Intellectually Challenged

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How to Deal with Divorce and Children with Intellectual Challenges

There are those kids whose intellectual differences can make understanding the nature and effect of parental separation difficult… At times impossible.

It is important to recognize that even if intellectually challenged, they non-the-less live with the behavioral, social, emotional and even economic impacts. They are affected by change.

To the degree possible, we seek to speak with them using words and examples they can hopefully understand and relate to. This requires a sensitivity to their capacity. We also seek to hear from them, their understanding of the situation and wherever possible, their wishes in the circumstances.

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Keep Up Routines

As best as possible throughout the major changes, try to ensure routines can remain stable. They may find greater calm amidst the storm. That can be as simple as maintaining their daily routines, mealtimes, preferred foods, activities, care and learning arrangements.

Consequently, as with any child, parental conflict can impact mood and behavior. Having an intellectual difficultly does not make a child immune from parental conflict and intensity of emotion. Depending on how the parents manage themselves, particularly when in proximity to the child, the child may be less affected.

Check for Signs of Distress

If a child has limited or no verbal skills, check for other signs of distress. These may be: changes in temperament, eating, toileting and sleeping. It remains the parent’s job to look for those telling signals and to problem solve between themselves. Hopefully they can find a resolution to the signs of distress.

Conversely, if a parent is uncertain about their child’s response to the situation, it can be helpful to obtain a consultation from a mental health professional. These individuals have direct knowledge, training and experience working with kids whose issues include intellectual differences.

Children with extraordinary care needs can be a challenge for any parent. Amidst separation and divorce, parents may be less available to each other to provide relief. Do consider how you may still offer each other such relief and/or deploy the support of others. Parental self-care will be another important aspect in helping your kids adjust.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW is a Canadian Social Worker in private practice. He is recognized from his 65 episodes of the hit show Newlywed/Nearly Dead, to over 650 columns as the parenting expert of a major metropolitan newspaper, to more than 600 media appearances, to his book, Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout Canada and the US and helps family peacemakers grow their practice.


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