If you have a child with special needs, a typical day might begin something like this:
You wake up before your alarm goes off. Your mind is racing. You can’t stop thinking about the most recent troubling report that you received from your child’s teacher or doctor. Diagnoses, prognoses, and possible treatments swirl endlessly in your mind. As you sift through the details, you begin to feel a deep sadness and worry for the child who you love so deeply. You find yourself feeling like no one understands what you are going through. Maybe you’re even jealous of friends whose children don’t have such struggles—why your child? Suddenly, sadness, worry, and jealousy give way to an incredible burst of anger at the lack of adequate, affordable services available to your child. As the anger begins to subside, a sense of helplessness, and even paralysis, takes hold as you wonder how you will ever be able to help your child unlock the incredible potential you see in him or her.
Days that begin like this are also often consumed by shuttling children to and from appointments with doctors and therapists, conferences with teachers, maddening phone calls with health insurers who are concerned only about their bottom lines, and disappointing meetings with education officials who don’t have the knowledge, funding, or resources to help children like yours. As the day comes to an end, you realize that, once again, you’ve gotten none of your own work done. You’ve used the last of your vacation days for the year and it’s only March. And speaking of missed work, you wonder yet again where you’re going to come up with the money to get your child the help he or she needs. Exhaustion and ever-present worry settle back in, and your thoughts begin to race again.
If this sounds painfully familiar, questions about you and your needs probably feel decidedly less familiar.
It may feel a little selfish to think about your own needs in light of the daily struggles your child faces, but you might find it useful to reframe that thought—tending to your own needs might actually allow you to give more of yourself to your child. If you lose yourself in the mix, you will feel overwhelmed, spread too thin, isolated, and maybe even hopeless. This is not a good position from which to advocate and fight for your child, or to enjoy spending quality time with him or her. On the other hand, if you manage to carve out a little time here and there to take care of yourself, you may be better able to handle it when things get really tough. Clichéd as it may be, if you take better care of yourself, you can take better care of your child.
So, how can you put yourself back on your priority list? First, start small. If you’ve been neglecting your physical and mental health for a number of years, then planning to go to the gym daily, cutting out all culinary indulgences, and taking regular long weekends away at a spa is probably not reasonable or possible. Instead, read up on simple meditations and breathing techniques and practice them when you can—maybe in the waiting room while your child is at an appointment. Next time you wake up to racing thoughts, implement the meditation and/or breathing technique you found most useful.
Not into meditation? Try something more concrete—commit to getting a little exercise. Once or twice a week while on a lunch break, or while your child is at school, take a brisk walk, bike ride, or squeeze in a quick trip to the gym. Swap out one burger or fast-food lunch for something healthier that you still enjoy. These ideas may seem at once miniscule and monumental—too small to create any kind of real change, but too big to implement. Just give it a try. You might find the opposite to be true. One small change might be easier than you imagine, and it might also feel much better than you imagine. You might even be inspired to look for another small change to make.
Emotional support is also critical. You probably do a fantastic job of making sure your child has access to all of the emotional support he or she needs, but again, you may not think much about your own need for support. Consider looking for a support group for parents of children with special needs. Even the most well-meaning parents of typically developing children may not be able to provide the kind of support you need. They might not fully understand the scope of your child’s challenges, or they might find it too awkward to talk with you about something this big without being able to offer some practical help. Having a dedicated time and space to be with other parents who walk in your shoes can therefore be deeply healing.
In addition to the emotional support that a support group can provide, you can also get some practical ideas and suggestions from other parents. If a support group seems like too much, consider striking up a conversation with another parent in the waiting room of your child’s doctor or therapist—you might find you have a lot in common and decide to go to coffee together. Finding your own therapist may also be beneficial; therapy can provide a valuable source of support, help you develop coping strategies, and allow you to carve out a weekly hour dedicated to you and your needs.
Finally, don’t forget fun with other adults. If you are able, splurge for a babysitter and go out with your partner and/or friends. If you can’t afford it, try to work out a babysitting exchange with another parent. Maintaining adult relationships that are not with your child’s teachers and service providers is an important part of maintaining your sense of self. Regardless of whether you are single, married, or in a relationship, you deserve to have relationships in which you aren’t a caretaker. You deserve to have relationships in which your needs are just as important as anyone else’s.
All children need their parents, but your child probably has more needs than most, and he or she may need a great deal from you for a very long time. This is all the more reason to make sure you prioritize your well-being. Nurture yourself. The road ahead may be long and uncertain, but if you take care of yourself, you’ll be better able to manage the unexpected twists and turns, and you’ll find it easier to enjoy the many sweet moments with your very special child in between.
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.