The Impact of Divorce on Children With Special Needs

The Impact of Divorce on Children With Special Needs

Breaking off a commitment with your life partner is never easy, and becomes even more complicated when there are children involved. Even if you didn’t grow up in a home that was affected by divorce, you very likely had friends who did, and their experiences and words on the matter have probably stuck with you. Think about that, and then consider how some of these feelings could be intensified for children with special needs.

Here is how divorce affects children with special needs.

There are a number of practical issues to address when a couple with one or more special needs children goes through a divorce, such as custody, family support, education, finances, and legal rights, and none of this is easy. Divorcing parents of a child with special needs should approach the situation thinking about how they’re affecting each family member involved, and what the child’s relationship with them and the world surrounding him or her is already like.

No child is responsible for the dissolution of their parents’ marriage, and nearly all matrimonial union begins with the best intentions. However, the level of involvement from each parent can vary, particularly when a child with special needs is involved. This can lead to some complicated emotions and questions. While it’s never the child’s fault, it is true that some divorces happen because a parent isn’t pulling his or her weight in caring for a child with special needs.

With that in mind, here are some tips on understanding the impact your divorce may have on children with special needs, and how to help and love them through it without them feeling guilty for the stressful situation.

Understand Your Child’s Specific and Unique Case

The truth is often ugly, and thus is the case when it comes to divorce and special needs children. Studies show that divorce rates are different in families with children who experience special needs, and vary with different conditions. For instance, divorce rates with children that experience ADHD are twice the average rate, but that statistic is almost reversed when it comes to parents with children who experience Down syndrome.

Being a parent, you probably understand your child’s condition and how they interact with the world on a personal level. You have watched them grow, and you have helped them learn how to interact with other people and gain the independence to the best of your ability. And you know that they are unique, as all people are.

No child with Down Syndrome is the same as all of the other children with the condition. You can switch out “Down Syndrome” for any other special need your child may have. Think about how they handle life and their conditions already, and how that might be affected by the news of their parents splitting up. Understand these things, then address them intentionally. This will best help them to understand, feel loved, and cope with the divorce.

Healthy Social Interactions

We all know about the TV stereotype of school bullies who, at the end of a movie or episode, reveal they are going through family trauma at home. While this is a harsh oversimplification of a complex issue, it’s true that what goes on at home can affect social interactions outside of the house. This may involve some effort to help children have healthy social interactions outside of the home.

For instance, one of the key parts of being a parent when going through your divorce is allowing your children to process their feelings. Obviously, this can get tricky with some conditions or needs, which can make it difficult to connect with your child at some points. In such instances, it may be a good option to introduce therapy into the equation.

Consider your child’s unique situation. Specific therapies for special needs children that suffer a divorce can be crucial to their getting through the storm. For example, applied behavioral analysis for children with autism may help them to better understand what’s going on and the changes happening around them.

However, therapy typically occurs once a week or less, and it’s important that you encourage them to find a level of comfort in more routine social interactions and in day-to-day life. This includes school, extracurricular activities, and even work. Assuming they’re a little older, helping them to find jobs that matches their skills and accommodates their disability may lead them to develop their ability to cope with stress independently. Plus, it will help them interact with people better.

Additionally, it may be of value for you to know that children with special needs often socially thrive in youth sports, and you may find your children has a healthy platform to perform and interact with others in this way.

Therapy, sports, and working are only a few examples of how a child may benefit from out-of-home social interactions. As a parent, it’s important that you stay aware of how these things may be beneficial for them and encourage healthy interaction.

Maintaining Your Composure

Depending on the disability your child faces, they may already struggle to comprehend the social intentions and natural communication styles of others. There’s also a chance they’ve picked up on some of their differences that make their life a bit harder. For that reason, it’s crucial that you handle the divorce in a way that doesn’t put any blame or added stress onto them.

In other words, handle the divorce maturely in front of your kids. Fighting in front of them and complaining about your ex are not good moves. Even if you are in a risky or dangerous situation with your estranged partner, you still need to explain the divorce in a way to your child that allows them to process it healthily and without feeling like they have a part in the decision.

Some important things to do in these cases are:

  • Be open to answering questions your child asks, and answer with care.
  • Keep in mind how they may internalize the situation.
  • Make sure they know they are completely accepted, loved, and cared for, and that the divorce is not their fault.
  • Make a plan to tell them together if possible.

Again, it all comes down to understanding the specifics of what your child is living through. The social interactions they have are important, and it’s crucial that they experience these in a healthy way outside of the home. When they are home, handling yourself (or yourselves if your partner is still living with you) well will allow your child to learn from the situation — not to resent a parent or themselves.


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