Modern Family Matters

Co-Parenting a Child with Special Needs: Reaching Alignment to Create a Proper Blueprint for Success

July 28, 2021 with Pacific Cascade Family Law Season 1 Episode 31
Modern Family Matters
Co-Parenting a Child with Special Needs: Reaching Alignment to Create a Proper Blueprint for Success
Show Notes Transcript

Behavior Analyst, Chris Messina of Precision Parenting, provides insight for co-parents with a special needs child, and how they can reduce conflict by committing to alignment and open communication. In this interview, Chris and Steve discuss the following:

•    What do we mean by “a child with special needs”?
•    Why children with special needs are at a higher risk for poor outcomes when their families go through a divorce.
•    Sets of roadblocks that require specialized modifications to a co-parenting plan.
•    Working with a professional to determine the exact nature of your child’s roadblocks.
•    Committing to an alignment for your child with special needs vs. blame and shame.
•    Visible and invisible roadblocks to reaching a “Functional Level of Agreement”.
•    The importance of identifying the child’s legging skills, and evaluation vs. treatment
•    Co-parenting a child with special needs can sometimes feel insurmountable...when is it time to seek outside help? 

If you would like to speak with one of our family law attorneys, please call our office at (503) 227-0200 or visit our website at

For more information about Chris Messina and how she can be a resource for your family, you can view her website here:

Disclaimer: Nothing in this communication is intended to provide legal advice nor does it constitute a client-attorney relationship, therefore you should not interpret the contents as such.


Welcome to Modern Family Matters, a podcast devoted to exploring family law topics that matter most to you. Covering a wide range of legal, personal, and family law matters, with expert analysis from skilled attorneys and professional guests, we hope that our podcast provides answers, clarity, and guidance towards a better tomorrow for you and your family. Here's your host, Steve Altishin.


Steve Altishin  0:31  

Hi, everyone. I'm Steve Altishin, Director of Client Partnerships here at Pacific Cascade Family Law. No, I did not misspeak. And no, we're not a new law firm. Our Landerholm Family Law offices are now called Pacific Cascade Family Law. Why the change? Well, as we expanded our firm both in Oregon and Washington, we began last year to use the name, Pacific Cascade Family Law for our Washington offices. And now as we continue to grow throughout Oregon and Washington, we made another decision, both to reduce any confusion about us, and to more closely represent the continued growth of our firm: we decided to combine our Oregon Washington offices into a single name, Pacific Cascade Family Law. However, we are still here, the same firm, the same team under one unified name. So with that, today, I'm here with Certified Behavior Analyst, Chris Messina, to talk about co-parenting for a child with special needs. Good morning, Chris.


Chris Messina  1:45  

Hey, thanks, Steve.


Steve Altishin  1:47  

Well, Chris, before we get started on this subject, can you fill us in a little bit about your background and your experience in this particular area?


Chris Messina  1:57  

Sure. So I actually have kind of two different backgrounds that have come together and have served me well to be able to support a very particular niche in the co-parenting community. So I have an extensive background in special education. And I'm also a Board Certified behavior analyst. So I have been able to kind of intermingle those two skill sets to be able to provide a service for co parents who are navigating what is a really difficult maze of special needs support for their children.


Steve Altishin  2:37  

Well, that leads me right into the first question. What do we mean by a child with special needs?


Chris Messina  2:48  

It's a really big umbrella term. So special needs kind of captures a whole host of challenges that individuals face. It's really a euphemism that was developed, with the intent to put a more positive spin on language that was used in the past that was far less sensitive to this population. So you know, right now, it's actually still fairly controversial. There are so many different types of terminologies that people prefer. So I've heard lots of families refer to their child as an exceptional child. Some folks still prefer to have their particular disability labeled. So special needs has been, in my experience, the term that is most preferred by families. But the bottom line is, it's critical to make sure that when you're working with a family whose child struggles with these challenges, that you ensure that you've allowed them to help you understand what makes them feel the most comfortable.


Steve Altishin  3:51  

The unique risk factor, let's talk about that. You've talked about what the term is, but what are sort of some of the unique risk factors that that come with children with special needs?


