Strong Couples, Special Children: Part 3

Thinking About a Divorce
By: Kristen Fowler

Part two of this series discussed how to improve your romantic relationship while parenting a child with special needs.  Part three will focus on the parents who are considering or have considered divorce.

If you feel that divorce is your best option, it might be helpful to consider what a divorce may entail when you have a special needs child. Divorce can be hard on any child, but for a child with special needs, it can be especially confusing and difficult. In addition, co-parenting in this situation may be an unexplored and unfamiliar road. Working together as parents after divorce to help your child cope and provide the best care possible can be challenging.  In this article, I will discuss what to expect in court, co-parenting after a divorce, and strengthening the parent-child relationship.

What Can I Expect In Court?

Child Custody. Each case is based on the needs and circumstances of the family.  Courts may make special considerations, such as special schedules or atypical routines to accommodate the unique circumstances involved with caring for a child with special needs.

Child Support. There are currently no laws for the special circumstances of child support involving a special needs child.  However, there may be special considerations the court will consider when ruling .  For example, the court may require the non-custodial parent to pay more child support than usually required if they deem the child will not be taken care of otherwise.  Ultimately, after the child turns 18, the child support may end. During this transition it is beneficial for the parents and the child to negotiate future support.  Some parents  find working with a mediator during this process to be helpful.  After turning 18, the child can apply for social security benefits to help with the cost involved for their care .

Is Co-parenting Different For Parents of Special Needs Children?

Sometimes the thought of co-parenting after divorce can seem impossible. After all, there was a reason you got divorced.

Consistency. While it may be difficult, especially if parenting is one of the reasons that lead to the divorce, try to be as consistent as possible.  The divorce will be difficult, so consistency in parenting will add some needed stability.  There will be many differences, obviously, but make it count where it needs to. For example, one father I spoke with described the difficulty of potty training their special needs child while he split custody 50/50 with his ex-spouse. “It is hard enough to potty train a special needs child, but it becomes more difficult if there is inconsistency between parenting strategies.” These kinds of things are important.

Being consistent across parenting with medications, education, sleeping habits, extra-curricular activities, safety, and routines are some major elements to make life better for your child. These are things that should be discussed with your ex-spouse. Working together, though difficult, will be beneficial for your child’s overall development.

Strengthening Parent-Child Relationships

Some may wonder how to develop a lasting connection with a child that does not make eye contact, or does not care for social interaction.  I am often looking for opportunities to develop a strong relationship with my own son, who has Fragile X Syndrome. Whether divorced or not, building a lasting connection is important.  A divorce may make it even more difficult to develop this relationship.    The good news is, you can have a strong relationship with your child.  Here are some ways to help:

Time. You may have the child for a day, the weekend, or a week.  In circumstances where you are unable to see your child much, make an effort to go to special events they participate in.  You can even use Facebook, Skype, or calling them on the phone to connect with them. The time you spend is always vital.

Joint-play.  It is often better to use joint-play to encourage communication, motor skills, and social interaction in special needs children. There are many organizations out there to help in such goals. I work with a community organization called Kids On The Move (provides speech therapy, occupational therapy, early intervention, and more). They teach adults how to play with their child efficiently in order for the child to learn.

Do things they enjoy doing and follow their lead, but also provide moments where you direct the play.  Explore the world around them. Interact with them while going to the store or walking to the park. Take notice of the leaves and grass.

Any interaction is very helpful to a special needs child. One mother I spoke with makes sure that she reads to her child every night before bed. That is when they connect. Another parent said that he takes his child to pet shops or to play ball. Find great joy in the simple joys of your child.

Therapy. Self-care is a necessary part of keeping a healthy parent-child relationship. Depression, anger issues, and poor mental health can impact your ability to connect with your child and provide for his or her needs. In addition, therapy for your child may also be needed. In such circumstances, the mental abilities of your child as well as his or her coping strategies should be taken into consideration.

Discipline. Trying to win love by giving your child whatever he or she wants and providing little or no rules is not love at all. Children actually do better when there is proper discipline in the home. Even special needs children are capable of knowing right from wrong, and most every child understands the word “no.” Although you cannot influence your ex-spouse in how he or she should discipline your child, you can at least be sure that in your home there is both love and logic. Basically, parenting with love and logic means that you are loving and responsive to the child’s needs while also being assertive and implementing adequate rules. You can check out more about this, or check out the Love and Logic website here.


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