Talking with your children about an impending divorce is difficult in even the best of circumstances. Children are likely to catastrophize news of a divorce. They often have strong emotional reactions ranging from anger to guilt. Kids may also worry about losing their relationship with one or both of their parents, or fear that they are the root cause of the divorce.
That fear may be especially pronounced and harder to communicate for children with special needs. After all, there is a pervasive myth that children with special needs can be a contributing factor toward divorce in families. Many kids have heard this myth and may have internalized it.
However, research does not bear that out. Still, you will need to be particularly careful when explaining to your special needs child that you and your spouse will soon divorce.
Present a unified and friendly front
Excepting circumstances involving extreme situations like abuse and addiction, the best option is for parents to put their differences aside and talk together with their children about the divorce. Sitting down to explain calmly that the parents simply want to live separately but will still both be a part of the child’s life is very important.
The parents may also want to discuss ahead of time how they will answer the questions their child will inevitably raise. One of these questions will undoubtedly be why you want to divorce. Most children don’t need a truly honest answer to that, especially if the answer is something like infidelity.
Instead, you should focus on providing an answer that makes it clear the issue was with your relationship and unhappiness and not with the children or the family as a whole. Discussing these answers with your ex before you talk to your kids can ensure everything seems honest and natural during the difficult talk.
Avoid disruptions by making transitions smooth
All children thrive with adequate structure, but special needs children desperately need daily structure for success and growth. Divorce is a unique challenge for special needs children, who may struggle with performing self-care and important daily tasks without prompting even in the best circumstances.
If you can keep the children in the family home, doing so is likely your best option. Keeping the daily schedule as similar as it can be to what it was before is also important. Take care to ensure that the transition to the new schedule and place are carefully handled, too.
Finally, each parent should make a point of reaffirming to the child repeatedly that both parents love them and want what’s best for the family. In some cases, you may need to work with a counselor or therapist to help your child process the emotions that come as a result of the divorce.