Life as a special needs parent can be tough, leading to feelings of isolation, grief and anxiety. Finding the time to look after yourself is the last thing on your list of priorities, but learning how to look after your mental health as a special needs parent is essential, including how to avoid caregiver burnout.
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Parenting is one of the most stressful periods one might go through in life. However, parenting a child with special needs is a lot harder, with a whole host of additional challenges and concerns.
As a special needs parent, your own mental health can suffer as a result, but there are ways to help alleviate the stress when you know the signs and symptoms.
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Mental Health Challenges for a Special Needs Parent
Regardless of the type of condition your child has, managing his or her disability is incredibly stressful. Caring for kids that have any of these conditions but are high-functioning is no less stressful than caring for kids with more profound disabilities.
Every special needs parent will have their concerns. Parents of high-functioning kids are terrified of their kids ending up hurt, used, or in major trouble because of the world being so harsh. Parents that have profoundly disabled kids are worried about who will take care of them when they will be unable to. Not to mention, their siblings are afraid that they will end up with the ‘burden’ of care.
Many of the challenges faced by a special needs parent stem from the same feelings:
Parents of special needs kids are incredibly isolated. They cannot take their disabled child to places like the supermarket, restaurants, or even shopping centres. They are stuck at home most of the time. Not all of them are lucky enough to have helpful family members and friends to run errands for them.
Additionally, these parents are also saddened that their kids’ typically developing peers are reaching milestones that their kids may not reach for a long time, if at all.
All parents-to-be have an idea of how they want their kids to be. No one ever chooses to have a child with a disability. Therefore, once a child is diagnosed, the parents might grieve over the child they dreamed about. They will also grieve over the fact that their child may not reach milestones that typical kids do. Some may never experience the joys of being grandparents.
Kids that are mildly affected by their condition may end up reaching some, or even all, of those milestones – however, a disability is a disability, and expectations may have to be altered regardless.
Sadness comes with grief. However, if the sadness is prolonged, then it can lead to feelings of depression. That is the point when you will need to seek counselling and support.
Anger, Resentment and Jealousy
Parents that have kids with disabilities will be angry that they were given a challenge that they might not be equipped to handle. They may also be jealous of other parents that have typically developing kids.
Special needs Parents can sometimes fail to empathise with parents of typically developing kids. They will often not take the complaints about being stressed or tired seriously because, in their eyes, nothing is more stressful than raising a child with a disability.
As mentioned already, parents raising kids with special needs will have heightened anxiety over what happens to their kids once they get older.
Raising a child with a disability will bring additional stress to the parenthood. This kind of stress might literally take over the parents’ lives. They will forget how to relax, as they have very little time to recharge.
Raising a child with special needs puts an enormous amount of stress on a marriage. You and your partner will not nearly have as much time together. You will resent your partner for not having an active caregiving role as you have. The resentments might also come from your partner being able to escape by going to work while you may have had to quit your job to care for your child. Marriages do frequently suffer, and it is essential to make time for respite.
Unfortunately, these are the mental challenges that can be brought about by raising a child with special needs. However, when these effects become uncontrollable, caregiving burnout might occur.
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The Warning Signs of Caregiver Burnout
If the effects of caring for a child with extra needs are not properly managed, a special needs parent might experience caregiver burnout, which can be extremely dangerous. These are the most common signs of caregiver burnout:
If you are extremely stressed to the point that you cannot function, then you will be left with no energy. That is because you never have the opportunity to recharge and have some ‘me’ time. If you are unable to take time for yourself, you will be tapped out and not able to do anything
Facing the day-to-day stress while caring for a child with special needs will bring loss of hope when the child is progressing. You will also feel discouraged whenever the child regresses. Feeling that there is no hope at all, regardless of how well or how poorly the child is doing, is a sign of burnout.
Drastic Weight Changes
Whenever you are burned out, you will either eat very little or overeat. That will show by the drastic change in weight, whether it is up or down.
Neglecting Your Own Needs
You have been taking care of your disabled child so much to the point that you may be neglecting your marriage, your other children, and definitely your own needs. You may end up wearing the same dirty clothes over and over again, you may forget to shower and brush your teeth. If you are doing this too often, then you are burned out.
Withdrawing from Everyone
Caring for your disabled child and caring for others will make you forget what you enjoy or how to take care of yourself. Therefore, you will have no interest in being part of anything else.
Extreme Mood Swings
A common sign of caregiver burnout is extreme mood swings. Parents can go from being angry to sad or frantic and numb in just a matter of moments. They will also become incredibly argumentative with others, even start lashing out at their child.