Chris Messina  4:05  

Right. Like all children who are you moving through the divorce process with their family, they're at higher risk for poor outcomes in different domains-- educationally, socially, emotionally. So you know, for our neuro-typical/typically developing children, they're at high risk. Children with special needs are at much greater risk. The challenges that they face, put them in a position where they just simply need a different type of support network. So what happens in these situations, by and large, is that because their needs are such that they are more demanding on the parents, I tend to find a lot more friction between co-parents who are trying to co-parent, in two households, a special needs child.


Steve Altishin  4:58  

We talked a little bit about this before. I know you use the term "roadblocks" that can come up in these situations. So my question, I guess, is how do co-parents of kids with these roadblocks, first of all, know when it's time to seek professional support or coaching?


Chris Messina  5:20  

So, you know, under one roof, parenting a child who struggles physically, emotionally, academically-- this is a demanding job under one roof. You put this child in just two different settings, and the likelihood that those co-parents are going to need support is very high. And so post divorce, we know that there's a restructuring process that ideally should occur between parents. Does it always occur? Not always. But for these particular kids, it is essential that co-parents commit to really developing a new type of relationship between them. We're leaving our past relationship where it belongs: in the past. And for the sake of these kids, it is really critical that co-parents take the time and make the commitment to forge a new relationship, likely with the help of an expert, so that they can best support this child, likely throughout their lifetime, right? Certain kids are going to struggle long term.


Steve Altishin  6:28  

And you're talking not just about parents who are ready are already going to cooperate or want to cooperate. I mean, we've had a couple Facebook Lives before about high conflict co-parents. They had that same problem, that same thing--they have to somehow get on the wagon. So maybe we can talk about some examples of different kinds of scenarios that can arise for co-parents.


Chris Messina  6:58  

Sure, sure. So typically what I see in my practice is that parents are coming to me in a lock torn situation. We can address the folks who do come through the door and are prepared to cooperate. But they're the exception, not the rule. So typically, you know, a family can come with one of two scenarios. Oftentimes parents--whether it's court mandated, or they just made the decision that what they're doing isn't working, we need to seek support of a professional--when they come to the table, my highest risk families don't even have an evaluation or assessment of their child's issues. They come to the table not having a clue as to what's going on. So we don't have a diagnosis. Without a diagnosis and proper assessment, we certainly don't have any kind of treatment plan or blueprint for these parents to follow, right? So in that situation, what I typically see is a lot of finger pointing, a lot of blame and shame. I mean, this particular group of parents are entirely stuck. So for them, the course of action looks a little bit different than say, another subset of parents I see who are coming to the table with an evaluation and a diagnosis already in place. So they've been able to, whether it was while they were still married, or during the divorce process, get an assessment and figure out what's going on with our child. So that for them, the next steps are that create a treatment blueprint for the child. Okay, what are we going to do to help this kid in two homes? So those two families are stuck and a little bit more mired in the muck, than are the families who come through the door and say, hey, we've got an assessment. We agree on the diagnosis, we're cooperative. We just don't know what to do. We don't know how to treat this. Right? So if that family, for example, has a child on the autism spectrum, they may just be coming to get professional support to develop that blueprint. Tell us what to do, work with us, collaborate here. I wish that I saw more of that cooperative parenting. Unfortunately, option A and B are most typical.


Steve Altishin  9:15  

Well, I think you talked about how sometimes they don't even necessarily agree that there is a problem. That's really stuck in the mud.


Chris Messina  9:30  

Right, so where do you go from there? You're like sinking in quicksand. That misalignment is the most devastating thing for your child's future.


Steve Altishin  9:42  

So these co-parents who are stuck in these scenarios you talked about in one way or another, how do they get unstuck?


Chris Messina  9:58  

It's a great question, and therein lies the work that you'll do with a professional. So the most critical piece of this equation is committing to alignment with your co-parent before you can even begin to kind of dig into the work with an expert. If you come to the table, and you are committed to that adversarial position, that locked horns position, and you are wedded to being right, it's a dead end. It is simply a dead end. And do I face that at times? Yes, absolutely I do. If we are not committed to creating some kind of unified front, and again, like I said earlier, placing the past, or at least pausing it, over here and looking forward to create a new dynamic with your co-parent, there's no expert who can even help you. So that commitment to yourself, it really is a commitment to yourself as a parent, to align with your co-parent through the help of an expert. That's step one.


