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Nine Tips for Divorcing Parents with a High Needs Child, from a Mother of a High Needs Child (Who is Also a Divorce Attorney)

Posted on August 2, 2021 by Carol Hill

Marriage is hard. Divorce is hard.  Marriage with a high needs kid is harder.  Divorce with a high needs kid is harder—and most of all for the high needs kid.

My husband and I are blessed with two children.  My oldest has been diagnosed with what used to be deemed Asperger’s but is now simply ASD or Autism Spectrum Disorder.  You would not know it to meet him because he is “high functioning” (ironic since his executive function is behind due to his co-diagnosis of ADHD), but everything in life is just a little “extra” for him and with him.  Our family is lucky to have resources to do parent coaching, pay for a good neuro-psych evaluation and get the best providers and BCBA therapy for him.  One piece of consistent feedback we have received from the treatment providers is how refreshing it is to see two parents on the same page because it made ALL of the difference for our son, as it does most children with his diagnosis.  Working so hard together, and getting and staying on the same page, likely prevented our own divorce.

My experience as the mother of a high needs child, combined with my experience as a divorce attorney helping others through their divorces with high needs children, has allowed me to accumulate some tips that are great for neuro-typical kids too, but truly essential for high needs children.  You have seen some of these in my last article but they hold importance here, too.

Joint custody arrangements can be exhausting, infuriating, and fraught with stress, especially if you have a contentious relationship with your ex-partner/co-parent or if you have historically been the primary parent. If you have not been the historical primary parent, but are willing and able to take on a greater role, you may be frustrated that your co-parent doesn’t appear to trust you to care for your own child or to be able to adequately address his or her needs.

To the historical primary caregiver I advise that you try to shift to a positive mindset and find the best way to impart your wisdom to your co-parent in a non-confrontational or judgmental and/or condescending way.

To the parent wanting to take on more responsibility and have a more equal residential schedule, I advise you to be patient.  Work with the treatment providers to help make the adjustment easier for your child over time—this will not only help your child—it will build up the needed trust from your ex-partner.

For both parents, I offer the following:

Tip 1:  Change your view of your ex-spouse/co-parent.  They are the parent of your child.  Acting in your kid’s best interest is your most important priority. It may be helpful to start thinking of your relationship with your ex-spouse as a business arrangement with the mission to secure the stability and success of your high needs child (or even your neurotypical child).

Tip 2:  Improve communication with your co-parent.  Many marriages fall victim to break downs in communication.  It can be helpful to carefully evaluate how your communication failed during the marriage so that you can improve it for your children during and after the divorce.  Try one of the available Co-parenting apps/resources—Our Family Wizard, FAYR, or Co-Parently.  (I am not endorsing one or the other, do the research and decide which works best for you).  The key is to have a central location for a shared calendar, communication and the ability to upload key and important documents.

Before having contact with your ex-spouse, ask yourself how your actions will affect your child, and resolve to conduct yourself with dignity. Make your child the focal point of every discussion you have with your ex-spouse/co-parent.

For the historical primary parent, try to foster trust by asking your co-parent’s opinion. This simple technique can jump-start positive communications between you both. Take an issue that you do not feel strongly about, and ask for their input, showing that you value their opinion.

For the parent wanting more time, become familiar with the medical and therapeutic providers.  If you did not historically go to the meetings but relied on your co-parent, carve out time to meet or speak to each and every one.  Go over past treatment summaries, IEPs, and e-mails pertaining to your child.  Ask questions of your co-parent to show that you value his or her opinion, again, fostering good will and trust.

Tip 3:  A color-coded visual calendar is great for neuro-typical children so they know when to expect to be with one parent or the other.  For high needs kiddos, it is crucial.  Not only do you have the visual calendar in an easily accessible place, but also be sure to prime the child a few days in advance prior to transitions and help him or her use any strategies they may need to prepare to transition to the other parent’s home.  Also try to work with your co-parent to try to have it in the same area of both homes for consistency.

Tip 4:  Set expectations for the child early and often.  Talk about what is on the calendar and prime them days in advance for a transition.  As noted above, consistency and routine are essential for kids on the spectrum or with other high needs.  While the goal of parenting is to teach our children to be flexible thinkers, avoiding a fixed mindset, that is a skill that takes lots of practice and time.  Your child will understandably take some time to adjust not only to the fact that mom and dad are splitting up but that he or she will now have two homes.  It also helps to have a comfort object that they can bring between houses, the family pet, a comfy blanket, a favorite pillow or stuffed animal.

Tip 5:  Agree to a set phone call time or FaceTime on set days and put those on the calendar.  This does not mean you cannot or do not allow calls on days NOT on the calendar, but this will provide some comfort to the child.

Tip 6:  Never disparage your ex or allow others to do so in front of the child.  The children, regardless of the strength of their bond with either parent, is 50% each of you and speaking negatively about the other parent is essentially speaking negatively of your child.  ASD children in particular are highly sensitive to energy and feelings of the other—they may not be able to communicate their feelings about the anger or sadness they have witnessed but they are internalizing it.  Work together on strategies to encourage some discussion of those feelings—drawing, play therapy, storytelling, etc.

Tip 7:  Work with a parent coach to identify issues and possible solutions.  Schedule consistent meetings to discuss potential adjustments and try to meet with the other care providers as well to problem solve.

Tip 8:  Try to agree on consistent rules between households. Rules do not have to be exactly the same between your two households, but the more you and your co-parent establish consistent guidelines, the better your high needs child will do.  He or she will feel comfortable knowing the boundaries are the same wherever they go—which is also an important life skill.  Important lifestyle rules like homework issues, curfews, and off-limit activities should be defined and adhered to in both households.  If that is hard to do initially, as suggested above, consider hiring a parent coach to sit down with both of you and offer child-focused suggestions or resolutions to any differences in parenting style.

Tip 9:  Compromise. You will need to come around to your ex-spouse’s point of view as often as they come around to yours. It may not always be your first choice, but compromise allows you both to “win” and makes both of you more likely to be flexible in the future.  More importantly, it allows the children to be spared the collateral impact of tension caused by ongoing conflict.

While parenting a high needs kid has challenges, it can have the most amazing rewards when you see your child thrive in the face of those challenges.  To reap those rewards means to face one of your greatest challenges, seeing your ex-spouse and co-parent as a crucial and integral part of your child’s well-being learning to work together in the interest of your child.  You could even start by agreeing to read the same co-parenting book and outline questions to discuss with your co-parent.  I am not saying this will be easy, divorces rarely are, but I can guarantee it will be the best investment you ever make.

If you are considering divorce, the family law attorneys at Lasher Holzapfel Sperry & Ebberson are available to help guide you through the process.