We all know women raising children with special needs. But in some situations, these women are also dealing with abuse in their relationships privately. Anne, founder of Betrayal Trauma Recovery, states,
“A lot of people see the disability from the outside, but they don’t see anything that is going on in the inside, like what types of things are going on with their spouse. Women may be free and open to talk about their children’s needs and the disabilities, but they are quiet about the private suffering due to abuse in their home.”
Parenting Children With Special Needs Is Difficult In An Abusive Situation
June, a single mom of four children, all of whom have special needs of varying degrees, was in this situation. She suffered private abuse by her husband, while trying to fulfill the many needs her children required. On the outside, things may have looked well-managed, but the abuse was not seen or recognized because the disabilities were more visible and that is what most people paid attention to. She explains,
“All of my children have been affected by trauma from seeing abuse in the home, in regards to how I was treated by my husband in front of them. He was extremely verbally and emotionally abusive and eventually physically abusive to me in front of them. Regardless of whether or not a child has special needs, the treatment for children who have been impacted by trauma and children that have special needs overlaps greatly.”
June adds how she found great value and connection in local and online communities that offered support for parents of children with special needs. For any parent of a child with a disability, finding a community is something that is essential. Orange Socks, is one such organization, that aims to help families find a new normal as they navigate through the grief that comes when they’re told that their little one will be different. For victims of betrayal trauma, the importance of finding a community is just as important and essential.
Children With Special Needs Are Profoundly Impacted By Witnessing Abuse In The Home
The difficulty of being in an abusive relationship while at the same time trying to parent and raise children with special needs is undeniable. The challenges involved in this situation can be unimaginable. June describes how this situation impacted her as a mother,
“I tried very hard to save my marriage. I delved into learning all I could about porn use, unhealthy relationships, overcoming affairs and infidelity, and abuse. It became clear to me that the situation I was in was taking away from my ability to be the best parent I could for my children. So much of the time, I was in trauma repeatedly from daily verbal abuse, emotional manipulation, sexual coercion, and spiritual abuse and it impacted by ability to really be present for my children and advocate for them.”
Abuse Must Not Be Normalized Or Modeled For Children With Special Needs
Being in an abusive relationship can hinder a woman’s ability to be the best parent she can be because she is in a constant state of trauma. Implementing boundaries and learning about abuse and toxic relationships can help empower women in these difficult situations. June shares the point of intersection that became undeniable for her to realize her situation was not sustainable,
“My son did not speak until he was age 5. The turning point for me was when he started talking, I realized he could start mimicking the verbal abuse he was hearing in the home and repeating the horrific words I was being called by my husband. I knew it was a impacting my children and would continue to impact them. I did not want this abuse to be normalized for my children any longer.”
How Trauma Impacts Children With Special Needs
Any child that is going through the divorce of their parents is experiencing a trauma, even in the best of circumstances. Trauma can cause challenging behaviors to increase in children, particularly in children that have special needs. In regards to her 9-year-old son with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Auditory Processing Disorder, Sensory Integration Disorder and ADHD, June explains,
“My autistic son is the most profoundly impacted by disabilities. He can have a very hard time processing things. He can tend to perseverate on things. He may have more difficult time with changes in routine or going between two homes for weekend visitations. He may have a more difficult time understanding the separation and divorce. He tends to have some insomnia and anxiety. Some of his behaviors have escalated due to the trauma.”
How Do You Help Special Needs Children Cope With Trauma?
What is the best way to deal with a child that has special needs who may be experiencing the trauma of a divorce or parental separation? It is important to teach children what emotions look like and how to handle difficult feelings in healthy and productive ways. June describes some of her tips:
“In my own home and in my own parenting, I incorporate things to help them feel safe and process trauma and handle their emotions. We will do mindfulness work together often times in those difficult moments. Using coping skills and tools that help strengthen emotional intelligence is key in managing these types of challenges.”
Four Tools To Increase Coping Skills In Children With Special Needs
- Make a Calm Corner or a Sensory Safe Space in your home can help children feel safe.
- Do Time-In’s instead of Time-Out’s where children can check in emotionally and examine the “why” of a difficult behavior.
- Use a Question Jar at mealtimes that can help prompt conversation and connection.
- Start a Communication Journal or Sharing Diary with your child to promote one-one-one communication that may be difficult to share verbally.
Parents Of Children With Disabilities Worry About How Their Children Will Cope
As a mother of typically developing children, Anne shares a concern she has constantly, she says,
“I worry about my children when they are gone, because I know they are with a person who is not healthy.”
For divorced or separated moms, the time the children are gone can be a break and a time of self-care, but also a time of worry and concern that our children are in a situation that may be unsafe. As a mother of children with special needs, June shares this concern, as she says,
“It is heartbreaking to know that my children may be feeling unsafe in situations that I have no control over. Giving children tools to handle these situations is so important and can help them navigate tough circumstances. My autistic child learns the same tools as my other children, so they can all use them whenever they need to, particularly if they are all together. Teaching them the terms for things like gaslighting and giving them language for what may be happening can be helpful. Teaching them about boundaries and how to enforce their own boundaries in any situation is healthy for their development and empowerment.”
Self-Care Is Important For Parents Of Children With Disabilities
Practicing self-care in difficult situations is essential. Carving out little moments during the day for self-care is so important. Not only for a women who is going through a divorce or in an abusive relationship, but also for a parent of a child with special needs. June shares,
“Practicing mindfulness when I’m out running errands is something that can be easily done. Doing some deep breathing exercises that take us out of the fight or flight stage and into a more grounded state can help not only us as mother’s of children with special needs, but it can also help our children manage those moments they feel anxious or overwhelmed.”
How does one move forward in the midst of several challenging situations? Is it possible to heal and find hope when circumstances seem to great to bear? How can mother’s who are in this situation know what to do and where to start? June advises,
“It takes advocacy in every level: in schools, in churches, in communities to best help and mentor children with special needs. When we remember the basis of trauma-informed care: That all behavior is communication; we can more effectively understand and advocate for our children with disabilities or children who are neurotypical. Remember, you as the parent are the expert on your child.”
Can Children With Special Needs Who Have Suffered Trauma Heal?
It is so important to note that children are resilient. Their ability to overcome trauma is magnificent. Their brains are still developing and it is never too late to help children learn healthy habits and coping skills. June happily shares how her own children are doing now, she says,
“It is truly amazing when you receive the help that you need and begin the healing process. I have seen my children grow immensely. They are thriving. They are healthy physically, emotionally, and spiritually. They have good coping skills. They can work through problems effectively. They are bright and social and vibrant children.”
Families With Special Needs Can Thrive
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