By Emily Tonn, RMHCI
National Autism Awareness Month is a great time to remind parents of children with special needs the importance of self-care. While every family is different and has it’s own unique challenges, there are some things that parents of children with special needs have in common. A few of these commonalities include the balance of advocacy for their child and self-advocacy, time management and navigating the family system.
While most parents are advocates for their children, parents of children with special needs dedicate much of their time to advocating for their children’s rights across all areas of life. I spent several years working throughout the state of Florida in the area of inclusion within the school systems. I met many educators, students and parents. I often became the mediator between the system and the family. More times than you can imagine, parents would “apologize” for their position or tenacity. My response was always a resounding “do not apologize, this is your child!” Even though parents need to advocate for their child, they also need to advocate for themselves.
We all have heard many times “take care of yourself before you can take care of others.” I realize this is easier said than done. Parents can benefit from learning how to take a break and ask for help. Some parents need to learn “how” to ask for help from others. This doesn’t come easily to most parents and is especially challenging for parents of children with special needs.
When parents ask me “my child seems stressed or anxious, how can I help them” my answer begins with exploring how the parent is feeling and handling his/her stress and anxiety. The good news is that when parents implement the practical and effective strategies for managing stress that I introduce, both parents and children benefit.
Helping parents implement more effective, pro-active calendar management strategies is also vital to healthy balance. Parents of children with special needs manage all of the day-to-day activities for the entire family, but often also have to juggle more than average amounts of school meetings, medical and therapy appointments. This busy schedule can quickly and easily lead to no time for self as well as the parent(s) feeling guilty that others within the family are not receiving ample time and attention.
Many parents of children with special needs are involved in support groups, which is a great way to connect with other parents and families. These relationships open up opportunity to a very powerful network. Working with a therapist can help parents process feelings such as shock, anger, guilt, sadness, loneliness and denial. Therapy can also help parents improve communication and develop an effective plan for holistic wellness balance as an individual, couple or family.