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Parenting Plans for Special Needs Children: Part 1

In my practice I come across an increasing number of separating or divorced families who have special needs children.

Child custody is one of the most important issues for the divorcing parents; child custody with special needs children would present even more complex challenges. It would require for the parents to come up with the specific parenting plan that is based on the best practices specifically tailored to a disorder that their child is diagnosed with.

Many such children require specialized parenting approaches. In these instances, ordinary parenting skills may not be sufficient, as such children can place extraordinary demands upon the adults who care for them. Special needs children may also require an unusually high level of supervision and time-consuming interface with medical, educational, and mental health personnel.

The excerpts from the article that is presented here over few blog posts will focus on three most commonly occurring childhood neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders that I am encountering in my mediation practice.

Those are: attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, depressive disorders, and autistic spectrum disorders.

In this blog I would like to focus on parenting plans for the children diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder).

It is my desire that the parents of the children with this disorder would take into a consideration these behavioral challenges when they create a custody plan and discuss holiday schedule.

In order to customize your parenting plan in mediation, I would like my readers to understand the symptoms and defining characteristics of this condition.

ADHD is one of the most common syndromes encountered in my mediation practice.  Children with ADHD pose challenges for parenting, especially when the disorder is moderate to severe. Because these children can be difficult to manage behaviorally and because they often suffer from co-morbid disorders, they frequently have difficulty with school performance and peer relations. It is not uncommon in my mediation practice for divorced or separated parents to have disputes regarding the best custodial plan for children with ADHD, as well as the best treatment or intervention approach. Children with the disorder have fundamental impairments in the ability to inhibit behavior when necessary or appropriate. They struggle to modulate impulses and have further trouble delaying gratification. These are children who are unable to stop and think before acting or speaking, often interrupting others. Their reactivity to distractions makes it difficult for them to work towards longer-term goals and rewards. Another hallmark of the disorder, when features of hyperactivity are present, is excessive physical movement, wherein ADHD children appear to be always on the go, restless or fidgety. A third primary feature of the disorder is difficulty staying on task, as such children struggle to apply active concentration on a consistent basis. These primary symptoms negatively impact school performance and completion of homework, leading parents and teachers to lose patience with the child with ADHD.

Children with ADHD typically show signs of cognitive rigidity and poor or slow adaptability, so the contrasting pace of two households, which is so frequent in separated or divorced families, is particularly challenging for the child with ADHD. They are also often rejected by peers and they suffer from not being invited to birthday parties and other group activities.

In my mediation practice, while working and creating a customize custody schedule, we take into a consideration the following:

Coordination between homes and caregivers: With a child who suffers from ADHD, more coordination and cooperation is required than is typical in divorced families. ADHD children thrive on structure, consistency and predictability in terms of behavioral expectations and consequences. This does not necessarily mean that households need to be mirror images of the other. However, parents of the ADHD child will need to target and agree upon specific desired behaviors and specific consequences that can be applied in both homes. In the absence of such agreement, a shared parenting plan may not be possible. The configuration of the homes should also be considered, as ADHD children can have difficulty adapting to environments that are too stimulating, as can sometimes occur when there are new stepchildren or siblings.

Transitions: Given the inherent difficulties with cognitive flexibility and adaptability in ADHD, these children often have trouble with shifts in environmental settings. Children with ADHD can be slower to adapt when moving from one household to another, especially when there are differences between the two environments. Thus, custodial schedules with more frequent transitions between the homes are often problematic. This is especially so with mid-week transitions, as these children need stable routines to meet the demands of school. Children with ADHD notoriously lose track of assignments, books, and other school related materials. There are also often struggles to get homework and projects done in a timely way. Absent sound communication and coordination between caregivers, ADHD children often do better with custodial schedules that minimize transitions during the school week.

Direct coordination with school: ADHD children are at risk for behavioral problems at school, scholastic underachievement, as well as a high incidence of comorbid learning disorders. ADHD is a disorder that often meets criteria for mandated accommodations at school, either through an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) or via section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“504 Plan”). Coordination and collaboration with school personnel can include relatively lower demand responsibilities like tracking academic progress and ensuring that children follow through with assignments, to more intensive commitments like advocating for and cooperating with initial assessments and participating in periodic reviews by the school district. Parent motivation, involvement, and availability are keys to the child’s success.


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