Dating as a Single Parent of a Child with Special Needs / How to navigate the challenges of finding love while parenting special children

Wendy Helfenbaum
February 2013 in
April 29, 2013
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Once you’ve figured out how to parent a child with special needs on your own so that they’re safe and getting the resources they need to achieve their full potential, there’s someone else you might want to start thinking about. You.
Maybe with all that goes on in your household – endless doctors’ appointments, sleepless nights, major meltdowns on a daily basis – it’s time to find some happiness for yourself. After all, a happy parent makes for a happier child. Wanting to find love again is not selfish, it’s self-preservation.
The dating world, however, can be a confusing and frustrating place. In the best of circumstances, merging two lives can be complicated. And if you’re the single parent of a child with special needs, there is a long list of things to consider before you bring someone new into the family: What should a single parent of a child with special needs be looking for in a mate? When and how do you tell a potential partner about your child’s disabilities? How long should you wait before introducing them? What if your child doesn’t accept the new relationship? What if your new partner can’t handle the type of life you’re living? Should you give up on love because of your child’s needs?
Absolutely not, says Suzanne Stevenson, Family Life Education program manager at The Parenting Center in Fort Worth. Stevenson suggests imagining each individual and task you’re responsible for – children, job, church activities – as a drinking glass. “You are the pitcher full of water, and you pour into all the glasses to fill them,” she says. “If the pitcher is not replenished with water, everyone will eventually be dry. It is necessary to replenish yourself so that you can give to others.”
Pursuing personal happiness is a worthwhile investment, adds Deborah Cashen, a certified family life educator and president of Parenting Partnerships, which counsels and educates families. “Taking care of a child with special needs can be a very demanding, stressful and emotionally draining experience, and somehow, we have to find some kind of emotional support,” she says. “If you had a child who did not have special needs, would you let that child control your life?”
Lisa Matlock, a divorced mother of two in Fort Worth who does administrative work for the government, knows all about the trials of dating. Her younger son Darrion, 9, has moderate autism, which was diagnosed six years ago. “He has speech delays, which is a major problem,” she says. “He does communicate his wants and needs, but as far as a conversation, we’re not getting that right now.
“Going shopping is no fun,” she adds, “because he’ll wander off. Often, he doesn’t sleep through the night, so I’m up two or three times.”
Two years after his diagnosis, when Matlock saw what her life was like, she asked herself, who would ever take this on?
“It’s driving me insane, so how could I ask another person to come in and love my kids when there were days when I didn’t care for them very much?” she says with a laugh. “I’ve adjusted to it, but somebody might think this is no way to live.”
Yet a year ago, Matlock’s decision to forget about ever finding love again was turned upside down when she met a wonderful man. “Even on the first date, I was letting him know what he’s in for; I was in my mommy mode,” she recalls. “I thought we’d just stay friends after I told him how things were, but he just kept pursuing the relationship.”
Soon, Matlock was inviting her new boyfriend to the house for pizza, and the boys seemed to accept him being around. “Darrion became comfortable enough to reveal more and more of his personality,” she says. “My boyfriend has seen him have tantrums, and he’s been there when we’ve tried to go places, then Darrion cried and cried and cried and we had to leave. Yet he’s stuck around. But I still have some concerns, because when he’s there, Darrion says, ‘Go home, go home.’ He doesn’t like that intrusion into his space. Hopefully, it’s just a time thing.”
Take your time
Because of the emotional loss that parents go through when their marriage ends, it’s normal to feel the need for companionship and validation, Cashen says. But when you have a child with special needs, it’s important to move very slowly and not jump right into the dating game.