Steve Altishin  11:07  

So let's say parents make this commitment--we're going to align for the betterment of our child. I have a couple of questions I guess, and you can kind of take them as you wish, which is, what does alignment really been? And what's the next step after they have? 


Chris Messina  11:29  

Okay, so alignment is not synonymous with agreement. And I think it's really important for parents to recognize that alignment really is ultimately making the decision that, you know, even if I were to do something different, if the decision were entirely up to me about my child, and I might have done something different, I am willing to be open to outside influence. And the outside influence is not only coming from your ex spouse, it's really coming from the experts and professionals that you are hiring to support you through this, right? Let's look towards the professionals, let's lean into the data and say, 'Okay, I might have seen it this way, but I am making the commitment to be on the same team as my co-parent, and sort of put my faith in the experts opinions, even if I might have done something different'. As where agreement kind of requires is a higher level of commitment, right? It's walking away from a scenario saying, I absolutely would have made that decision, regardless of outside influence-- it's feeling that wedded to the final decision. I don't think in alignment you need to feel that way. But that's where the willingness comes in to commit. Right? And it's not suspending your beliefs and opinions willy nilly. I mean, you're relying on professional expertise to help guide the way.


Steve Altishin  12:52  

So then the next step, the other part of that question, what do they do? They said, 'Okay, we really want to try, we're gonna align ourselves, we're going to commit ourselves', what's the next step they take?


Chris Messina  13:05  

Right. So I would like to say that the alignment piece clearly is the most critical, and it is the most difficult. So I don't typically experience families coming in and kind of nailing the alignment piece in a single session. This is a lot of the self work that we have to do as co-parents, regardless of whether or not we're trying to navigate the world of special needs, right? Like all co-parents have to commit to some kind of connection, some kind of healthy collaboration, but again, even more important when you're dealing with these really sensitive issues, okay. So I just want to stress that that alignment piece involves a lot of our own self work. And it may take a while, right? It's worth the investment of the time to get there. Because once we're there, once we have a shared understanding of what's going on with this child, right--so for the family who's coming through the door, without any evaluation, any diagnosis, we need to start there. This can be finger pointing and blaming and shaming, or we can go ahead and we can collect a whole bunch of data. We can do a whole bunch of assessment. And the good news about data is it's hard to argue with it. I've seen a lot of people try. But let's take a really clear look, have a professional assessment done. So that family is starting there. Now, it's not always smooth sailing once you have an assessment and a diagnosis, that brings up a whole lot of stuff for families as well. Right? We have to kind of navigate through that personally because a lot of times, again, we move towards finger pointing, or, 'It's because of your parenting that the child has these issues', right? So we don't always seamlessly move from assessment and diagnosis into treatment plan. There is some work that has to be done.


Steve Altishin  15:07  

Just kind of falling back a touch; assessment and diagnosis, what part of the care umbrella does that come in? In terms of who are the folks that are doing that? 


Chris Messina  15:22  

Yeah, that's a great question. So typically, depending--and again, remembering special needs is a huge umbrella term--so if you're dealing with a physical challenge, like cerebral palsy, you're obviously going to seek medical treatment in a different way than if you were dealing with an autism spectrum diagnosis, or ADHD, or dyslexia. Typically, you're going to go to a neuropsychologist or a PhD, or Psy D, who this is what they do, right? They run the full battery, they give you a very robust summation of these results, which typically land in a diagnosis. I think it's worth mentioning that most families who get to this point where they need this type of outside support, are not dealing with low level fussy behavior now and again. We're dealing with kids who are non-readers when they're 13, or really aggressive kids who can't remain in a school setting or are struggling socially to an extreme degree. So folks coming in that warrant that are typically going to see a developmental psychologist of some sort. Again, it just depends on which challenge we're talking about.


Steve Altishin  16:28  

What do you do when you get the evaluation? Do they bring it in to you? Is this something you review with them?


