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Coparenting children with special needs

Juggling parenting schedules, back and forth between homes, packing and unpacking bags, remembering what to take and discovering you have forgotten something your child needs for the very next day!

AAARRRGGGHHH this is a child’s nightmare. Especially so, for children that can’t just easily slip into a new routine after a few weeks.

Children with ADHD often have difficulty with executive function, time management, planning, organising, and handling transitions between two family homes[1]. Children with autism struggle with change so it is important to provide structure, routine, communication regarding the changes and minimise conflict to create a calm environment.[2]

Both parents need to collaboratively work together to agree on shared parenting schedules and stick to them to establish a regular routine. Frequent changeovers may be too disruptive, so longer periods of time at each parent’s home may help reduce disruption. Short notice changes which don’t align with the plan can create confusion, stress and anxiety for children with special needs.

Creating a wall chart calendar to provide visibility of the days they are staying with each parent helps the child to know in advance to prepare mentally for the transition between two homes rather than becoming anxious when told they are going without notice[3]. Developing a pleasant transition ritual at both homes can help the transition be an exciting event. This could be having your child draw a picture for the other parent of what fun things they did whilst they were away to take to the other parent to stick on the fridge or baking a cake and decorating it with sprinkles to take to the other parent’s home to have when they get there.[4]

Other routines that need to be established in both households should be the same so that the child has a regular routine that is shared across both homes, so they do not need to adjust to two different household routines.[5] These could be agreed in a parenting plan on what bedtime, screen time, meal times, homework, taking medication, and packing their school bag etc will occur every day at the same time no matter what house they are staying at. Coparents need to consider whether all the children in the family will have the same parenting schedule and routines.

Good communication between parents putting the children’s needs first will create a calm environment. Avoid arguing in front of the children as this can be extremely stressful for children with special needs[6]. If you need to discuss issues, ensure it is done when the children are not around and do some self-care to relax to rid yourself of tension before being with the kids as they pick up on your tension which is unsettling for them. High conflict co-parents will create an environment that is highly stressful creating anxiety for their children which will have an adverse impact on them coping at home and at school.

When children aren't coping they may not be able to communicate what is upsetting them, so when they become upset it is important to be patient, supportive and show love and compassion. Say to your child "I know you are upset right now, would you like a hug?" If they are emotionally distraught they may not want comfort or be asked many questions about what is wrong. Sometimes it is best to just sit quietly with them until they settle so they know they are safe and give them a blanket or a soft toy and provide a quiet setting to help them soothe away their distress. You may say " I will be here when you are ready for a hug"

Some parents may not have accepted their child's diagnosis to be able to actively manage their needs so as to help them cope with daily life. If a parent doesn’t accept a child’s diagnosis, it can make it untenable to share parenting between homes as medication cannot be administered daily. The child may also reject their own diagnosis too and be unwilling to take their medication as they see both parents fighting over their diagnosis.[7]

There can be a financial impact to supporting a child with special needs as they may require special equipment, mobility aids and access, special dietary needs, speech therapy, medication, tutoring, professional services, etc. It is important for coparents to determine where these funds will come from ie goverment, NDIS, private health fund or funded by parents and built into their financial child support payments.

When negotiating separation, coparents may consider ‘nesting’ so as to minimise disruption for their children.[8] This is where the children stay in the family home and each parent swaps out of the family home according to their parenting schedule into a one-bedroom unit or stay with extended family. The family may decide to do this throughout their separation until they finalise their parenting and financial agreements into orders. This helps the children get use to the parenting schedule first and then later make changes to a two-home environment, minimising the amount of change they need to endure all at once.

Coparents and children will need high levels of support from a child psychologist, psychotherapist or pediatrician who will provide the awareness, knowledge and strategies to help you and your child cope with their new family structure based on their special needs. Parents will need the support to stay focused on their child’s needs rather than their own. It will require both parents to actively work with medical professionals to ensure they apply the treatment and strategies recommended in each home. Parents working together to help their family transition and adjust to the new family structure will enable the children’s needs to be the priority, ensuring they will thrive rather than exacerbate the effects of their children’s diagnosis.

Author – Cheryl Duffy, Divorce Coach, Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner, NMAS Mediator & Parenting Coordinator

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