Co-Parenting the Child with Special Needs
What do we mean by “Special Needs Children”?
The term special needs is a euphemism intended to put a more positive spin on the word “disabled” that was used years ago. There is a wide range of preferred terminology to describe the child who struggles including “the exceptional child”, “differently-abled”, “challenged”, “spirited”, etc. and clearly every family and child should use the term that makes them feel the most comfortable and respected. Regardless of the term a parent chooses, they know when they are raising a child with unique needs and they are well aware of the special attention that need be paid. Furthermore, the range of conditions that are included under the “special needs” umbrella is so broad that there is no one-size-fits-all approach that will work for every child and family.
Risk factors when co-parenting a child with special needs:
Like all children, those with special needs are at risk for poor outcomes when their families go through a divorce. They face many more obstacles than do their neuro-typical peers. Of course it depends what type of roadblock the individual faces but suffice it to say, the needs of these children will be more intensive than those of a typically developing child. Navigating the co-parenting process with a child whose needs are intensive is fraught with challenge and requires a different degree of adaptation and adjustment for all family members. Research indicates that children who suffer from significant behavioral or neurodevelopmental disorders are at increased risk for a host of potentially harmful short and long-term consequences.
How can co-parents best support their child with special needs?
The most important thing any parent can do before and during this process is to commit to working towards alignment with their co-parent. To be clear, alignment and agreement are not synonymous. Alignment means that everyone can support a decision as if it were their own, even if they would have done something different if they got to make the final decision. It also means they feel good about standing on the same side as a unified front. Agreement, on the other hand, requires a higher degree of commitment from each person. It means there is unanimity of option and that each person truly believes that the decision was their personal choice. Unfortunately, many parents entering into the co-parenting process are in adversarial postures with a commitment to blaming, shaming and being right. It’s very important to remember that this is not a competition to see who is the “better” or “more effective” parent. The resentment and contempt you might feel for you ex-partner must be dealt with on your own time so that you can work with experts to determine what is going on with your child and what you can do about it in alliance with your co-parent.
Moving from alignment to a successful Parenting Plan:
Once there is alignment, a shared understanding of your child’s needs including specific lagging skills and skill deficits, then and only then can a treatment plan be generated with a specialist. Ideally, parents will work together to share what is working in each household, determine why, share successes and challenges with certain strategies and learn and implement new strategies consistently between homes. This process can be complicated and triggering for co-parents which is why it is critical that each parent does their own emotional work if they find that resentment or contempt are halting this work.
What things can prevent or derail alignment?:
Alignment is most often not achieved when one or more of the following occur:
One parent wants to “convince” the professionals that they are right.
One parent is simply not open to influence from the other parent or the experts.
One parent is unable to work through their emotions towards the other in order to move towards collaboration.
- Co-parenting children who struggle emotionally, academically or behaviorally presents a unique set of challenges for parents.
- Alignment in understanding the child’s needs and best practice for managing those needs is critical in order to best serve the child.
- Commitment to alignment is the most important step.
- Co-parents may likely need to do their own emotional work so that alignment can be achieved.
- Alignment can get derailed if co-parents remain wedded to being right or shaming/blaming the other parent.
- Recruiting the help of experts will be very important during this restructuring process.
The Precision Parenting process involves identifying: the function of your child’s behavior, lagging skills contributing to the behavior and strategies and techniques to teach more appropriate replacements.
You have many choices in selecting a behavioral professional to address the needs of your child. If your objective is to find effective, uncompromising, results-oriented approaches that are delivered with compassion…you have found the source.