Caring for the caretaker – put on your oxygen mask
It is hard to be a parent. It is doubly hard to be a parent of a child with special needs. Besides taking care of your child’s specific physical, mental and emotional needs, you also have to learn how to navigate the tricky waters of the early intervention or special education system. It is a journey filled with mysterious terms and specific procedures. In addition to your own job, other children and responsibilities, you now need to learn about the laws and procedures that are there to help your child. Yikes! Most parents are not equipped for the time and effort that this requires. This is understandable. Consequently, it is not unusual for parents to find that soon they are consumed with this “special” world, and their own personal health, well being and happiness are somehow forfeited. If this is happening to you, you are not alone. But, what can you do about it? This post will give you tips on how to take care of you.
It’s not selfish – it’s necessary.
You may feel that you don’t have the time to “take care of yourself.” Well, here is what I tell parents who say that they can’t take any time for themselves at all…. When you board an airplane, the flight attendant gives instructions on what to do with the emergency oxygen masks (in case you should you need them). FIRST you put it on your own face, and THEN you put it on your child’s face. The reason is because if you are busy putting it on your child and you run out of oxygen and pass out, you won’t be able to help your child at all. You have to make sure you are breathing, in order to help your child breathe. Sounds logical, right?
Well, the same holds true for you and your special needs child. You need to be fully functioning in order to do a decent job of taking care of your child. If you have a spouse/partner and other children, you need to be especially aware of yourself, so that you don’t run out of steam to be there for them, too. Taking care of you is not selfish – it is necessary!
What are some ways to take care of you?
In other posts, I have referred to Wrightslaw – the website where Pam and Pete Wright provide incredible help to parents ensconced in the special ed maze. Here are their survival tips which I highly recommend.
I would like to add a few more tips which have helped me:
• Take a bath. Bubbles, lavender oil or bath salts, coupled with soft music for 20 minutes help to relax all the senses and promote a sense of tranquility.
• Watch a fun TV show. Laughter is a masterful medicine. It sets off endorphins which will help you to feel better.
• Have a glass of wine and read a magazine or chapter from a book. Just remember to drink responsibly and don’t drink if you are pregnant.
• Be active. A short 10 minute walk a couple of times a day will be much more beneficial to you than you can imagine. If you can manage a longer walk, go for it. Perhaps you can take your child with you. Or, join a class (like Zumba) where you can dance off your frustrations as you have fun. The activity will create energy and help release tension and stress.
• Take a yoga, meditation or Pilates class or use a DVD. Relaxing is something that needs to be learned for most people. These classes combine getting in shape with learning to calm down.
• Breathe. Try this: breathe in deeply for 4 seconds, out for 6, and hold for 2. Do this several times a day, especially when you feel like you are about to blow up. It will help to settle your energy and calm you down. (It works for me!)
• Join a support network – it can be online or in person. The March of Dimes’ Share Your Story is where parents can go for support, comfort and friendship if you have a preemie, a baby in the NICU, a child with medical conditions, and more. You can start your own conversation thread on a new topic if you like!
Remember, taking care of a special needs child is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to pace yourself and not burn out after the first couple of miles. Taking breaks and scheduling time for those things that bring you happiness (even if it is just for an hour), will help to refresh you. When you are refreshed, you can focus better and tackle your problems and tasks much more efficiently and calmly.
So, take out your oxygen mask, and put it on. It will help you to be the best parent you can be. I hope these tips help. Let us know what works for you.
Have questions? Send them to AskUs@marchofdimes.org.
Note: This post is part of the weekly series Delays and disabilities – how to get help for your child.
Updated October 2016.