Self-Care & Stress Management Tips for Parents of Children with Autism and Special Needs
Caring for another person, no matter who that person is, requires mental, emotional, and physical energy from the caregiver.
If you are caring for an elderly parent, a client or customer at work, a child with autism or even a child without disabilities, or even simply when you’re doing things for your spouse or a friend, it all requires you to give your time and energy for the other person.
Let’s talk specifically about the needs of parents who have a child with special needs. Being a parent of a child with autism brings unique experiences that other people, especially people who don’t have a child with different needs, might not understand. To care for your child, you likely have additional responsibilities, such as therapy appointments, extra time spent with your child on homework or learning basic daily living skills, or time spent planning and thinking about your child’s needs for their current and future life.
With these additional responsibilities, you likely experience stress at least from time to time even though you often try to stay strong and hold your head high so that you can do what’s best for your child. Despite these challenges of being a parent of a child with autism, you love your child and parenting your child can be rewarding and enjoyable in many ways.
Being a Caregiver for Yourself
All this effort as a parent is for the selfless cause of helping your child, but it’s important to remember that your energy, your mental and physical resources, are not endless. Caregivers, including parents of children with special needs such as children with autism spectrum disorder or ADHD, need to think about their own needs and their own well-being.
You are always looking out for your child’s well-being and trying to take care of your child’s needs and this is part of parenting, of course. However, it’s imperative that you also consider your own experience. If you continue focusing on your child without considering your own wellness, it’s likely that you’ll end up feeling parenting burnout. You’ll feel exhausted, overwhelmed, stressed, and maybe even become a bit irritable or possibly even experience symptoms of depression.
We aren’t mentioning these potential side effects of what could happen when you don’t take care of yourself to make you feel as if you aren’t doing enough. We just want to help you think about how you can both be there for your child AND yourself, as well. You AND your child can experience greater overall wellness and greater life satisfaction if you address your own needs.
You can do this by learning about effective self-care strategies for parents of children with autism as well as stress management techniques that help to make challenging times a bit easier to get through.
Self-Care & Stress Management Tips for Parents
Self-care is an essential part of parenting. All parents need to consider how they engage in self-care on a regular basis. This is especially important for parents of children with special needs.
By practicing self-care often, parents can be more effective with their children. They can have more energy and more focus and be more productive and attentive when they are with their children as well as when they are trying to handle the many responsibilities that come with raising a child with autism.
The Interconnection Between Self-Care and Self-Management
Self-care and stress management are interconnected. Self-care is related to how you take care of yourself, of course; but, more specifically, it has to do with the actions you take to manage your health and wellness with the goal of promoting positive physical, emotional, and mental health in yourself.
On the other hand, stress management is related to how you manage your stress. When you cope with stress in an effective manner, you are able to improve your physical, emotional, and mental health.
Both self-care and stress management strategies can have a positive impact on your own and your loved one’s lives.
Make Time for Activities that You Enjoy
It’s important to spend time doing things that you like to do. Even though you probably enjoy being around your children most of the time, its important that you also make time to do things that you like to do as an individual person, as a human being outside your role as a parent.
One way to make sure that you are able to participate in this form of self-care is to plan times in your schedule that you do your preferred activities. Consider where your children will be during these times - Will they be at school? Will you find a babysitter? Will their other parent be caring for them?
We can get so consumed in our role of being a parent that we forget our own identities sometimes. By making the time for activities that you enjoy, you will experience greater satisfaction in life and you will also rejuvenate your energy resources so that you can be more focused on your child when you are spending time with them.
Plan Activities During the Day
Another thing to think about is that many parents try telling themselves to do things they enjoy after their children go to bed. This is okay and can be a good strategy to incorporate more time for yourself into your day. However, its important not to get in the habit of staying up too late and risk not getting enough sleep because of this since lack of adequate sleep is not good for a person’s wellbeing or their ability to accomplish things during the day.
Also, its helpful for your mental and emotional well-being to have your ‘me-time’ during the day when you are more awake and energized rather than trying to squeeze it in at the end of the day. Don’t feel guilty about taking some time for yourself during the day.
Find and Connect with Your Support System
It can be really helpful for managing your stress levels to find a support system and to regularly connect with them about how things are going in your life. A support system can include people in your personal life, such as friends and family, or it can include people who provide professional services, such as a therapist or formal support group.
Take some time to think about the people you would consider to be in your support system. You should feel comfortable talking to these people and generally feel like they validate your thoughts and feelings when you try reaching out to them.
