My daughter was diagnosed with a general developmental delay at the time of my divorce. She was non-verbal and exhibited many autistic characteristics, which meant every day things were a challenge. You can imagine her confusion when her home life began to change.
Many of the things I did to try and diffuse the situation can be helpful to divorcing families with average children and special needs children alike.
Explain the Situation. Depending on the child’s mental capabilities, it may be hard to explain what is happening. Pictures have always been very effective with my daughter, so showing her a photo of the two of us and our house, while explaining we would stay at home, was one way I tried to help her understand living arrangements. A photo of daddy and days marked on the calendar communicated visitation times.
There are also many great children’s books that gently explain divorce on a child’s level. Most of them reinforce it is not the child’s fault and that there are good things that can come of it.
Keep Routines. In times of great change, it’s important to keep as many routines as possible. For example, I continued to take our daughter to daycare every day, while her dad tried to visit several times a week. Eventually, we set up visitation guidelines, but we were able to ease into them, so it wasn’t such a shock to our daughter to not see her dad every day.
Of course, there will be some routines your friend and her former spouse are unable to maintain. In those cases, I found ways to create fun, new activities to replace old ones. We had picnics on the floor so dad’s empty dinner chair wasn’t as noticeable. Dance parties with mom replaced certain activities she used to do with dad and Friday Family Night became Mommy/Daughter Park and Cheeseburger Night. As a friend, you can help by researching new child-friendly activities in the area and even offer to participate in establishing some of these new routines with your friend, if you know the child well and your friend thinks it would be helpful to have you there.
Offer to Take On Other Responsibilities. Because your friend is used to the care his or her child requires, this topic is nothing new. What might be a challenge, is if your friend has new responsibilities/ or schedules concerning the child’s care due to visitation days, etc. In this case, you can help by offering to cover other responsibilities, watch his or her other children, or cover for your friend at work if you work together.
When it comes to paying for the special care your friend’s child may require, hopefully, the parents have discussed who has better insurance and whether they need to apply for special coverage or grants. If not, encourage your friend to talk to his or her lawyer about establishing medical coverage in the divorce agreement, so both parents know their financial responsibilities concerning the child’s care. Also, if your friend doesn’t know how to apply for special medical coverage, offer to help research options.
Research Counseling and Support Groups. There are some situations that simply require a little extra guidance and support. It’s possible that your friend has already done some counseling or found a support group (even online) for parents whose children share the same disorder. If not, encourage your friend to seek out this kind of support.
Once my daughter had her diagnosis, I found an online community of parents whose input and advice has been invaluable! There are no doubt other families out there who have worked through a divorce with a child who has the same disorder as your friend’s child.
As with anything at this time, ask your friend how you can help. You may just need to lend an ear, or you may get the opportunity to be involved in helping a child find a new sense of normal and security amidst a lot of confusion and fear.