A Necessary Dose of Mommy or Daddy: Visitation and the Special Needs Child

It’s a very difficult thing to do: packing your child up for a weekend, two weeks, or even a whole summer to spend time with his other parent. This is especially true if your ex-spouse is not willing to work agreeably with you as a parenting partner. A child with special needs is particularly hard to send away for any extended period of time. He or she may have certain challenges you’ve been working on, and you’ve just started to make some progress when it’s time for his departure. How do you see that your ex-spouse continues with the parental therapy you’ve been providing? How can you make sure your child won’t regress in your absence? Will his special needs be attended to? And how do you cope with the heartache of letting your son or daughter go?

A Necessary Dose of Mommy or Daddy

The ugly reality of divorce is that, unless your former spouse is an unfit parent or has forgone his parental responsibilities, your son or daughter will spend a significant amount of time alone with him or her. And as awful as it feels for you, the child needs this bond to continue for his own emotional health. I would compare this to giving my sons their insulin shots. When my oldest boy was only seven, giving him his shots was very difficult for both of us. He would cry, plead, and beg me not to give them. Yet I knew he needed the medication. This is where I had to toughen up and do what was necessary. It wasn’t fun, but had to be done for my child’s sake.

You may not like your former spouse, and there may be a long history of painful memories associated with him or her. But your child is in a different relationship dynamic. Consider the feelings you have for your own parents, and how as a child you desperately needed and wanted their love. Yes, from BOTH of them. Children are extremely forgiving of parents, despite their faults. They just want connectedness. And a child with limited mental capacity certainly doesn’t comprehend the nitty-gritty aspects of your couple disputes. She just wants her mommy and daddy in her life.

“Doesn’t My Son Love Me?”

I remember that Kyle had a particularly difficult time transitioning from visitation time at first. He would eagerly leave to be with his father, and then cry when it was time to return back to me. It was hard not to take his reactions personally. In fact, I often felt rejected and depressed for days afterwards. Didn’t my son love me? Didn’t he want to come home and see me again? Due to his autism, I was unable to question him about his emotions. He always seemed very content in my care, so what was wrong? And I was the parent who took him to his doctor appointments, floor-time therapy sessions at the University of California San Diego, and IEP meetings at school. I knew I was a good mother to him. Why didn’t he want to come back to me?

I think that on some level, even at age six, Kyle understood that his time with his father was limited. He also recognized that Dad was no longer living in his home. He cried desperately when his father returned him, because he was coming back to the reality of his father’s absence. It took many months before these transitions improved. And I endured heartache time and again, feeling like I was somehow inadequate and that my son’s love for me was lacking. Logically I knew that didn’t make sense, but it was very hard.

Here are some points of advice I would offer:

1. Give your child reassurance. Understand that this is a confusing, heartbreaking situation for your child, that she didn’t ask for. Her reaction may be to tantrum, cry, or become silent and withdrawn. There may be no obvious reaction at the times of exchange, but you may notice hostility later during day-to-day activities. Be as understanding and reassuring as you possibly can. This is a time for lots of hugs, comfort objects, and special attention. Try not to take tears personally.

2. Strive for tranquility. Make every effort to calm the climate between you and your former spouse. For your own emotional health and your child’s, you need to be able to cooperate and be cordial. This may seem like a monumental effort, but do what it takes. Your life and your child’s life will be happier.

3. Make visitation times consistent, predictable, and scheduled. Use a calendar to clearly mark off visitation periods. Let your child, even if he doesn’t seem to care or understand, mark off days with an X. The day before visitation, mention several times, “Tomorrow you go see Daddy.”

4. Use a transition board with a “Time to See Daddy(or Mommy)” card. Let your child see his daily schedule so he has ample time to prepare emotionally for the exchange. Use a picture of his parent on the card. (What’s a transition board? Click here.)

5. Provide your ex with instructions. If your former spouse is not regularly involved in your child’s medical routine, send a clear list of medications, doctor numbers, and any care instructions necessary. Putting it on paper can ease your mind, and also makes things much more clear than a phone discussion clouded with hostility.

6. Offer protection. If you are honestly concerned that your child will not be adequately cared for in your former spouse’s custody, contact an attorney. What proof do you have that this is the case? If you have honest reason to believe your child is in danger, fight to get supervised visitation for your former spouse. A special needs child is especially vulnerable to neglect and mistreatment. It is your responsibility to protect your son or daughter. However, do not invent stories which aren’t true out of vindictiveness. As stated above, your child’s best bet at emotional health—which is certainly vital to a disabled child—is to have ongoing loving relationships with both parents.

7. Toughen up. This is such a difficult situation. Believe me, I know. Seek counseling to deal with your painful emotions. You won’t regret it. And schedule fun time for yourself when your child is away. Plan visits with friends and relatives. See your child’s absences as an opportunity to nurture yourself. Relax, and try to enjoy the freedom. Take a hot bath and cry it out. It does get better, in time. Your child needs his “Daddy Dose” (or mommy dose) and you’ve got to give it.

Kristyn Crow is the author of this blog. Visit her website by clicking here.