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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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The Special Needs Journey: Accepting Your New Reality

The joys of parenthood.  What comes to your mind when I read these words?  Images of fun and happy occasions such as games, recitals, and birthday parties probably fill your mind. As a parent of a child with special needs, these “joys of parenthood” can sometimes look different, are delayed, or do not happen at all.  This is the realization that many parents of special needs children eventually come to and it is often a hard and painful realization. 

My 12-year-old son received his autism diagnosis at the age of 3. Being a social worker, I knew it was critical to get him the appropriate services as quickly as possible.  I was prepared to advocate on his behalf to ensure that he got the services he needed but I was not as prepared for the impact that his diagnosis would have on the family.  The journey is often unpredictable and some of us sometimes feel as if we are traveling this road alone. 

Allow Yourself Time to Grieve

Grieve sounds like a strong word but that is exactly what you need to allow yourself time to do when you have been informed of your child’s diagnosis.  Just as you would grieve a loved one who has passed, you must allow yourself time to grieve the parenting experience that you thought you would have.  By not allowing yourself the time to properly process the diagnosis, you run the risk of becoming angry, resentful, and envious of those who can experience a more typical parenting experience.  All these emotions can lead to you become stuck and not able to fully enjoy the parenting experience that you will have.  Despite your experience being different, it can still be very enjoyable and fulfilling.  Every emotion is a valid one so allow yourself to feel every emotion – do not suppress any emotion.  Allowing yourself to process these feelings honestly will help you move through this process. 

Get Moving

Now, this may sound like a direct contradiction of my first suggestion (and you may even still be in the grieving stage at this point) but you must begin doing what you need to do for your child as well as yourself.  You will need to educate yourself on your child’s diagnosis and prognosis.  What will your child need?  Therapists?  A special diet or bed? Periodic hospital stays?  Getting a realistic picture of what your child will need will help you with being able to mentally prepare for the road ahead.  While ensuring that your child has everything, do not forget yourself.  There are many support groups online as well as in the community for parents who have a child with almost any diagnosis you can think of.  Consider joining some of these groups to get a better understanding of the diagnosis as well as what you can expect next from people who have been where you are.  Look into financial assistance from the government as well as assistance through private agencies.  This assistance can assist you with paying for therapy, camps, specialized beds, and much more.   Taking advantage of this assistance can take a lot of stress off you especially if you were not financially prepared for everything your child will need.

Accept Your New Reality

It is an understatement to say that the life of a parent with a special needs child is different than the life of a parent without one.  Depending on the type of diagnosis, there may be some things that you were able to do as a family before that you may not be able to do once you have a child with special needs.  After my son who has autism was born, my new reality was that we could no longer go to events that were held in open spaces because he would take off running.  Basketball games or fireworks shows were also off-limits because my son had a sensitivity to loud noise.  Your new reality could be that you find that your family must have an iron-clad routine, or your child will meltdown.  Or your reality may mean that you spend as much – if not more – time at the hospital as you do at home.  Whatever your new reality looks like, embrace it.  Embracing this new reality will help you with knowing what “normal” looks like for your family. Once you come to know what your normal is, your child’s diagnosis will become easier to manage.

As with any parent, the parent of a child with special needs will tell you that their child is their world and that they are very proud to be their parent.  But being a parent of a child with special needs also comes with a unique set of challenges and difficulties.   Hopefully, these three suggestions can help so that you can fully experience the joys of parenthood.

If you are a parent of a child with special needs, how did you navigate the first few days, weeks, and months following the diagnosis? What things would you add to this list?