My client, Mr. Cooper, sat on the sofa in my office wondering if I’d be able to help his nine year old-son with ADHD. The ex-Mrs. Cooper sat in the chair across from him, unable to look him in the eye. They both loved Jacob, it was clear, and their reasons for seeking my help as a psychotherapist who specializes in ADHD was based in that love. Jacob was struggling in school with behavior that at best got him sent to the principal’s office, and at worst, resulted in thrown chairs and injured students. Jacob hated school and Jacob was angry.
Over the course of our sessions, it was abundantly clear that the Coopers were not experiencing an amicable divorce. Finger pointing abounded. Inuendoes, covert jabs, and petty disagreements highlighted the fact that although they loved Jacob, they were more invested in “being right” and “getting their way” than in actually helping Jacob. In the end, my professional opinion was that while, yes, Jacob had ADHD and that made school difficult, Jacob’s ADHD was not why he was throwing chairs.
While a high-conflict divorce frequently negatively impacts the children, it can add an especially complex layer when there is a child with unique needs. In fact, it can often contribute to the couple’s separation in the first place, especially if there is disagreement on treatment and parenting approach. Here are seven things to consider in creating a parenting plan for your child with special needs:
1. Consistency across homes is key. Routines can be a life-saver for children with ADHD, Autism, and Anxiety to name a few. Confer and agree on routines that will stay the same across both homes, such as homework, discipline, bedtimes, and parenting approaches. If you are unable to agree, defer to a professional or clinician.
2. Be amenable to teaching the non-primary caregiver parent. Very often one parent has become the point-person for care, treatment, homework etc. That parent may fear the other can’t safely care for the child and may request greater custody. No matter the custody split, it’s in your child’s best interest to share tips on how to best care for the child. Be open to sharing and be open to receiving. It isn’t about control—it is about what helps your child best.
3. Create a special needs section of your parenting plan, where you agree on things such as treatment, education, long-term care, diet, clinician contact, and household modifications to name a few.
4. Discuss appropriate caregivers if a parent is absent, including right-of-first refusal for the other parent to step in. Put it in writing.
5. If there are siblings, keep in mind their needs might be different, including the custody split. I once had clients who agreed the special needs child would live with mom full-time, and the siblings would go back and forth, and this was the best arrangement for their children.
6. Stay in your lane. If the other parent refuses to or struggles with caring for the special needs child in the way you think is best, provided there are no safety concerns, let it go. It may seem that your child is struggling as a result, but the reality is your child (special needs or not!) will face struggles. Learning to navigate difficult situations and people (including their own parents) may be a growth situation for them. Be the solid foundation they can turn to when it gets hard, without stressing or bashing the other parent.
7. Stay flexible. You may not wish to never see each other again, but it isn’t about what you need at this time. Despite your feelings for each other, keep remembering to put the child first. Sometimes that means acknowledging that what your child needs most is time with the other parent.