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Religious beliefs aid fathers of special needs children

Parents of approximately 10 million children in the United States find themselves undertaking the increased challenges of raising a child with special needs. While the responsibility may overwhelm a number of fathers, others find that their religious beliefs and practices provide them with the needed strength to remain committed and to focus on the joys.

A new study out of BYU, published in the current issue of "Review of Religious Research," explores how a group of fathers belonging to the Church copes with having children with disabilities or chronic illnesses.

"When considered in light of the increased stress and demands placed on fathers of children with chronic disability or illness and the related higher-than-average father abandonment rate among families with special needs children, religious beliefs that inspire greater paternal commitment may be among the most important contributions of religion to society," said David C. Dollahite, researcher and professor of family life at BYU.

According to the study, there are three primary religious beliefs that facilitate LDS fathers' ability to raise children with special needs including belief in a divine plan, expectation of an eternal relationship and commitment to a sacred responsibility.

Belief in a divine plan. The majority of fathers who participated in the study repeatedly referred to aspects of the "divine plan of happiness." As part of that plan, many Latter-day Saints believe that a child born with significant mental or physical challenges may have been divinely assigned to a family to afford both children and parents opportunities for profound spiritual growth.

Expectation of an eternal relationship. The belief in the divine plan of happiness held by these Latter-day Saint fathers created an expectation of an eternal relationship with their child free from the limitations of illness or disability experienced in this life. Latter-day Saints believe in a literal bodily resurrection in which the immortal spirit will be inseparably connected to a perfect, glorified body of flesh and bones.

Commitment to a sacred responsibility. These fathers' beliefs and expectations inspired them to make and keep a commitment to a sacred responsibility of loving, serving and caring for their children with special needs. This responsibility typically was not spoken of as a burden but rather as a freely chosen sacred obligation that provided meaning and identity.

After completing the study, Brother Dollahite said, "I am willing to venture the thesis that there is a special power in religion's appeal to the supernatural that strengthens commitments and enhances the fathering of children with special needs."