Christine A Howard

A Special Needs Family’s Guide To Traumatic Life Events

If there is one thing that is certain, it is that life never stays the same. In fact, life is a big old journey and will have many twists and turns along the way. Of course, this can be tough enough for anyone to deal with, but for those families with special need kids, it can be particularly tricky. That is why I have come up with this guide to traumatic life events.

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New family members

While meeting new family members may not be a traumatic experience for a lot of kids, children with special needs can find these events extremely stressful.  Baby brothers and sisters, a stepparent, or even a new pet can be both exciting and disruptive to a child with special needs. Of course, the way that you choose to manage such an event will have a lot to do with the individual child and how they best relate to new people. 

Children with Sensory Processing Disorders can find interactions with friends and relatives especially overwhelming.  Remember not to push these interactions as this will add to the stress your child feels.  Instead, educate new people ahead of time to let the child warm up to them, and to not feel bad if the child does not want to interact with them.  

a boy and his dog

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You may need to provide reminders to relatives you don’t see very often.  Older relatives love young children, and can easily forget that your child needs time.   You may even choose to limit the time that your child spends with the any new relatives or friends.  You can build things up slowly, so it’s more manageable for your child.  As they become accustomed to the situation and the new people, you might just be surprised at how social your child will become.  

Breakdown of relationships

One of the toughest things to deal with for a child with special needs is a breakdown of a relationship that was once a fixture in their life. In particular, the divorce of their parents can be extremely tough, because they may not understand why both parties cannot still live in the same house. Add to this any issues over custody, and such a situation can be really tough for your child to manage successfully.

Luckily, there are some tactics you can use to help with this. The first is to not bad mouth the other parent in front of the child, even if you are feeling raw and hurt from the breakdown on the relationship. It can also help to recruit the services of a family law attorney to handle your case, as then you don’t have to have any direct contact with your ex-partner until things have calmed down. Something that can help you stay in control emotionally, and so better care for your child.

It may also be that a divorce outside your own family can cause a loved one to go away.  This too can be hard for your child to understand.  Our own special needs daughter has trouble understanding why an ex-girlfriend does not come to visit when her older brothers come to visit.  Social stories can help some kids to process events that cause loved ones to leave.


It becomes even more difficult when a loved one passes on.  Death is difficult for adults to fully comprehend, and so it is even more difficult for our special needs kiddos to wrap their minds around.  Whether it is the death of a person or a beloved family pet, kids that have special needs can experience a tough time when it comes to bereavement. In fact, it can often manifest as withdrawal, in extreme emotional reactions, and as confusion regarding what has happened.



Of course, the best way to deal with a situation like this is to be as patient as possible. In fact, all kids, not just those with special needs, will need time to process and express their feelings, and this may cause disruption to your normal schedule. Luckily, if you are homeschooling, you will have a little more leeway and flexibility to deal with this.  If your child attends a brick-and-mortar school, you may need to talk with the school about lessening your child’s time for a while.  This will allow your child time with trusted adults who can help him with the grieving process.  

Acknowledge Your Child’s Feelings

Also, remember to acknowledge your child’s feelings on the matter, and take the time to explain in a kind and sensitive why what has happened. Try not to use euphemisms though as these can be particularly confusing for children with special needs, and cause the process to be even more drawn out and painful.  Children with Autism tend to be very literal, so watching the language you use around your child is very important. Instead of saying things like “grandma has passed on,” try to be more clear.  Again, social stories can be very useful when trying to help your child process things.    


If your family is dealing with a traumatic life event, use our guide to help your special needs child process through things.

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