Parenting is tough work. Parenting a child with special needs deserves its own gold medal.
After all, no amount of online research and over-preparation can prepare you for the inevitable curveballs that seemingly innocuous situations throw you.
You can’t pause life. But what you can do is take care of yourself to make sure you’re ready to react to whatever does happen.
Here are a few reminders – and tips! – that can help you take care of your mental health as the parent of a child with special needs.
1) Check in with yourself!
Studies have found that parents of children with special needs disproportionately experience the following :
Noting how often these, or other symptoms, tend to arise on a daily basis for you will help you determine the next steps in addressing your mental health.
“Self-care is typically the first thing to go for parents of children with special needs – and this only exacerbates stressful situations,” says Christine Grounds, LCSW, a therapist in New York City who works with parents of kids with special needs. Maintaining internal balance is crucial for fielding stress.
2) Find a therapist who can help you accept all aspects of your situation, and grow as a parent
In addition to curveballs from external factors, you could already be experiencing internal anxiety or frustration on a daily basis. Therapy sets you up with healthy ways to cope with the various challenges you’re facing so that you can manage the amount of overwhelm you may feel on a daily basis.
Here are therapy types that may benefit you as a parent of a child with special needs:
Psychodynamic therapy:This is the therapeutic modality that most closely aligns with the popular perception of “talk therapy.” It can help you understand and gain insight into your behavior, as well as learn ways to resolve negative feelings in a healthy manner. If you are experiencing grief, excessive worry, and fear about your child’s future, psychodynamic therapy can be a tremendously helpful outlet to talk about these concerns in a safe space.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a skills-based approach to talk therapy. In CBT, you’ll work with your therapist to 1) identify your particular problems or concerns, and 2) integrate strategic techniques in response. For example, if you’re constantly overwhelmed by stressful situations, you can learn relaxation techniques to clear your mind and deal with issues calmly as they arise.
Couples counseling: When you’re co-parenting a child with special needs, your romantic relationship may be the first thing that’s sacrificed as you prioritize your child’s needs. Couples counseling can give you an agreed-upon space to work through conflict or disagreements, as well as ensure a time to reconnect even amid your busy schedules.
Here’s how to find a therapist for your needs:
- Reach out to two or three therapists who have a proven track record with parents of special needs. Ask your friends or an a local online group for recommendations.
- Assess personal fit! Find someone who you feel will encourage your growth and acceptance of yourself as a parent. Finding a therapist who can help you feel supported, and provide a private space for you to voice feelings that you might not feel able to say to anyone else, can be invaluable.
And at the end of the day, says Grounds, “Getting support will allow you to be a better parent.”
3) Know that you're not alone – seeking out a support system can help
So you have your therapist lined up, and you can always fall back on your extended family and friends when you need them. While these things are crucial in maintaining optimal mental health, a support group can also be an invaluable source of shared strength.
Joining a support group allows you to:
- Feel fully understood by an entire group of people who are undergoing a similar experience. This can be like a breath of fresh air if you feel otherwise isolated in your everyday life – work, friends, extended family, and so on.
- Get, and share, valuable recommendations, ranging from what financial resources are available to which dentists are great with children who have special needs like yours.
- Realize your strength in numbers! Whether you’re rallying for an after-school program or looking to influence a program or service, you have a go-to support team to enact valuable change for your family and others like you.
4) Know what resources are available in your community
One of the biggest stressors for parents of kids with special needs is feelings of isolation. It’s important to remember that you’re not alone. Finding support – whether virtual or in-person – can be invaluable as you connect with others who are facing similar situations.
Here are some good starting points:
The Advocate's Bookstore:Resources on specific disabilities, effective educational practices, diagnosis tests and evaluations, legal rights and responsibilities, and parenting children with special needs.
Beach Center on Disability: Located at the University of Kansas. Provides resources for families of people with disabilities along with an electronic newsletter subscription.
Closing the Gap: Information on existing computer technology in special education, along with a rehabilitation resource directory, relevant articles, education information, and conference information.
Disability Advisor: Information articles and other resources related to disability benefits and financial resources.
5) Try mindfulness-based exercises
Parents, and especially parents of children with special needs, are constantly on the go – and constantly making decisions regarding the well-being of their children.
To sharpen your focus, you may need to first quiet your mind. Doing so will allow you to be more present when crises do arise. Mindfulness exercises can be incredibly helpful in doing this. Try this exercise, which was designed for depression and anxiety:
- Sit comfortably and close your eyes.
- Keep both feet on the ground and your hands in your lap.
- Breathe in through your nose for four seconds. Focus on the breath and the cold air coming in.
- Breathe out through your mouth for six seconds. Focus on the warm air going out.
Repeat as necessary, until you’ve reached a state of mind-body reconnection and balance.
It’s often said that we can’t pour from an empty cup. Taking the time to listen past the voice that’s telling you “it’s fine,” and replenish yourself as much as you’re realistically able, can make a world of difference in your parenting and everyday life.
This is a guest post from Zencare, a website that helps people find their ideal talk therapist. Visit Zencare.co to browse their vetted network of top therapists – using criteria like insurance, sliding scale, location, and specialties. You can also directly book a free assessment call from the Zencare site!