Apr 4, 2013
Divorce Mediation: Clients With Special Needs Children
Over the past few years, I have seen an increase in the number of our divorce mediation clients with special needs children. This increase mirrors the trend in the general population according to research and media reports. We now hear and see more references to ADHD, autism, asperger’s and a full spectrum of other challenges. The difficulty these children and their parents encounter ranges from mild to debilitating.
As I get to know our divorce mediation clients who have special needs children, I am often impressed with the extraordinary devotion and dedication they have for their children. Although I am concerned about the wellbeing of every child whose parents are divorcing, I am particularly concerned with those whose children have these special challenges.
I had the good fortune to meet a therapist who has a great deal of knowledge and insight into the dynamics between special needs children and their parents. Jeff Katowitz, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, who practices in Ambler, Montgomery County, PA, graciously accepted my request to share some of his knowledge with us. Here are his responses to three questions I asked him.
What are the challenges for special needs children when their parents are getting divorced?
The primary concern for special needs children when their parents are divorcing is that many do not have a voice or lack the cognitive and intellectual capabilities to articulate feelings, needs and wishes so they need someone to speak on their behalf. This makes matters more complicated as the parents have different opinions and perceptions and may lose objectivity in their ability to appropriately advocate for their child or children due to the stress as they transition through the divorce. Also, a special needs child maintains a comprehensive treatment protocol and they are placed at risk during the transition of their parents divorce as the parents may often lose attention to detail and the child suffers. Other family members such as grandparents, siblings, cousins and uncles and aunts may feel compelled to step in and advocate for the child and this can create intense power struggles within the family system as well as increasing the level of anger and anxiety within each family member.
What do you recommend for parents of special needs children who are getting divorced?
Parents are encouraged to agree to have a child advocate who can interview the child and assess what is ultimately in their best interests. This advocate ideally is a trained mental health professional who is well versed in family systems, divorce and has experience with special needs children. In addition, the practitioner will have basic knowledge of the court systems and how to objectively guide the parents in a collaborative manner, attempting to not get lost or drawn into the chaos and drama surrounding each parent’s experience of the divorce. There is a lot of “hand-holding” that is needed during this process. A professional who can objectively support all parties fairly and ethically and most importantly advocate what is in the best interest of the child is essential to helping all parties move through this transition.
Can you provide us with an example (protecting privacy of course) of parents who took the right steps as well as an example of parents who did not?
I can’t provide specific examples however in theory, parents who are able to collaborate and place their anger and resentment aside while placing what is in the best interest of their child or children as the priority are most successful during this transition. The children suffer less when their parents show that they can be civil around one another especially pertaining to matters regarding their children’s future. Parents who remain caught in their resentment and anger often times use their children as leverage by colluding and trying to have their children “side with them” which is ultimately destined to fail as the child will often times grow to resent their parent for attempting to use them as leverage.
Jeff Katowitz, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist in the state of Pennsylvania. He graduated from Hahnemann University, Philadelphia, Pa. in 1996. Jeff has twenty years of experience providing individual, couple, and family therapy in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburban areas. He can be contacted at:
The Resiliency Center
602 S. Bethlehem Pike, Bld. B
Ambler, Pa. 19002(215) 307-0055
If you have questions or concerns about divorce in Doylestown, Newtown, Plymouth Meeting, King of Prussia, Bucks County, Montgomery County, or Chester County, please contact Alpha Center for divorce mediation at 1800-310-9085.