coupletalkOne in 3 parents of a child with a learning disability is in a relationship that would be described in a counselling room as ‘distressed’ – and are more likely to feel lonely and have money worries, and have less time for date nights, a survey has found.

The report, Under pressure: the relationships of UK parents who have a child with a learning disability, produced by relationships charities Relate and Relationships Scotland and sponsored by learning disability charity Mencap, found that relationship problems are more common in parents of children with learning disabilities – 1 in 4 of the general population are in ‘distressed’ relationships.

In response to these findings, Relate, Relationships Scotland and Mencap have called for better access to short breaks services, improved childcare support for parents of children with a learning disability and targeted relationship support. The charities say that, together, these measures would reduce the strains on parents’ relationships and ensure families can enjoy the positives that having a child with a learning disability brings. 

More than 5,000 people were questioned in the survey that forms the basis of the report, including 280 parents of a child with a learning disability.  

The top relationship strains were finances, with 39% of parents saying money worries cause tension. Mental health was cited by 24% as a relationship strain – more than twice as many parents of children with a learning disability mentioned this compared to other parents. A lack of quality time with each other was another common strain – 24% said they only found time for a date night one a year or less.

As a likely result of these pressures, 22% of these parents reported at least occasionally regretting being in their relationship, compared to 14% of parents in the general population.

On top of the relationship issues, feelings of loneliness and poor overall wellbeing were also common. For instance, 22% of parents of a child with a learning disability said they feel lonely often or all the time – compared to 13% of other parents. One in 6 parents of children with a learning disability said they have no close friends. Parents of children with a learning disability are almost twice as likely to feel down, depressed or hopeless often or all the time (27% compared to 14% of other parents). 

Ramya Kumar, 38, from Swindon, has a 9-year-old son, Rishi, who has autism and a related learning disability. She admitted that caring for her son has in many ways taken over her life. “Caring can sometimes be 24/7 and I’ve felt like, in some ways, I’ve forgotten how to be a wife to my husband,” she said. “We rarely get to go for meals as a couple and can sometimes feel isolated from society due to the attitudes of other parents to disability. But we wouldn’t change anything about Rishi. He’s given me the priceless gift of perspective and has made me a better and stronger person.

“Many of the challenges we face can be solved by having the right support from local authorities and acceptance from the public. Rishi gets respite care for four hours a month. We’re lucky that our local community nurse has been a pillar of strength. Her support has made a huge difference to our lives. Our major worry at the moment is about Rishi’s future and making sure he gets to be fully part of his community - it’s created a great divide in opinion between my husband and I. But nothing can replace the boundless love and joy that Rishi has given us. If we had known about the support available and if it had been there from the start, some of these challenges could have been avoided.”

Chris Sherwood, chief executive of Relate, said: “We all face challenges in our relationships, but our research shows that parents who have a child with a learning disability face additional pressures. Unhappy relationships can have a terrible impact on couples and their children but it doesn’t have to be this way. At Relate, we know how counselling can benefit parents of children with a learning disability and we need to make sure it’s available, as part of a wider package of support, to families who need it.”

Jan Tregelles, chief executive of Mencap, added: “It is upsetting – but not surprising – to hear about the relationship pressures faced by parents of children with a learning disability, especially as Mencap’s own research shows these strains are avoidable.

“Having a child with a learning disability is not the guarantee of hardship that many would have us believe. Despite this, many families are living without access to necessary support and interventions which can be the difference in a family reaching breaking point or not. 

“As a society, we have a lot to learn about how to deal with disability. Public attitudes can lead to parents feeling isolated and authorities too often see the child as the problem. But we know that if parents are able to get the right help, such as financial support and better access to short breaks and extra childcare, poorer family wellbeing is not inevitable, and, in fact, these families’ relationships can really flourish.”