There’s not one right way to connect with a support system. You should think about the way you prefer to communicate and connect with people. Maybe you like to send and receive texts at random - when you are stressed or when you want to share a positive experience you had. Maybe you prefer to schedule weekly or biweekly get-togethers with your support person or with a group of people.
You could even combine the tip about doing things you enjoy with the tip of connecting with a support system. For instance, if you enjoy reading, you could set up a book club with some people from your support system and get together every other week for a book club meeting.
Spending Time with Your Children as Self-Care
It’s important to spend time doing things you enjoy and connecting with people who aren’t your children, but there’s also nothing wrong with viewing quality time spent with your children as a form of self-care. The essential part of this tip is that you practice self-awareness as well as mindfulness when you are experiencing time with your children as self-care. You also shouldn’t use this as your only form of self-care.
Having the ability to be self-aware is a great asset to supporting your well-being. Self-awareness relates to consciously recognizing how you behave, triggers that lead to experiencing burnout, things that make you feel exhausted or stressed, and truly recognizing how you think and feel.
By understanding yourself and being able to identify when you are supporting or possibly harming your personal well-being, you can be more intentional about your behaviors and your choices. By practicing self-awareness when spending time with your children, you can determine whether you are truly supporting your well-being.
The dictionary defines mindfulness as “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.”1 In the context of spending time with your children, you can be mindful by fully accepting your children and yourself as you are.
You can focus on what is happening around you by being fully present in the moment. Instead of letting your mind wander to stressful things like work or what therapy your child needs or what needs done around the house, allow yourself to be in the here-and-now and relax in the experiences you’re having with your children.
You can practice self-care and stress management even when you’re around your children in different ways and there’s not one way that will work for every parent. Some examples could be going for a walk together or being at the park watching your child play while you sip on your favorite coffee drink.
Managing Stress to Support Your Health
The World Health Organization defines self-care as “the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider.”
Based on this definition of self-care, its recommended that parents of children with special needs engage in behaviors and activities that support their overall health and which reduce the chances of developing disease or illness.
Chronic Stress & Health
One factor that research has found to contribute to illness and an array of diseases is chronic stress. Some level of stress experienced from time to time can be beneficial to a person’s well-being and development; However, ongoing stress that is not coped with effectively can lead to unfavorable outcomes.
Science shows that chronic stress can have negative impacts on the body’s immune system, digestive system, cardiovascular functioning, sleep, and reproductive systems. Some people may experience mainly digestive symptoms, while others may have headaches, sleeplessness, sadness, anger, or irritability. These impacts from stress may lead to serious physical health issues, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, as well as other illnesses. It can also lead to mental disorders such as depression or anxiety.2
Because of the possible negative effects of chronic stress, it’s important for parents to effectively cope with stress and to participate in self-care activities.
More Self-Care & Stress-Management Tips
To promote physical, mental, and emotional wellness, parents of children who have special needs can make the following activities part of their daily life:2
- Personal self-care tasks, such as taking time to care for their bodies by doing things that maintain their hygiene (bathing/showering, brushing their teeth, caring for their hair, etc.)
- Focusing on consuming healthy foods and eating at regular intervals throughout the day
- Maintaining a reasonably active lifestyle such as participating in movement-based activities daily (ex: meeting a step goal, going for walks, playing sports, dancing, etc.)
- Considering the environmental factors that might impact their wellbeing, such as thinking about how their home affects their mindset. For example, a cluttered environment may add to feelings of stress.
- Addressing general stressors of modern daily life (ex: managing the household’s finances or (for parents who work) working a job that you don’t mind going to
- Addressing any physical health conditions, the parent experiences
Reinforce the Positives
One last tip for parents who want to improve their self-care and stress management efforts is to reinforce the positives. It’s important not to focus too much on what is not going well and to recognize the moments and experiences that go well.
To do this you might share good news with your friend. For instance, you could talk about how calm the morning went. You might consciously choose to think about times that you’re feeling relaxed even if it’s just for a few minutes.
After reviewing these recommendations, consider what tips you think would make a positive impact on your life and decide what ONE thing you can start doing today or at least over the next week to improve your self-care and stress management skills.
Remember that it’s okay for you to be a caregiver for yourself. Your self-care efforts don’t just help you. They support the caregiving you do for your child, as well.
- Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Mindfulness. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved July 3, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mindfulness
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). 5 Things You Should Know About Stress. National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/stress/.