You look after your child, but who looks after you?

A recent American study into stress levels of parents of children with additional needs found that 65% faced high levels of stress and only 4.5 % felt low levels of stress.

Now parenting is never easy, and stress is just part of our life, but research does highlight that in an additional needs family, it is alarmingly common. In fact, many parents suffer from post-traumatic stress and health problems secondary to stress.

Parenting a child with autism brings with it many additional challenges—compared to parenting a “neurotypical” child—such as behavioural problems, educational issues, additional financial pressures and the effect on siblings, to name just a few.

When asked most of us would say that our  children are not the source of the stress but lack of specialised professionals and access to them, the need to fight for government support  and the lack of understanding and resources within the educational setting.

I’d like to share some ideas that may help you best manage your stress as a parent of a child on the autism spectrum

Know why you are stressed

First take a moment for honest self-reflection about your sources of stress and write them all down. This can be quite cathartic. Our stress triggers come from two sources: external to us (events, our children, our situation) and internal (from our own brain and mind).

In parents of additional needs children, there are undoubtedly more sources of external stress arising from your child’s complex situation. And over time, internal sources of stress in the shape of negative thinking, grief, anxiety and uncertainty pile up, all of which creates one big problem of stress.

Additional internal sources of stress include  negative thoughts, guilt and blame and worry about your child’s future, and embarrassment and fear that others will judge you.

If these impact on you, be honest in your assessment and you can begin to confront them.

It is also important to share these with your partner and/or friends and family, so they can not be aware of how you are feeling. They can then help develop and implement strategies to aid you address and overcome this stress.

Be the expert on your child's needs 

Knowledge is power. Your child needs you to be a strong, empowered advocate for him or her. When you walk into a meeting with a doctor or a special education team, you need to be armed with accurate knowledge about your child and his/her condition.

Begin by keeping good records of every visit, letter, and meeting. Find reputable sources of information on your child’s additional needs and learn as much as you can. Investigate treatment options, education regulations, and what to expect. Also fully understand what support you are entitled to from the Government and local authorities. 

Do not do this alone, seek out help and support from other parents, local support groups and positive online support networks.

Get healthy

This may sound common sense, but how many of us do it with our busy lives? However, a  healthy body and brain reacts better to stress.

Health is a balancing act between health liabilities and health assets.

Reduce health liabilities, which are things that are bad for your health, including poor diet, inactivity, smoking, spending time with toxic and negative people, and avoiding medical care for health problems.

Health assets should be increased with a healthy diet, good hydration, positive thinking, good sleep and having fun and nurturing yourself.

Again, it's positive to write down all your health liabilities and try to eliminate or reduce them over time.

You can then devise a plan to grow and maintain your health assets.

Create your personal stress management tool kit

A stress management toolkit is a pre-identified list of things that help you manage your stress. Just as stress is based on our own personal perspective, so is our stress management. Some people love massage, other people hate it. Some people find classical music relaxing, while others love nothing more than to chill to their favourite band or singer.

Your stress management toolkit can be made up of:

  • To-do list or task planners
  • Time management schedulers
  • Communication tips and reminders to be assertive
  • A journal (to help track and identify stress triggers)
  • Meal planners
  • Self-care items (e.g., relaxation colouring books, bubble bath, favourite books, records, recipes etc.)
  • Favourite sayings, mottos or quotes
  • Memory prompts (e.g., objects or photos of family, friends and favourite places as a reminder of relaxed times in your life)
  • A list of hobbies you enjoy doing
  • A list of places you enjoy visiting
  • Mindfulness meditations
  • Sleep hygiene tips
  • Phone numbers of friends
  • A list of support organisations and helplines (e.g., for housing, finance, debt, insurance, work union, student support, addiction, abuse etc.)
  • Contact details for your GP
  • Contact details for a therapist
  • Anything else you find helpful!

As well as helping to improve your ability to cope with stress, regularly using your stress management toolkit can help you to identify triggers and prevent stress before it occurs. The end result being improved mental health and wellbeing.

Remember two things

Do what works for you and do not judge yourself too harshly.

You are undoubtedly doing your best under difficult conditions. Being a parent of an additional needs child is tough, really tough.

It is important to set realistic expectations and small achievable goals. It is better to overachieve and set the bar higher next time than to underachieve and feel demoralised.

Spending time with other parents of children on the autism spectrum may help with this. While their situation is different and nobody can ever completely understand what you are going through, it is good to share disaster stories and successful milestones achieved.

I hope these ideas help and I wish you luck and good health, but I’d like to leave you with this.

Don’t ignore your stress, it is bad for your physical and emotional health, your relationships, your parenting and your performance in all you do. Face your stress head on and do something about it today.