids: The early years of raising children are hard. There usually isn’t much opportunity for the couple to have spontaneous intimate moments. When there is time for romance, both often are too exhausted to take full advantage of it. Any differences of opinion about parenting, finances, free time, and chores rise to the surface.

Add the special challenges of a disabled child to the mix and the stress gets multiplied times ten. It may reassure them to hear that conflict with a partner at this stage of life isn’t abnormal. It’s a normal reaction to an abnormal amount of stress.

But this couple also is at an impasse that they need to break through if they are to stay a couple and parent well. Kathy and Will have been too tired, too busy, or too afraid — probably all three — to deal with their disagreements directly. They’ve been getting through each day okay but they also have been getting further and further apart.

Breaking the Impasse

Talking together, we find that Will is feeling left out. His wife and mother-in-law have become strongly bonded in their commitment to give Addy every chance to have as normal a life as possible. Because they are both at home during the day, they have lots of time to talk and to try things together. Kathy has understandably turned more and more to her mom as a support and teammate. Will has given up trying to get on their team. Instead, he is doing his best to be the kind of fun dad that he thinks his boy needs. After dinner, they roll on the floor. They play tickle games. They make noises together. Will doesn’t mind carrying Addy around piggy-back. He thinks vocalizations are a fine way to “talk” for now.

From Kathy’s point of view, Will undermines her. In our sessions she explains that she is trying to set limits. She is trying to get her son to walk and talk. She wants Will to pay attention to what the experts tell her and to get with the program. Angry and tired, she nonetheless is able to acknowledge that she is overly critical of the evening fun times. Will is stunned to find that she sees the evening romps as a slap in the face.

A little understanding and a lot of communication go a long way. They are able to hear how they have drifted into not talking about things that need to be talked about. Kathy admits that by evening she is too worn out to fill Will in on everything he needs to know. Will, for his part, admits he’s too tired to listen to technical explanations and just wants to hang out. Complicating things further is that Addy often doesn’t fall asleep until 10:00 or 11:00, leaving little opportunity for his parents to have alone time before they fall into bed.

How to Find a New Balance

Our work focuses on sharing information and finding a new balance. Both have some adjustments to make.

Will is expecting too little. Feeling sorry for a kid with a disability is as handicapping as the disability itself. Will hadn’t realized he was pitying his son. In trying to make it up to him by not placing demands on him, he was in danger of inhibiting Addy’s ability to grow. It isn’t doing him a favor to exempt him from the demands of life. Other people won’t do it for him once he gets into the larger world.

It’s obvious to Will that his son needs him on his side. What wasn’t so obvious to him was how much Addy needs him to help him meet the ordinary demands of life. Walking and talking are just the beginning.

Kathy, on the other hand, may be expecting too much. She and her mom have made Addy’s growth a mission. They take him to classes. They read up on the latest techniques. As a former teacher, Kathy has lots of skills. She turns every afternoon into a home school for Addy. Feeling the pressure of another baby coming, Kathy has redoubled her efforts to make Addy grow. She’s driven. She’s tired. She’s not much fun. She doesn’t realize that Addy needs to feel accepted for who he is as well as for who he could be. He needs a happy mom as much as a competent teacher.

Neither Kathy nor Will planned to get so polarized. It just happened as a consequence of the reality of their schedules, what they each do to cope, and their reactions to each other. Once they understood, the rest was, if not easy, at least workable. They were able to talk realistically about what Addy needs for structure, for reinforcement, for developing new skills and for fun with both of his parents. They were able to talk about ways for Kathy to take a break now and then without feeling like she is letting her son down. They were able to figure out ways that Will could have some fun with Addy but also be one of his most important teachers. By eventually including Grandma in the conversation, the three of them were able to make a team of three instead of a team of two with Will as an outsider.

Counseling didn’t take the challenges of raising a child like Addy away. What it did do was make it possible for the adults to support and help each other. Once they had a sympathetic understanding of the situation, Kathy and Will could cooperate as partners and as parents. Most important, they were able to rediscover the many good reasons they are together.

Finding Balance: Family Therapy Can Help

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2020). Finding Balance: Family Therapy Can Help. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 30 Jul 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 30 Jul 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.