As parents of special needs children, we all share unique challenges, witness beautiful moments, and experience extraordinarily stressful situations. All that is required for effective parenting, such as, patience, resilience, strength, resourcefulness and perseverance is multiplied exponentially when raising a child with special needs. It’s up to us to care about our mental health and body’s overall well-being.
It’s interesting to me as a special needs parent of a teenager with Autism, how I have to check myself for whether or not I’m meeting my own self-care needs. My son is sixteen-years-old and I have had the privilege of talking with other special needs professionals and parents on this very topic – so it’s not that I don’t know I have to mind my self-care needs. However, like many parents, I allow myself to get wrapped up in the day-to-day happenings our busy lives throw at us and as a result, I’ll let too much time go by without taking better care of myself.
I’ve fallen fault to ignoring my body’s signals that I’m over stressed, overworked, under rested, and sleep-deprived. However, I’ve learned to train myself to be more aware and conscious of my body. Every once in a while, if I’m heavily distracted with something, I’ll experience minor or major bouts of anxiety due to ignoring my body signs for too long, but we shouldn’t wait until that happens. I have some ideas that have worked for me on meeting self-care needs!
Too often our lives are consumed with research, creating and implementing (behavior, academic, or social skills) plans. One of the things we don’t think about enough is asking others for help. It could be from family, friends, or service providers – it’s so important to get help. Identify family members and friends you trust who are willing to help out with caring for your child every once in a while. Also note that every state has an array of services for special needs families and one of them is respite services. This service includes a caregiver to come to your home and help care for your son or daughter. A certain number of hours are allotted to you weekly for the purpose of shopping, running errands, or just taking a nap. Find out about respite services in your state here. You need and deserve “me” time. Whether it’s to indulge a hobby you’ve been circling for some time, reading, writing, or personal projects you’ve put off for far too long. You need a break, remember to take it!
There are several steps for taking it easy and decompressing the body and mind. One of the very first things I learned to do involved meditating. I would never have given it much thought if it weren’t for the fact that it quiets the mind, something I find hard to do. I am reading a lot about mindfulness and I have the perfect starters tip for the novice (like me) in meditating. Check out the “Headspace” app. This is a great resource for someone who’s new to meditation. With just three minutes a day (I love doing this in the mornings), the app teaches you to get all thoughts out of your mind and teaches you how to relax your body. It’s useful and mind cleansing, I really recommend trying it.
I love to start my morning with body stretching. I don’t even leave my bed. I get up, I stretch, do sit-ups and lift 5 lb weights to work on my arms. It feels good and it alleviates any guilt that I have not worked out or done anything physical! Of course, this should not replace the needed cardio we should be doing, but I don’t believe these exercises fall in the category of living a sedentary lifestyle….does it?
Think about what relaxes you? Is it a long shower? What about a long walk or quick run? Maybe it’s doing absolutely nothing special and it’s just about catching up on a favorite show you’ve been meaning to watch. What ever it is, do the thing that you know helps you to relax and recharge your body.
While this is one of the most important things for us to do, it’s typically the one we get least. It’s usually not our fault either. Having special needs children often means not getting enough sleep. We lead stressful lives and it’s not always easy to put thoughts out of our minds and get a good nights sleep. I did write an article about getting a good night’s sleep – check it out for additional ideas. Over the years, I developed a series of bad sleeping habits. I would have to watch television to be able to fall asleep (I’d end up watching it for hours). I didn’t have a good sleep routine or ritual in place – every night was different, and I wasn’t winding down into my much-needed rest. It’s important to develop a sleeping routine. Keeping a nightly ritual helps your body get accustomed to winding down into sleep mode once the start of your routine begins. So what does this look like? Try setting a time (keep it the same every night) to disconnect from all electronics - phone, televisions, etc. These are serious stimulants that will delay sleep. Maybe you take a shower, change into your comfy pj's, brush your teeth, wash your face, what ever it is that you do before bed, keep the same schedule every night.
Reading a book was always my favorite remedy for insomnia, but I recently made a great discovery. I was asked to review a product in exchange for an Amazon Review and it turned out to be a surprisingly resourceful and affordable tool for helping me to relax and sleep. The Portable White Noise Machine AuCuTee 20 was a pleasant discovery for sleep relaxation. I never used anything like this before, but I’ve adopted it into my newly developed sleep routine because the twenty soothing sounds of this machine replaced the distracting visual stimulation that television provided. My favorite sounds alternate between rain, crackling fire, and ocean sounds, but there are so many soothing sounds for you to choose from. This lightweight machine is easy to travel with, has adjustable volume levels and it can run continuously or it can be set with a timer. It’s really easy to manipulate and I have loved using it for helping me easing into sleep.
Being a special needs parent can leave us feeling many different emotions at different times (read my blog on “Understanding the Grief Cycle of an Autism Parent” – although this targets parents of kids with autism, many special needs parents of children with different disabilities can relate). Among the many emotions we feel, loneliness ranks on the top of my list. It’s important to find other parents in similar situations for support. Whether it’s for learning about their experiences and what’s worked or not worked for them or just talking to someone who understands what you're going through. You’ll feel better you did. Support groups are great for this, but if meeting people in-person is not your thing, there is plenty of support available online. Sites like Facebook, Meetup and LinkedIn offers a variety of specific groups (both closed and public) for reaching out to other parents.
You’re a special needs parent, so the last person you think about is you. You’re busy supporting your spouse, making sure all the kids have time with you (because you already feel guilty about giving most of your attention to your special needs child – don’t feel bad it’s a necessary sacrifice and I’m sure you’re running yourself ragged for the other kid(s) too!). Your doing your part to keep things running smoothly in the home-front, keeping your head on straight for work, and a million other things you have on your day-to-day list. I want you to do something for me. Admit that you are the most awesome parent around and you deserve to be selfish and do something just for you. I don’t care if you have to jot down on a little post-it note for yourself that says, “You are Awesome – you deserve a break,” make it part of your every day mantra. You are a rock star as a parent and you deserve to do something you want to do. Take an hour every day to do anything you want. Maybe you take a weekend or day off work while the kids are at school to enjoy the spa, go fishing, go to the beach, play golf, it doesn’t matter. Do something just for you, this is important – because you are doing the best you can and you deserve it. Recently, I took a weekend to spend at a hotel by on the beach to do some writing. I could write at home, but I’ve had a rough year, and this was something I wanted to do for a long time. I loved every moment of it and I urge you to try it!
It’s easy to get trapped in the mindset of taking care of others before ourselves because we were taught that this is what selfless people do. But the truth is taking care of ourselves is the opposite of being selfish. We lead stressful lives, so when we develop routines that combat stress and keep our minds and bodies healthy, we are essentially ensuring loved ones that we will be around longer to continue caring for and supporting them. To me that is the most selfless and responsible thing to do. I hope this helps you to start tending to your self-care needs today!
Author: Christine Goulbourne