Your Physical Health Suffers
Seriously neglecting your own needs and not taking care of yourself can lead to getting sick a lot more often, picking up bugs and infections, or taking longer than normal to get over an illness.
Even if your child is not keeping you up at night, you will not be able to get a good night’s rest if you are burned out. Insomnia, broken sleep and nightmares can all by symptomatic of burn out.
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How to Manage Your Mental Health
Caregiver burnout is a real risk as a special needs parent. If you find yourself exhibiting any of the above signs, you need to seek help. Sometimes, when you are deep in the all-consuming life of special needs, you may not realise that you are experiencing burnout, so if others are expressing concern over your health, listen to them.
There are ways to properly look after your mental health as a special needs parent:
Ask for Help
Even if you don’t have helpful friends and family around, you can still get help. Your local church, synagogue, mosque, or temple might provide you with the needed help. Look into organisations that can provide help and respite, and reach out to them – that’s what they are there for, and they will understand.
Be Mindful of What You Eat
Extreme stress can bring on emotional eating, or will cause you to not eat at all. However, it is really important that you eat healthy foods, and that you consume enough calories to function. Be mindful of avoiding emotional over-eating, and not consuming more calories than you can burn. This will help you feel more balanced.
It is important to journal how you feel each day. No matter how dark it is, write it out and make a habit out of it. This purge will help you feel better.
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Talk to A Therapist
Finding the right therapist can be a hit and miss process, so it is really worth spending some time doing a little research and try to find the right one for you. If you can’t afford a therapist, talk to your doctor about local options that may be suitable.
There are also inexpensive options like well-reviewed apps that can offer you an opportunity to create a mindful space.
Create A Daily Schedule
With a whole host of doctor appointments, therapies and activities to keep on top of, the only way to maintain a shred of efficiency as a special needs parent is to keep a strict daily schedule and plan so you (and your partner) know what’s happening and when.
Importantly, you need to be able to delegate too. Take advantage of friends and family offering to help, and split the household jobs with your partner. Make the most of online grocery shopping, delivery services and anything that will take pressure off you.
It’s important to get moving, even for a few minutes a day. If all you can manage is to walk around the block a few times during the day, do it – don’t skip out on exercise because you don’t have time or money to go to a gym. Exercise will help boost your serotonin levels, well-known as happy chemicals to your brain.
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Get Enough Sleep
If your child is up a lot in the night, this may be difficult but the cycle of not getting enough sleep, exhaustion and illness is hard to avoid otherwise.
Sit down with your partner and discuss how you can share the nightly wake ups. If s/he works outside the home during the day, you may feel bad asking them to help at night – but you also need sleep, Even a few nights per week to sleep through will make a big difference.
If you are raising a disabled child on your own, speak to local organisations who deal with special needs children and you may be able to avail of respite nights to give you a break.
Make Time For You
This may be hard to carve out during the busy day, but even waking up 15 minutes earlier than normal can give you some time on your own before everyone else gets up.
Sit down and gather your thoughts, prepare for your day, take time to exercise, read a book – do whatever it is that will give you a few moments of peace to recharge.
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How I Saved My Own Mental Health
I have two kids – one typical daughter, and a son that has both mild autism and severe ADHD. He is on the higher functioning end of the spectrum, but his needs are very complex. Unfortunately, not many professionals have been able to truly help him.
After my son had been bounced around schools that failed to provide him with a variety of therapies such as speech therapy, occupational therapy and applied behaviour analysis (ABA), the light at the end of the tunnel was becoming dimmer and dimmer.
I gave up my life to take him to various therapies over the years and, unfortunately, my daughter did not get the attention that she needed. I was never even able to teach her how to ride a bike.
It also got to a point where my marriage was suffering, my mental health was crumbling, and I had gained over 100lbs in the span of a decade. I isolated myself, and I withdrew from any social activities. I could no longer care for my son because I was so severely burnt out and depressed. I could not meet his needs no matter how hard I tried, and the only option I had was to send him to a residential school that would help him evolve.
When my son was 13 we were able to get him into a great school. Now, over a year later, we have seen a lot of positive changes. I decided to take control of my health, and have lost over 40lbs to date. I am able to connect to a therapist a lot better than I did. I can give my daughter the attention she was lacking. My marriage is better, and I can also focus on my business.
Being a special needs parent is one of the toughest things anyone can ever do – and sometimes extreme actions like this one are the only way your child will receive the help s/he needs to thrive, and you can start to heal your own mental health.
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Are you a special needs parent? What other tips and advice would you offer? Leave a comment below and let us know – we’d love to hear from you!