Self-care for Parents of Children with Special Needs

An airplane is not a place you’d expect to pick up sage parenting advice, but there’s a particularly relevant tip that you hear every single time you fly: If the cabin loses pressure and the oxygen masks drop down, secure your mask first before helping others, including your children.

“To help yourself before your children goes against the grain of our biological intuition, but you have to take care of yourself first so you can help your children, and that translates to daily life,” stresses Megan Peck, a licensed clinical social worker who owns Mustard Seed Center for Growth in Hamilton County and a mom of two, including a son with Down syndrome, with another on the way.

Making time to relax, recharge and address your own needs is one of the trickiest parts of parenting, and it can be especially difficult for families of children with special needs, who must manage typical parenting tasks along with weekly therapy and doctor appointments, regular meetings at school and constant tracking of their child’s development.

It’s no wonder that chronic stress often becomes part of the new normal, says Jennifer Akers, Project Director at Family Voices Indiana, whose daughter Grace, who had special needs, passed away last year. “When you become a special needs parent, you’re so entrenched in doing what needs to be done, that you often don’t ask for help,” she says. “But you need help because if you don’t fill your bucket, you might not respond in the right way when your child needs you.”

Step 1: Ask for help

Recognizing that your needs are important is the first step. Reaching out for help, whether through an area respite program, family members or friends, allows you to set time aside for yourself, which in turn, helps you to be a better parent.

If you’ve made a date to have some time for yourself, put it on your calendar and follow through. Make sure you’re focused on relaxing and rejuvenating, Peck says. “You want to do something that will give you more energy. While having two glasses of wine may be relaxing, it may not help you much the day after.”

Laura Mobley, a Zionsville mom whose son Gavin, 2, has developmental delays, says she’s found that working out twice a week and scheduling in an hour of downtime on the weekend helps her recharge. “I’m an introvert and need some quiet, or I can’t take care of my kids,” she says. “I don’t feel guilty about taking time for myself; that’s the first step.”

Step 2: Seek support

Don’t feel comfortable leaving your child in someone else’s care right away? Stay at home while someone watches your child in another room and take a nap, walk around your yard or, if you have other children, use the time to connect with them. “Time alone doesn’t have to be a grand thing, like a week-long vacation. It can just be taking a shower without kids,” Akers says.

Sorting out the stresses and challenges of being a parent of a child with special needs with a professional therapist can also be a productive use of time away. “I’ve felt so much better since I found someone who I could talk with, vent, process things with and get help on how to manage my own feelings toward our new normal,” says Amanda Swearingen, a Carmel mom whose son Gavin, 4, suffered a traumatic brain injury, leading to epilepsy and hemiplagia cerebral palsy. “An objective outsider has been integral in my own personal journey.”

Step 3: Let others help

Taking care of yourself physically, emotionally and socially isn’t a one-time event. Realize that setting time aside just for you is not a luxury, but a priority. The time that you allow others to step in and care for your child lays the groundwork for your son or daughter to be cared for by other people in their future.

“At some point, you’re not going to be there. I lost my child, but that’s not usually how it works. You want other people who know how to care for your child,” says Akers. “You simply can’t do it every day, all day. You will burn out.”

All parents have to understand their strengths and limitations. For those moms and dads caring for kids with special needs, it can be especially difficult to allow themselves the breaks they need to recharge. Remembering to invest in your own self-care, however, ultimately is in the best interest of your child when it replenishes the resources you need to give them your best self.

Family Voices Indiana offers a free, 20-minute online training video about managing caregiver stress:

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