Self-Care for Parents of Children with Special Needs

Mother kissing child

As a special needs parent, your self- care regimen is important. Caring for a child with special needs can be stressful.  In fact, the word stressful may be an understatement.  We all can attest that there are great days where our kids achieve something that we thought would not happen as soon as it did.  Your fellow special needs parents can understand the joy of a child eating a new food or acquiring a new skill or even speaking after countless doctors have told you that your child is nonverbal and will remain that way.

There is another thing I think we all can agree with when it comes to being parents of children with special needs and that is the fact that we often neglect to take care of ourselves.  As a busy mother of four children – one having an autism diagnosis – I am guilty if not taking care of myself like I should.  The following are a few ways that we can practice self-care.

Take 5-10 minutes for yourself

Depending on your situation, this suggestion may seem virtually impossible.  But you can do it.  You can spend this time mindlessly doodling.  Or you can use this time to just taking deep, cleansing breaths.  Deep breathing allows your body to relax and release any stress while giving you a boost of energy.  The life of a special needs parent can be very hectic and stressful.  Taking mental breaks can be just the thing you need to get you through your day.

Every day is not going to be a good day

We would all like to think that we can hold it together all day every day.  We hold the belief so tightly that we often think we have failed if we have a bad day.  Every day is not going to be a good day.  A bad day does not make you a bad parent. A bad day does not mean that you are not cut out to be a special needs parent or caregiver.  A bad day does not make you a failure.  Try your best to keep things in perspective.  Some days are just going to be hard but, as cliché’ as it sounds, tomorrow is a new day.

Allow yourself to feel

Life can be challenging as a special needs parent.  There is the constant worry that all of your child’s needs are not being met.  There is the isolation that your family may experience due to your child not being able to be around large crowds or loud places.  You may feel hesitant to honestly express yourself due to not wanting to sound like you are complaining.  But it is imperative that you allow yourself to feel whatever you may be feeling in the moment. Whether you journal or whether you have a good friend you can share your feelings with, allow yourself to feel. Allowing yourself to feel is a form of self-care because this can release some of your anxieties.

Be kind to yourself

Sometimes we can be our own enemy. We can often become hindered by own negative self-talk and negative thoughts. Do whatever you can to remain positive.  Remind yourself of the great job that you are doing. Find something to do that is just for you. Read a good book even if you can only read a couple of pages a day. Find a show that you like on TV and watch it even if it takes forever to get through the whole series. The point is to not lose yourself and to stay connected to what you enjoy. So write if you like to write, read if you like to read, do whatever it is that you like to do even if you can only do it every now and then. Doing what you like to do it a form of self-care.

Take care of your mental health

Special needs parents experience a wide range of issues. There is guilt, anxiety, stress, depression, the list goes on and on. It is imperative that you take care of your mental health. Surround yourself with people who encourage and uplift you.  This can be achieved through support groups or through connecting with people who have a similar circumstance to yours. Be aware of your mental health and do not hesitate to see a therapist if you feel that that is what you need.  In other words, your self-care journey includes taking care of your mental health needs the same way that you take care of the needs of those that you care for and love.

Mother and son

It is not easy being the parent or caregiver of a special needs child. You always wonder if you are doing enough and you can sometimes be your own toughest critic.  I am here to tell you that you are doing a great job. You get up every day and do it have to be done for your family. Keep doing what you are doing and remember to take care of yourself.

What other self-care ideas would you add to this list?

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Autism Awareness Month: Lessons Learned from Zion

If we were all not living through these unusual circumstances associated with COVID-19, this month would have featured a lot of festivals, walks, and other activities that seek to bring awareness to and dispel myths about autism.  Education about the diagnosis of autism and shining the spotlight on the individuals who have been diagnosed with autism is what this month is all about.  As Autism Awareness Month comes to an end, I started to think about my 12-year-old son, Zion, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3 and a few of the things he has taught me.