“Depending on what their special needs are, this may create a tremendous emotional challenge for your child; it does for children who do not have special needs,” Cashen says. “So we ask that parents give their children time to get used to the fact that they’re now being parented in two homes, if that’s the case. Parents have to re-establish a healthy relationship with their child before they go out and try to introduce another significant adult.”
Cashen says that research recommends waiting six months before you try to introduce a new adult into the family, even if it’s just a casual dating situation.
Trying to decide how much personal information about your family situation to reveal in new relationships is always tricky, Stevenson adds. The timing will depend on how you believe the other person will react.
“Your situation may scare some people, because there are still many misconceptions and misunderstandings about people with special needs,” she explains. “A couple of dates may give you insight into the person’s ability to empathize and understand those who are different from themselves.”
Figuring out the best time to share your story also ensures neither of you invests in a relationship that cannot embrace the complete package of your family.
Cashen points out that parenting a child with special needs means there will surely be dates that are canceled or times when you’re not available, so honesty is always a good policy. “Your child’s needs have to come first,” she says. “I think people operate better when they know what they’re operating with. Be upfront before it gets too serious. I think that parents of children with special needs need to trust their intuition on that.”
What if your child is uncomfortable with any kind of change, to the point that the slightest deviation in her routine triggers an all-out tantrum? In these cases, Cashen recommends working with professionals – your child’s teacher or school counselor – to help the child understand what’s going on.
“The more preparation they have, the better they’re able to accept something,” she says. “Of course, it depends on the severity of the disability or challenge. There are some children with autism that no matter what you do, it’s not going to make a difference. If they’re high-functioning, it makes all the difference.”
If your child does not deal well with change or new people, consider introducing a partner through a photograph first, Stevenson suggests. If your child uses sign language, teach your date a few greetings and reply signs your child knows in advance of their meeting.
“Also, be sure to prepare your date for any sensory issues that your child may have, so they’re not embarrassed or uncomfortable by accidentally breaching those sensory boundaries,” she adds.
Taking the next step
After a year of adjustments and lots of patient discussion, Matlock and her boyfriend are planning their future. “We’re talking about perhaps getting married. He has grown to love my children, and I’m very happy about that,” she says, adding that single parents who are about to embark on the dating rollercoaster should make sure their potential partner is trustworthy.
“Tell them slowly about what your situation is. If they decide to hang around, bring them in gradually,” she says. “My partner always says that our relationship should come first, and that everything else will just fall together. He’s definitely brought a light to my life.”

How to Handle Discipline

Parents often disagree about how to discipline children. And when a new partner joins a family that includes a child with special needs, the debate can intensify, says Deborah Cashen, a certified family life educator. Perhaps the parent is more lenient than her new boyfriend thinks is appropriate for the children. Below are some things to think about when introducing a non-parent to child discipline:
• Don’t change too much too soon.
Keep your dating life relatively private from the kids until you believe the relationship will likely be long-term, advises Suzanne Stevenson, Family Life Education program manager.
• You know the drill. He doesn’t.
Often, you’ve experienced years of education in order to work effectively with your special child, but your new partner has not had that experience, Cashen says. “He or she may not have a clear understanding of the different approaches needed to work with children with special needs and their siblings. You need to work together. When introducing another adult – especially a potential step-parent – consistency is extremely important. It's all about child development, not discipline.”
• Want to join this family? You’ll have to earn the privilege.
If your boyfriend wants to be involved with your family, he needs to be willing to work with you to establish house rules and discipline that work for both of you. “There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to parent,” Cashen says. “He needs to be patient while establishing a solid, trusting relationship with these children. Mom needs to help her boyfriend integrate.”
• Discuss your parenting philosophies together.
If you can’t agree, get help. Seek family life education, not counseling, which often takes too long and people get discouraged because they don't experience immediate results.

Quick Tips

  • Make introductions during a trip to the zoo, a water park or somewhere else that’s fun and active.
  • If the relationship continues to go well, suggest a book or a website that your partner can read to understand your child’s condition, or invite them to take a parenting class with you on the topic of children with special needs.
  • Your partner’s children should also understand the situation before both families meet so everyone is comfortable.
  • Remember that if this is someone who is really committed to the relationship, they will do whatever they can to help join both of your lives.


Parenting Partnerships
Offers an interactive co-parenting class called Children Caught in the Middle that focuses on children growing up between two homes and how to foster healthy co-parenting relationships.
Dallas Association for Parent Education
Dallas, 972/699-0420 or 972/699-0438
The association’s Warmline/E-Warmline (972/699-7742) is a free phone service staffed by trained volunteers, available to parents and caregivers from Monday through Friday from 9am to 3pm. Warmline offers support, suggestions for common problems, developmental facts about children and resource information. You can also ask a question via an email form on their website, which will be answered within three business days.
Hope Center 4 Autism
Fort Worth, 817/560-1139

Offers a monthly Parent Support Group meeting where parents can relax and chat with other like-minded people. The center also provides family support and behavioral intervention to children on the autism spectrum. Different services include consultations, behavioral therapy, language therapy, occupational therapy, social groups, transition therapy and parent support groups.
Jewish Family Service
Dallas 972/437-9950 or 972/437-1988
Offers various services for children with special needs, including a Support Group for Parents of Children on the Autism Spectrum.
Parents of Children With Autism Support Group
Mesquite, 214/641-4420
Has a support group for parents of children with autism that meets on the last Saturday of each month. For meeting information, contact or
The Parenting Center
Fort Worth, 817/332-6348


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