Parenting Arrangements for Special Needs Children

Parenting Arrangements for Special Needs Children by Susan Ingram

{3:32 minutes to read}

When I’m mediating with parents who have a special needs child, I view myself as being on a “fact finding mission.” What do I mean by that? In addition to performing my other mediator responsibilities, my role is to gather as much information as I can about the couple’s special needs child, and how that child’s disability relates to each of the parents’ lives, as well as to any other siblings in the family. Clearly, these family relationships are often more complex than families without a special needs child.

A parenting plan provides the details of the children’s living arrangements and spells out the responsibilities of each of the parents. I find it best for the parenting plan to be as specific as possible. That way, there’s less possibility for misunderstandings and conflict.

When there’s a special needs child in the family, there are additional challenges and unique issues that must be discussed and ultimately addressed in the parenting plan. They include:

Proper Care of the Child:

Of course, each child’s care needs will differ depending upon the extent of his or her disability. Ideally, both parents will be competent in caring for the child and will be able to make their home equally as welcoming for the child. But that may not always be possible.

For example, a child may need special equipment that might only be available in one parent’s home. Or, only one parent may have the training or commitment to care for the child. In that case, the parenting plan could be adjusted in any number of ways to accommodate the needs of the child and allow both parents appropriate access.

Respite Time:

It often happens that one parent ends up with the bulk of the responsibility for caring for the child. If that’s the case, I encourage couples to designate specific respite time for that parent. If the other parent is unable to care for the child during this respite period, the parenting plan could designate another family member or a professional caregiver to provide care for the child.


Consistency is important for all children, but for children with a disability, consistency in their schedules and treatment is crucial. A disruption in the schedule or living conditions can be very distressing. Additional care needs to be taken in creating a parenting plan that addresses the child’s needs, while maintaining as much consistency as possible.


When there’s a special needs child in the family, it’s just a fact of life that most of the parents’ attention is focused on that child. Especially in this situation, I strongly encourage parents to create one-on-one time with the other children. This should be spelled out in the parenting plan.

Changes to the plan:

In my agreements, I always provide a general review mechanism for revising the parenting plan to accommodate the children’s growth and changing needs. For example, if a child is very young, reviewing the plan just before they enter kindergarten would make sense.

However, when there is a special needs child involved, depending on the severity of the disability, I recommend more frequent reviews of the plan. These can be scheduled every 12 months, or when there has been a significant change in the child’s treatment or prognosis.

While I’ve given a few examples in this article, there are myriad approaches to handling any of these challenging and unique issues. The more specific the parenting plan, the easier it will be to co-parent a special needs child.

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One response on “Parenting Arrangements for Special Needs Children

  1. Eli Uncyk

    Susan- Your guidance for divorcing parents with special needs children is very well presented. Of course, you need to address the individual circumstances of each matter, but your overview gives mediators and families an excellent road map.–Kind regards, Eli.

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