Chris Messina  16:35  

So typically the psychologist or whatever doctor you've seen will review these results with you. And when I say you will get a robust evaluation, they are typically very dense. You get a lot of information, because you're getting a whole bunch of test results, the summation of that test results, and then recommendations for what to do. So it's really critical that families who seek or have these evaluations identify a professional who does something like I do--and there are different types of professionals who do this work--but someone who can help demystify, what does this mean in the real world application for my kid. The sort of "what to do with this information" person, right? Someone's got to help guide you to create that blueprint, because it's all really valuable, but now what? You know, parents certainly don't have, for the most part, parents don't have the skill set to make sense of that and go, 'Well, gosh, I know how to treat this'. I mean, these are complex challenges. So finding that professional to help you make that blueprint is critical.


Steve Altishin  17:39  

So if I were to come to you, if it were me doing this, I imagine my report would say a lot of numbers. And, you know, the all mystifying term: the percentile. How does that work into what it means to the kid and what it means to the co-parents?


Chris Messina  18:03  

Right? That's a great question. You know, as a behavior analyst, I'm not too concerned with the actual diagnosis or label. I mean, it certainly helps you to have maybe a broad stroke sense of your child, right? If we're dealing with a learning disability versus a spectrum disorder, we kind of have a little bit of a category that we can sort of place this child in so we know where to go. But overall, by and large, what we're using those assessments to do is to generate a list, obviously always starting with strengths. With every child within my work, it is: where is your strength profile? Right? But of course, we need to look at those lagging skills and skill deficits. What are the particular skills that your child either needs to strengthen or develop? And how do you work in two homes and a school setting, potentially, and maybe at the grandparents house? We've got to make sure when we talk about alignment, that all players in this child's life are aligned as far as their understanding of what is getting in this child's way. Do we agree on these specific skill deficits? So let's use the information that was gathered. And let's figure out how we not only generate that list, but prioritize what skills need to be addressed first, to kind of make the biggest impact for this child. And we need to make sure other people understand how to address this as well.


Steve Altishin  19:26  

So is there a brochure you can give me? You kow, do step A, B, C and D? I know a lot of people, sometimes they just want to hear, 'Send me a list of 10 things to do, or 10 ways to act'. I mean, it's a pretty huge, complex and unique situation different than just even,  like you said, kids without some of these challenges. So it's not, I take it, like you can just say on day one, 'Okay, hese are the things that this particular diagnosi require.'


Chris Messina  20:14  

It's so highly customized. And it really depends on the diagnosis. So for dealing with a particular learning challenge, like dyslexia, it's a little bit cleaner, for lack of a better word. It's a little bit more of a direct path for how we might treat that. And when you look at certain challenges that children face, some of them are a little bit more obvious to the naked eye. Thereby, alignment between parents tends to happen more readily. So for example, if I'm dealing with a physical challenge and something's happening with my child's mobility, it's a little bit harder, although I'm sure there are some folks who would like to debate that, but it's a little bit harder to kind of land in that sort of locked-torn situation, when it's obvious to the naked eye. The challenges with which I deal with are largely invisible, okay? So when we're dealing with things happening up here, that even though assessment can kind of try and pull some of it out and create a picture for us, it still becomes open to conflict in a way that other challenges might not. So it's not always a clean process. So to give a family a sort of step by step procedure, it can get a little bit tricky, which is why you need to recruit the experts to do that for you. But the key things to keep in mind are, if you do not know what seems to be the problem, it's game over. There's nowhere to go. So you know, when I'm working with families, and a lot of times folks will come to me and say, 'We have an aggressive child, or my child is not independent'. I mean, these aren't behaviors. So we really look at, what are the behaviors that are interfering? And I always lean into data collection. The single most important thing I think co-parents in a high conflict situation, or where they're misaligned, can do is work with someone to capture data. Let's look at, for example, I see this a lot: in one household, a child is going to bed with no issue, and in the other household, we've got a kid who stays up to all hours and they're on their iPad, and there's a whole compliance issue with following bedtime directions and whatnot. There are two avenues in that situation. One is to look at your co-parent and shame them. 'What are you doing wrong? Look at you. It's obviously your fault, because they do it just fine with me.' Those words should never leave your mouth as a co-parent, right? 'They don't do it with me.' If they are engaging in appropriate adaptive behavior at one house, it is this incredible opportunity to say, 'Hey, what are you doing differently? What are you doing that's working? Let's look, what's your bedtime routine?' Like why is the child more compliant at bedtime? How are you navigating it? These conversations, I would venture to guess, are unlikely to happen without someone facilitating those. That's a hard conversation because we feel like-- this isn't a competition, this isn't who is the better parent, This is what are you doing? Right? This is a tough situation for these kids to go back and forth. We cannot have identical scenarios in both homes. But there are certain things like functional routines, you know, things surrounding mealtime that we can be as consistent as possible. And that's an opportunity to collaborate, not to shame.


