Parenting Success

Divorce and Children with Disabilities

It is pretty safe to say that divorce is never easy. Even in the best of situations divorce involves loss and there is a process of grieving that occurs as a part of most divorces. It is difficult enough when it is just two adults divorcing but when children are involved the situation tends to become more complicated. When one or more of those children has a disability such as autism, Asperger’s, ADHD or mental retardation to name but a few, the situation tends to become even more complicated.

Divorcing parents of children with disabilities, be they emotional, psychological or physical, are typically faced with increased financial burdens in providing care for their child that now must be shared between two households. Division of care giver roles and wage earner roles can become significantly more complicated and the need for them to work together effectively after the divorce becomes ever more important.

For children it is difficult to understand what is happening when parents divorce. Even if they have witnessed arguments and conflicts between their parents they often can’t comprehend why the divorce is occurring or what it means for them. What they do understand is that their world has changed and often in ways that they do not want it to change. We are hearing a great deal about change right now. It seems that every political candidate out there is the candidate of change. Where change may be just the thing we need when it comes to politics, for children, change can be a very frightening thing. Children thrive on consistency. They thrive and take comfort in knowing what they can expect. It helps them develop a sense of safety and security. Children with autism and Asperger’s are especially sensitive to change and relatively minor changes in their daily routine can often throw them into a tailspin. Children with mental retardation or ADHD have trouble learning from their experiences and a loss of structure and consistency compounds this difficulty for them. Children with bipolar disorder are often on their own internal emotional roller coaster and instability in their environment can turn this upside down for them.

The same things that hold true for all children in a divorce situation hold true for children with disabilities but to an even greater degree. In all situations parents must look for ways to provide their children with a sense of structure and stability and avoid exposing them to emotional ups and downs. Many disabilities will make it very difficult for a child to interpret what is said to them while they may have an extremely heightened sensitivity to the emotional climate that surrounds them. Others may find that changes in structure leave them confused about where they are supposed to be or what the limits are for them. It is imperative that parents work to understand the individual strengths and weaknesses of their child so that they can tailor how they explain the divorce to him or her in a way they can best understand it and how their life will be changed as a result of it. For example, a simple explanation of visitation schedules may be sufficient for some children, while others may require a more concrete depiction of the schedule. In these cases a calendar on which days with the father are shaded in one color and days with the mother are shaded in another can be a way to help the child understand more concretely how the schedule works. This can be taken a step further by doing something such as giving the child color coordinated wrist bands; red for when they are with the mother and blue for days with the father, that are switched as transfers occur. Different colored clothing could be used in this same fashion. The idea is to give the child cues in as many modalities as possible about what is occurring and what they can expect.

It is also important for parents to avoid exposing their children to their own emotional ups and downs. Demonstrating to your child that you are in control and handling things helps to increase their own sense of safety and security. If they sense that you are not okay it will be hard for them to feel okay.

The key to success is knowing your child and working to find ways that will help him or her to understand and effectively negotiate the changes that are occurring as a result of the divorce. This may be through calendars, wrists bands, coloring books, stuffed animals or whatever else comes to mind. Don’t be afraid to use any and all that might be helpful and if one doesn’t work, try another. Also, keep in mind that helping your child to effectively navigate the divorce depends on you effectively navigating it. Don’t forget to get the help you need to be successful with this for yourself.

By Reb Brooks, Ed.M.

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