Managing the effects of divorce on kids with and without disabilities

Managing the effects of divorce on kids with and without disabilities

When a couple goes through a divorce, and children are involved, the stakes and the potential conflicts are high. These stakes are even higher when one or more of the children has a disability.

While the risk of divorce levels off for neurotypical children around 8 years of age, this is not necessarily the case for children with certain developmental disabilities. The specific type of disability can affect the overall marital satisfaction of the couple and whether or not the marriage dissolves.

For example, for a child with autism, the risk of divorce grows as the child reaches adolescence and does not level off until the child reaches 30 years of age. For families raising a child with Down’s syndrome, the likelihood that the marriage will end in divorce is slightly lower than for families with nondisabled or neurotypical children.The same holds true for families who have a child on the autism spectrum. However, if the child on the autism spectrum also has a comorbid psychiatric disorder, the family is more likely to go through a divorce when compared to the general population. Psychiatric conditions that are external in nature tend to result in increased risk for divorce for the family. And children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are more likely to experience a divorce.

Because divorce is extremely challenging for all families, it is critical to minimize stress and maximize positive outcomes.


Do ensure children understand the divorce is not their fault

Many children, whether they have disabilities or not, believe a divorce is their fault. They need to hear their parents explicitly say that the divorce is not their fault and there is nothing they could have done to prevent the marriage from dissolving. They need to hear repeatedly that both parents love them and this will never change--even if they live in different households.

Do continue with routines, rituals and traditions that occurred in the family before the divorce

This is especially important for children with anxiety disorders and autism because they need a sense of predictability and control. Make a color-coded calendar to post in their rooms, on the refrigerator of both houses and in their school binder, so they know their schedule. This includes when they are going on vacation, when they switch houses, and when they will have a sit-down family dinner with mom or dad. Holiday traditions and bedtime rituals should remain consistent between both houses because these rituals provide comfort and continuity.

Do consider working with a family therapist

Divorce is a confusing time for both children and parents. A well-trained therapist can not only help deliver the news to children at the appropriate time and developmental level, but also help the family plan the transition to a two-household family. An experienced therapist can identify strategies that have proven successful for other families and help explain the divorce in a manner that takes into account the child’s disability and level of understanding.

Do identify a neutral third party to mediate disputes

Research shows that families who use mediation have lower levels of ongoing conflict long after the finalization of a divorce. A mediator will be a long-term ally of both parents in helping resolve disputes that will eventually surface. Be sure to agree in writing under what conditions the two parents will seek out a mediator or family therapist. In advance, agree who this person will be and what to do if the person is no longer available to the family. Expect disagreement around transitions, such as attending elementary, middle, high school and college or when one parent decides to remarry. Blending families can be especially difficult, even when the family does not have children with disabilities.

Do plan for the long haul

Some children with disabilities will never be completely independent. Depending upon the state in which the divorce takes place, parents are financially obligated to support their children up to 18 or 21 years of age. After high school, will the child go to college, vocational training or a Comprehensive Transition and Postsecondary (CTP) program? How will this get funded?

Parents should agree on a plan before finalizing the divorce as some children with certain developmental disabilities may never be fully independent. Others, such as children who are higher functioning on the autism spectrum, may not achieve independence until their late 20s or early 30s.


Do not bash the other parent

This makes children feel insecure about their attachment to parents. Additionally, it typically backfires on the parent by making the child question a parent’s love and loyalty for the child. Children may begin to wonder if they, too, can lose their parent’s love.

Do not use children as messengers

If you need to talk to your ex-spouse, do not send your child to deliver the message. Often, children are asked to send messages about child support or changing the custody schedule. However, children dread this role and may begin to feel anxious about money.

Do not be inconsistent

This is especially true for the noncustodial parent. If you will be picking up your child for visitations or vacations, be on time and keep your promises. Children often feel deep disappointment when they miss an appointment with a noncustodial parent, and they always remember broken promises. This inconsistency causes children stress and anxiety. To ease transitions between households, consider transitioning at school where one parent drops off the child in the morning and the other parent picks up the child after school.

Do not avoid unpleasant tasks

Creating wills, and applying for benefits, services and legal guardianship is an easy task to put off. Because buying life insurance, writing a will and establishing a special needs trust for your child requires facing one’s own mortality, it is extremely easy to procrastinate. However, it is important to not only put your mind at ease, but also ease that of your ex-spouse and your children by taking care of these onerous tasks as soon as possible.

Do not assume the other parent is being intentionally difficult

Although your child may be the one with an identified disability, you may be having difficulties with your ex-spouse. It is important to be aware that this behavior might not be purposeful.

Some forms of disability are genetic and may be more pronounced with successive generations. The ex-spouse may have an undiagnosed disability, which is less severe than your child’s. This is particularly true if the parent has difficulty with executive functioning skills, such as being on time, handling money and organizational skills, or is very concrete and has a difficult time with literalness.

Jumping cartoon

A divorce is challenging for any family to endure. When a family with disabilities is divorcing, some of the same guidelines apply to the family in terms of how to minimize stress and maximize positive outcomes. Parents may need the support of neutral third parties to explain the divorce at an appropriate level of understanding and help families ease the transition. Planning for the future support of children with disabilities may extend well past the age of 18 or 21 years old. Wills, life insurance and special needs trusts are all a vital part of the planning process.

More expert advice about Families in Divorce

Photo Credits: 9/52 - Mom's Hug by Gordon Via Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Ernst O. VanBergeijk, Ph.D., M.S.W.Associate Dean & Executive Director

Ernst VanBergeijk is the Associate Dean and Executive Director, at New York Institute of Technology Vocational Independence Program (VIP). The Vocational Independence Program is a U.S. Department of Education approved Comprehensive Transition an...

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