by Michael Bloom~
Millions of children with special needs are being co-parented in separate households after the divorce of their parents. I had the privilege of supporting a number of children with special needs during my prior professional roles as a leader of educational, family, residential, and vocational community-based support programs for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The children who were most likely to thrive were the ones who had effective support teams that were squarely focused on their needs. Divorcing or divorced parents with confrontational agendas could stymie the likelihood of growth, learning, stability, and success for their children.
It is not surprising that co-parenting divorced parents develop different viewpoints and are often filled with anger and distrust for their former life partners. Raising a child with special needs comes with a volatile pathway of challenges, successes, setbacks, fulfillment, and frustration. Parents learn quickly that they must advocate (and even fight) strongly to get the best possible supports for their children. During the extreme challenges associated with raising a child with special needs, parents can wither under the stress and angrily take out frustration on one another. After all, when we are experiencing the most fear and stress, we often lash out at those closest to us.
Many children with disabilities may not be able to communicate verbally but they can sense disharmony in an environment and be deeply shaken when their parents are fighting. If you want to give your child with special needs the best chances for success, it is important to do many things to ensure their well-being as you travel the road through a divorce.
Here are some suggested tips and strategies:
Give your child lots of love and positive reinforcement. Your child may do more acting out than normal during the transition period associated with divorce. Special needs children who are more highly cognitive and skilled may actually blame themselves for their parents’ divorce. It is vital to reassure the child of her/his value to both parents. Point out the good stuff that the child is doing and offer lots of praise and love. If possible, try to provide some praise together while in the presence of your former partner so the child understands that you both still love her/him.
Set meeting times for joint communication among co-parents. This may become more difficult if one of the divorced parents gets married to a new partner. One way to make the joint discussion more positive is to have them regularly scheduled. A major reason that joint meetings fail and end up in argument is that they tend to be arranged after a new challenge or problem has emerged that involves some immediate and stressful follow-up. Setting up urgent additional meetings may be necessary but it is important to have regularly scheduled meetings even during the good times. If not much is needed to discuss, use the time to jointly take your child on an activity to again demonstrate the love both of you still have for the child. If you and the co-parent(s) live far away from one another, schedule mutually convenient virtual sessions via Skype or Google Hangouts.
Communicate effectively with your child’s external support team. Work with your child’s education team and come up with a list of things everyone will track whether the child is at school or at the home of either parent. Use of notebooks, data collection sheets, and/or digital tracking apps can be very helpful.
Access additional specialized supports. Do not shy away from seeking additional external supports such as a coach, therapist or mediator to help co-parents navigate and develop the best possible support goals and resources for their children. Family support groups can also offer great networking and resource sharing among other parents raising children with special needs. It is important to not stay on an isolated and lonely pathway, especially as a divorced parent. Do not fear any discrimination or stigma as there are many other parents on a similar journey of co-parenting a special needs child while divorced.
Take time for self-care. Parents of children with special needs, like most other family caregivers, tend to put the loved one they are supporting first on the priority list. It is important to realize that self-care is not selfish. While navigating the journey of divorce and special needs parent care, you are very susceptible to burnout and stress. Schedule time to go for walks, engage in a hobby, meet a friend for coffee, etc. Most importantly, get quality rest and grab power naps when you can.
For divorced co-parents of children with special needs, the journey of care is tough. Even though your marriage did not last, you have the power to create the best possible life for you and your children. It starts with taking care of YOU and recharging your caregiving energy. As long as you approach each day with calm and clarity, you will effectively collaborate and communicate about your child’s needs. This will help you, your child, and all of her/his co-parents to attain the satisfying and successful lives that you deserve.