Helping neurodiverse kids adjust to family separation
Once a term primarily used in relation to people living with autism, today neurodiversity is more widely used to acknowledge a range of diversity in brain functioning including autism, intellectual disability, attention deficient hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and early life adversity. Through an understanding of neurodiversity focusing on the strengths and benefits associated with brain functioning, we can encourage an inclusive and accepting approach to children living with neurodiverse developmental conditions.
While not all neurodiverse children will have major struggles in new settings and environments resulting from family separation, these scenarios are often deeply challenging due to difficulties with attention control (the ability to direct and sustain attention to things important and relevant and not get distracted) and cognitive flexibility (the ability to process information and adapt behaviour, thoughts, and emotions). To best support a neurodiverse child in circumstances of separation, parents must place a high importance on structure, routine, and predictability. In other words, where possible (acknowledging this may be a challenge), as about-to-be-separated parents, plan carefully your next steps and consider how they will impact a neurodiverse child’s world. Importantly, what may read as equitable in a parenting agreement – especially in shared time spent with the kids, may not be in the best interests of a neurodiverse child.
Talk to your child about the separation in a way they can understand
Neurodiverse children may be better equipped to adjust to family separation when it is communicated in story format. Stories with a heavy emphasis on visuals (young children may benefit from using pictures instead of words) can help neurodiverse children regulate and shape behaviour when faced with new concepts. Parents can also create their own story tailored specifically to their unique separation circumstances using pictures of the child’s new home, bedroom etc. Ideally, both parents would talk to the child together, so the child doesn’t end up being confused over two differing narratives. Keep it simple and be on the same page.
Provide a structured environment for the child
Unstructured settings place an additional load on a child’s cognitive skills. A highly structured setting fostered by predictability and order, will help a child stay regulated. Given the loss of the family unit experienced by children when their parents separate, a neurodiverse child will seek security through consistent and regular routine in a stable and predictable environment. Older neurodiverse children can be supported by having access to the schedule that will indicate everything from school days to special occasions like Father’s Day and holidays. Co-parenting apps that an older child can also access can work well in this instance. Any changes to the schedule should be communicated to the child well in advance of them occurring. And whatever that new routine is, make sure it’s one the child can understand and follow.
Knowing what behavioural changes to expect in neurodiverse children
One of the biggest challenges for neurodiverse children lies in their ability to self-regulate – manage their inner sensations, behaviour, or emotional state in response to their social environment. If unable to self-regulate, neurodiverse children can experience emotional and behavioural disorders, disorders of arousal, activity levels and sleep-wake cycles. If a child’s inability to self-regulate is not addressed, it can lead to mental health challenges in later life.
Parents can support their neurodiverse children self-regulate, by bringing an in-depth understanding of the impact that a changing environment may have of the child’s inner world to their parenting plan. If parents are aware of the impact change (of environment, family, routine, structure etc) may have on the child they can modify external environments to avoid triggers in the child. Providing the child with a special place just for them in each household offering peace and quiet where the child can retreat to when overwhelmed is a positive step. The child can practice taught self-regulation techniques in a comfortable and cosy part of the home (it can be a special corner of a shared bedroom in a small tent, for example). The child can retreat into music, books, or favourite toys to regain inner composure. It is also critical to work with the child’s support team (including teachers, therapists etc) on strategies to put in place across both households to minimise and manage behavioural triggers.
Equal time with each parent may not be in the best interests of a neurodiverse child
Many neurodiverse children struggle with the transition from one activity to another, especially if it involves reorientation (such as a different house) and a new set of behavioural expectations, relying on cognitive flexibility. Typical transitions, such as leaving the house for school can trigger behavioural issues. The idea of constantly going back and forth between houses may be particularly difficult on a neurodiverse child, compounding the impact of so much change. Co-parenting agreements must factor in the enormous impact living arrangements will have on the child and if co-parents do not have the capacity to communicate well and work closely together to ensure continuity of routine and structure for their neurodiverse child across both households, then shared parenting may not be in the best interests of a neurodiverse child.
Sticking to a routine across both households
As much as possible, co-parents should work together to ensure the established routine can continue across both houses. This could include time spent getting ready for school, ensuring the child has the same wake up time at both houses. If a child must get up earlier and travel a longer distance to go to school at one house this could be a major shift in routine. Routine should also be consistent with screen time – the same rules across both houses is key!
Both households have the same sensory toys/calming aids
Neurodiverse children rely on sensory toys and calming aids to help them regulate. It’s important that children have these aids at both houses – and that they are the same. Knowing that these special toys live at each house helps calm kids and avoid meltdowns.
Co-parents should be on the same page regarding medications and therapists
During the early years of neurodiverse childhood, often it’s a time when medications are being trialled. It’s important that parents are on the same page with the approach taken. This is also necessary regarding the child’s therapeutic needs. Co-parents would benefit greatly from being able to attend joint sessions with the child’s therapist and share in defining goals for their child. If co-parents could find a way to work together, this would be hugely positive for the child.
Keep up playdates across both houses
Neurodiverse kids can struggle making and sustaining friendships, so it’s vitally important to the child’s ongoing development that they keep friendships and playdates up no matter whose house they happen to be at. Both parents should encourage out-of-school connections with peers when the child is in their care. Friendships with other kids should be encouraged and maintained no matter whose weekend time it’s on – this is especially important for the child.
A co-parenting arrangement that requires clear and ongoing communication
When a family separates, all kids experience a major shift often felt as a loss in their world. It’s hard on all children, especially neurodiverse kids. To give their children the best chance of adjustment to an unfamiliar new world, parents must try and put their conflict aside and find ways to communicate effectively and regularly to ensure the wellbeing of their child. A positive strategy would be for the child’s parents to form a parenting alliance with agreed-to boundaries and behavioural guidelines for the child. Ideally, the child would have old routines and structure carry over into their new world, such as school and their care team.
And most importantly, if your neurodiverse child talks to you about the other parent, be respectful and kind – this will go a long way to helping the child understand it’s not their fault, and no matter what, they are loved by each parent – that part hasn’t changed.
The information in this blog is intended as a guide only. You can find more information on supporting neurodiverse children here.
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Family Dispute Practitioner, Fresh Start Mediation
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