Steve Altishin  23:44  

So if one of the parents is having maybe a little more success at a certain thing that they're doing, a routine that they're doing, and I come in and I say, 'Well, you know, they're lying to you', or some other crazy thing.  I refuse to sort of share or allieve in their success. Or maybe that parent doesn't want to share because they want to keep ahead. I mean, how do you get around those issue?


Chris Messina  24:16  

Well, I don't know how frequently...I mean look, it happens. There's that one parent who thinks that there's absolutely no issue and the other parent does. When I have my intake paperwork before I meet these families, when I review that, occasionally I'll see one parent saying everything's peachy keen, and the other parent has this whole like, host of challenges. With that extreme, usually--we'll call this parent A who thinks there's no problem, they're not even willing to come to the table, occasionally they are but they're thinking there's no problem, just get yourself help--when they do, it is this opportunity to truly lean into the data. I feel like a broken record when I talk to my families about this, but we need to look without opinion and without our own emotional stuff driving the bus. What is happening in different settings with your child? And I think it's really critical that you, as a parent, identify someone, find someone in the community who can look at the whole constellation of information about your child. So a lot of times, more often than not, the kids with whom I work have multiple professionals, they've got speech pathologists and occupational therapist, other types of counselors; there are a lot of different players weighing in. And if you can identify someone to almost act as that sort of case managerial person for your family, that's really important. Because, you know, you're going to collect data from a psychologist who does evaluation, and I want to hear from the school, and I want to know what's happening in speech pathology classes. When we look at that on balance, and everybody is seeing common patterns of behavior, it's harder for parent A, to truly sit in a position and just maintain that nothing is wrong. Right? So that's why keeping the data and the information gathering  consistent and organized is really critical.


Steve Altishin  26:18  

And that's what you do, it sounds like. You're that hub that psychologist or a school counselor, whoever else--I mean, do family members, grandparents, are they part of this kind of network that is all contributing?


Chris Messina  26:42  

They absolutely do contribute. You know, of course, for each family, it's a unique arrangement. So I have some kids whose grandparents are heavily involved. They provide childcare after school and whatnot. So they're active players who frequently see the child. These are tough conversations, because we're talking about people who, for example, in the case of grandparents, they've been parents. They've raised children, right? They're doing it their way. And so I think the key here is ensuring that we're always looking through the lens of collaboration. This, again, isn't a competition about who's doing it right and who's doing it wrong. Which is why when you recruit the professional support of someone who truly understands special needs, learning challenges, and behavior science, they're teaching the whole family. Versus, you know, we're looking at dad or mom and saying, 'Well, we're going to do it your way', right? Like, let's really look to what we know about behavior science, or we know about how to best support a child with dyslexia. So they're tender conversations. And I think you need to make sure that they're approached in a really collaborative and compassionate way, but they need to happen. Because the impact that, for example, a grandparent who sees a child frequently, they can have a significant impact. If we're dealing with, for example, a really aggressive kid, we need to make sure if we want to shape that behavior, that every individual is approaching it the same way. But that brings us back to, if we don't all agree, if we're not aligned about what is going on with this kid, we cannot go forward to create that treatment.


Steve Altishin  28:21  

So if we can't go forward, let's kind of take one step back, then what sorts of things do you see that create that misalignment that derail the alignment process?