Everyone has hidden jewels.   If you ever met Zion, in the first ten minutes, you could probably tell me right off the bat the things he does not do.  He has a hard time making eye contact, he is not going to engage you in a long conversation, and he has a hard time understanding social cues and tones.  Years of advocating for Zion has made it to where I am his spokesperson, always trying to give people a different impression of him.  Zion loves to learn, my son is a fantastic writer, and my son has an eye for photography and videography.  My son is more than his diagnosis and people, in general, are typically more than what they initially present to the world.  I believe that there is something positive in everyone – you sometimes just have to take the time to find those hidden jewels.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.  Zion is pretty even-tempered now but when he was newly diagnosed and before he started the therapies that helped him process his emotions, he would have meltdown and tantrums (and there is a difference between the two) several times a day.  Being the perfectionist that I was,  I would often add more stress on top of an already stressful situation because I would want to carry on with my day and complete my daily to-do list.  I would feel like the worst mother ever at the end of the day when nothing got accomplished. But I learned to change my perspective.  At the end of a tough day, my laundry may not have been folded, there may have still been dishes in the sink, and I may have never gotten to the store.  But Zion was calm.  And, most importantly, he had not injured himself or others during his tantrum.  The things that did not get done no longer mattered. And guess what? Now Zion washes and folds his own clothes, vaccums and sweeps the whole house, and can even make simple meals for himself. It gets better – don’t waste time worrying about the small things.

Everyone needs a cheerleader.  From the time I realized that my son was not reaching his milestones timely, I have had to advocate for him.  From going back and forth with the pediatrician about getting a referral to a specialist for Zion to be formally diagnosed to finding the perfect school for him, advocating is a full-time job.  But, everyone needs a cheerleader.  Confidence in yourself is great but having that cheerleader is what gives you that extra boost. Zion knows he is smart and capable of doing many things that others think he would not be able to do because of his diagnosis.  But me being his cheerleader gives him that extra boost because I am there – loud and proud – reminding Zion and everyone else of great he is, how smart he is, and how talented he is.  Just as cheerleaders stand on the sidelines and let the whole arena or stadium know how great their team is, everyone needs that person who encourages them.

I want to end this post by offering some words of encouragement.

Be kind to yourself.  There will be good days and bad days – count every day that you make it through as a win.  Don’t be hard too hard on yourself.

Accept help.  I often felt that nobody could care for Zion like I could – and to be honest, I still feel this way sometimes.  But I have learned to accept help from the people that my son knows and is comfortable with and that knows my son, his triggers, and how to calm him.  It took me a while but I finally got there. 

Don’t take the aggression personally – this is harder on them than on you.  Tantrums, meltdown, and aggressive behaviors are sometimes scarier for the child than it is for us as parents.  It took many therapists to convince me that Zion was acting aggressively at home and not at school because I was his “safe place” – a place where he knew he could release everything that was pent up in him. Don’t take it personally – your child knows your love is unconditional.

Advocate! Advocate! Advocate!  Resources for special needs children can sometimes be hard to find.  Ensuring that they get everything they need to reach their fullest potential can be very hard due to this lack of resources.  Advocating for your child will be the biggest “I Love You” you can give them. 

YOU GOT THIS!!!!  Being a parent of a child with autism has caused me to experience a wide range of emotions depending on the circumstances.  It has exhausted me, angered me, scared me, filled me with anxiety, and has even brought me to tears on several occasions.  But it has also made me excited as I look at Zion and the handsome pre-teen he has become, it has forced me to be creative in how I ensure he gets what he needs, and it even makes me smile when I realize that my son is a pretty cool kid.  And I know that – despite the frustrations and setbacks that he may endure – Zion will be okay.  

Celebrate your child. Let the world know how great your child is. I will start. Zion is 12 years old. He loves to watch YouTube, eat pizza, swing, put together 500 piece puzzles, and as I stated before, he even likes to do chores around the house! Zion is smart, loves to give big hugs, and loves his family. He is a great kid who smiles a lot and loves to make others smile.

Celebrate your child or tell how you spread awareness about autism in the comments below!