Divorce and Your Special Needs Child – Things to Consider.

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Divorce is always difficult for the whole family but if you do find that you are heading for a divorce here are some things to consider if you have a child with additional needs.

Things to Consider

Divorce is a difficult time for all family members, but especially for your children.  A child that has a serious illness or an additional need before the start of your divorce may find the unsettling transition incredibly difficult to handle. They may become angry, rude, frightened, unsettled, nervous, insecure, depressed or less positive.

Special Needs children are seriously impacted and affected by the decisions made during a divorce.  It is really essential and important for you both to sit down and design what I call “A Parenting Plan” to determine how meaningful, regular access and visits will be accomplished and which parent will have the right to make major decisions on how to address your child’s emotional and medical needs. During a divorce, most parents have difficulty agreeing on issues, but the decisions you make are particularly important related to the problems associated with your special needs child.

Put aside your own differences and put the needs of your child at the centre of your decison making.

This can be a very challenging time for both of you as you may not have agreed on a number of issues when you were together, but now you are going your separate ways communication is crucial – so seek professional help, support and advice to make sure you get this right long term for your family going forward.

  1. Children with Emotional Issues:

Children will always experience some level of negative emotions during the divorce process, even in the best circumstances. When a child has additional needs, is very ill or has a disability, it is important to work out how visitation periods are managed, who has the authority to make a decision on medical treatment and therapy and how such decisions will be followed and enforced in each parent’s household. This will greatly affect the success or failure of the final decree as it relates to your child.  It is very important to have an order that is flexible and meets your child’s changing needs, yet can remain enforceable should action need to be taken due to one of you failuring to meet the needs of your child.

Three of the most common emotional, behavioural and learning issues involving children that I work with are Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Autism and Dyslexia.

  1. Special Medical Needs

When a child has significant medical health problems or disabilities, parents may have very different opinions on who should be the decision maker regarding doctors, medications and regimens for a particular situation.  This may be compounded and exacerbated by the emotions and breakdown in your marital relationship. The court plays a role, if you go down that adversarial route, (which I don’t recommend – please explore Collaborative Law) that must help to balance the needs and rights of each of you so that you both have a voice in your child’s treatment decisions or needs.

The real battleground in custody cases that I have been involved in, is around the allocation of rights and duties between the two of you. This is exacerbated when your child has emotional or medical needs.  Other factors that may comlicate issues are 1) other children involved and 2) whether they also have special needs.

Major problems occur when there are differing views between you as parents on how to best treat the problem, a lack of consensus among medical and mental health professionals as to the appropriate protocol for treatment, and uncertainty among family courts as to which protocol to “impose” upon the family.

Courts vary greatly on how each allocates rights and duties, even in joint managing situations.  If neither of you can agree on your child’s educational and medical decisions, then the focus of a custody case becomes one where the court decides which parent they think can best make decisions that are in the best interest of their child.

Here are some of the things a court needs evidence of to make a meaningful decision on the care of your child:

  • Which parent is the most involved in the decision making as applies to the relevant issue?
  • What are the contending theories, therapies & professional opinions of how best to treat your child?
  • What are the latest and current opinions from your child’s doctor and /or therapist.
  • What is the generally accepted treatment for the specific condition?
  • What is the likelihood of each parent following the protocol selected by the court?
  • How successful has the treatment been in the past?
  • What are the attitudes of the parents in relation to considering alternative methods if the current situation doesn’t work?
  • Which parent has shown a proven effort at recognising their child’s needs and working to address them?


Taking time to find a reputable expert in the particular field in which your child is affected is vital to a true unemotional evaluation of the situation. During a divorce you will naturally be incredibly stressed, overwhelmed and afraid around all sorts of things from where you are going to live, to managing your finances, to exploring your legal entitlements, as well as the emotional impact on your children, so adding the complications of having a sick, disabled or additional needs child can be incredibly overwhelming. Not all doctors and therapists are created equal, so get a second opinion if you feel unsure and of course it goes without saying that the expert must be a specialist in your child’s specific problem.

I wrote my Talking To Children About Divorce Cards to help you explore all the types of questions you need to consider around handling the stressful and challenging time of divorce to help & you can buy them here: and click here to buy my Questions I Would Like To Ask About Divorce to help your children get the answers to their most compelling concerns.

If you’d like to learn more about a Parenting Plan here is my article to help.

Divorce Without Damage – Your Parenting Plan

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