Chris Messina  28:36  

I think that for me, it's the openness to outside influence. Right? There is such a commitment to being right, that the thought that possibly our ex--and again, I see a lot of high conflict cases, right, so we're not super close with our ex--the thought that our ex might be engaging in a parenting practice that might really work is just more than a lot of people are willing to even consider. And that's on us as adults, that has nothing to do with the children. So when I said earlier that we have this opportunity to forge ahead and create an entirely new relationship to work with our child, I mean, that's your work right there. So if you'd like to remain stuck, you know, something you and I've talked about on other Facebook Lives is that it will trickle down to your children. And so if you're remaining stuck, and you have a child with significant needs, I mean, make no mistake, that is going to deeply impact your child's development ongoing deeply.


Steve Altishin  29:50  

I remember trickle down. That was just fascinating and eye opening about the bad results that could come from parent's actions. And that's any pair, with any family situation, and I imagine you see that in this situation without aligning, without having a a combined, you know, in the line force working to try to do this, that the bad consequences that trickle down can be really bad. And not just the normal stuff that any kid may have.


Chris Messina  30:44  

Well, for sure, let's say for a developmental challenge, there are windows of opportunity that we need to capture to teach certain skills. Because at the end of the day, what we are doing when you create what I call that blueprint, which is really a treatment plan that is implemented into homes, what we're doing is we are teaching those skills that I mentioned earlier-- the lagging or skills that don't exist. So how we teach those is not only about the strategies we use, but also the timing. So if we're going to sit in this position where we're locked horns, we may very well be wasting very valuable time. The same holds true for learning challenges. There are really critical times when we need to be addressing certain skills. So do you want to be right? Or do you want to meet your child's needs? You know, if we cannot park resentment at the door when we have these conversations, we're wasting really, really valuable time.


Steve Altishin  31:42  

So can parents really change? I know that's kind of a curveball question. But you know, the common thread to the entire process, and what we've talked about is alignment, and parents can do things that can obviously tear apart that alignment pretty quickly. So, I mean, can parents not only change, but can they can they fix things if it becomes misaligned?


Chris Messina  32:19  

Sure, that's a great question. Listen, as a behavior analyst working with some very aggressive children, children engaging in some really maladaptive behavior, I would not do my job, I could not do my job, if I didn't truly see behavior change occur. Now, working with a population of children, in some ways is more challenging, right? They're younger, and they don't have the maturity necessarily to do the work so readily. But they're younger, their behavioral patterns have not been in place as long as for the 50 year old parent. So it's a different process. And what's happening with the child, behaviorally, is not the same as what's happening with the co-parents, who their motivation is very often influenced by contempt and anger from the past. So can they change? Absolutely. When people show up at the table, the doors open even a little bit. To show up at the table means that you're willing to a very small degree, at least; some people to a great degree. So it's really variable. And I think that the key is to make sure you identify the proper resources to help you have these conversations and to develop those plans. Now, because of my background, in special ed and in therapy, I'm able to look through two lenses, but not everybody is. So you may have to have a team of people, there may be a couple of different specialists. But make sure that you have someone who understands the nuances of your child's challenge, as well as somebody who can help you facilitate those conversations to implement that plan.


Steve Altishin  33:57  

That makes so much sense. This is, again, we start and our 30 minutes go rushing through. Before we do conclude, though, if you're going to give that one soundbite to someone on how to handle the situation, or at least how to start to handle it, what would that be?


Chris Messina  34:23  

I think it comes down to alignment. You're really not committing to your ex spouse, and you're really not committing to your child, you are committing to yourself, to have the most positive influence on your child's future. 


Steve Altishin  34:42  

That makes total sense. So Chris, thank you again for joining us today and again, providing incredible insight on a complex issue, and making it easier to understand for folks like me. So thank you. 


Chris Messina  34:58  

You're welcome. 


Steve Altishin  35:00  

I just want to thank everyone who tuned in today again for our Facebook Live. If anyone has any questions on today's topic, you can post it here or you can shoot me an email at, and I'm not going to get this wrong because I have a new email, [email protected], And then again, until next time, stay safe. Have a great day.



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