Learning to balance the needs of my children with my own self-care became essential. While my children were young, I was in a graduate program in psychology, however some of the most helpful learning came from books on a wide range of topics including parenting kids with special needs, mindfulness, self-compassion, and cognitive behavioral therapy skills. I connected with an online group of parents who faced similar challenges, my “friends in the box”, who shared invaluable lessons they had learned from their real-life experiences.
Here are 8 ideas to help balance the demands of special needs parenting with self-care.
1. A little bit of mindfulness goes a very long way. Whether our distress is about our child’s behavior, future, education, treatment, or emotional state, though concerns may be valid, if it’s not a crisis, there is no need to constantly keep this concern in the forefront of our minds. In fact, it can easily do more harm than good as it prevents us from being present. Whatever the reality of the situation is, it does not require us to relentlessly distress ourselves.
Mindfulness is about putting our full attention on the here and now, in the present moment, and on our sensory experiences in it. The saying, “When we take care of each moment, we take care of all time,” is about observing the moment without judgment, being present, instead of allowing the mind to wander, dwell, or distress itself. The here and now is not about what's happening with our kids at school, what has occurred in the past, or may happen in the future; it is only about the present place and time. Mindful breathing is a good place to start. How does a deep breath feel? How does it sound? We can focus on any sound, taste, scent, image, or feeling as it occurs. Just by doing this, we are providing our formerly preoccupied mind a welcome respite. We are interrupting a crescendo of distressing thoughts. We are decreasing the overflow of stress hormones, and we may be averting an anxiety or panic attack. And, we are growing our skill of managing our own attention as we keep returning our wandering minds to the present. Mindfulness enables us to be better parents, to be present and nonjudgmental with ourselves and our children.
2. Get out of your own way. Like a fish in water who asks, “What is this water you speak of?” we may be entirely unaware of our tinted lenses of perception that we are seeing things through. Ongoing feelings of anger, sadness, anxiety, or other negativity may indicate the presence of deeply rooted unhealthy beliefs, such as judging a situation as all bad, magnifying the effect of a problem, wanting to control another person or past event, dwelling on the negative and filtering out any positives. Often, we are unaware that we are carrying these beliefs around with us, we just experience them as part of our reality, oblivious to the fact that these are judgments. When we feel stuck in a rut, we are stuck in our thinking, and we are rejecting alternative perspectives. It may feel counterintuitive to turn towards the situation, roll up our sleeves and take a closer look, however this is just what we need to do. If you find yourself repeatedly upset about the same thing, it is time to ask yourself if it is your perspective that would benefit from an adjustment. I spent years trying to change something that was out of my control, unnecessarily distressing myself. Shifting my perspective led to new solutions and finding peace.
3. Ask yourself, “Is it possible to look at this another way?” I love this question, because the answer is always yes! This includes things we feel absolutely certain about, because our brains do not filter out false or unhealthy thoughts. When our emotional, fixed mind conflicts with reality, we can become very distressed. We may feel devastated, hopeless, or enraged, and think that there is no alternative perspective. In these conflicts with reality, reality will always win, every time. Reality does not care what we think about it, so we may as well take that deep breath, step back, and seek a healthier way to look at things.
This is not about complacency or turning a negative into a positive; it's about seeking the healthiest way we can look at things that are out of our control. It is the path to constructive mental clarity. Acceptance does not prevent us from being optimistic, proactive, or from problem-solving. Acknowledging a challenge or disability, does not erase gifts or strengths. Acceptance helps clear out unhelpful negativity, resistance which fuels sadness, anxiety, frustration, or hopelessness. It enables us to live in the context of whatever challenges may be present.
4. Be kind and encouraging to yourself and to your child. Things are difficult enough without being a harsh critic in your own head. Is it your intention to be a loving parent? If you would like to do things differently next time, keep learning, planning, and growing. Instead of telling yourself, “I really messed up,” try saying, “Although that was disappointing, I can keep trying to improve things.” Acknowledge that your parenting situation is difficult and challenging, and that you are not alone. We all make mistakes. Since this is a fact, we may as well try to look at it in the healthiest way possible, and turn it into a lesson.
Is it your child’s intention to “be bad”? No, they are doing the best they can as well – no matter what they are doing. Your child doesn't want to be in trouble or for you to be upset with them. They may feel overwhelmed with their emotions and be unable to express them appropriately. Responding to your child with kindness and encouragement sends a healthy, rational message which acknowledges mistakes are part of being human, and we can always keep trying to learn and improve.
5. Practice empathy. Think of a time when someone may have been annoyed with you for being upset, telling you to calm down. Was that helpful? Or is it preferable to be met with empathy, with an offer to listen, or words of encouragement. “Tell me about it. We’ll try to find a way through this.” Emotional well-being is not about the absence of emotional pain; it is about managing the inevitable emotional pain that is part of being human.
I often hear people call their emotions stupid or ridiculous. Emotions do not respond well to dismissal or stuffing; they tend to keep poking at you until you acknowledge them. Being self-validating or empathic means noticing the emotion that is already there, accepting its presence without judgment, even befriending it. This will allow us to have our feelings, and work through them, instead of throwing fuel on the fire.
Seeing our children overwhelmed with emotions can be extremely difficult for a parent. This is one of those times, when we may not be aware that our reactions are unhelpful. Time to once again, step back, take that deep breath. If your parenting goal is for your child to be able to manage emotions, start by helping identify the emotion so that the child can have the emotion, instead of the emotion having the child. Once it is acknowledged, we can move towards nonjudgmental acceptance and calming.
One of my go-to mantras is, "I am responsible for my effort, not the result." It's important to recognize that we can continually strive to improve our parenting strategies, however there are factors that we have 0% control of. The only thing we can control, is our focus and our perspective.
6. Know that you have a right and a responsibility to practice self-care. Parents often have a false belief that sounds something like, “I can’t do things for myself because I have to sacrifice everything for my kids!” It is actually healthier for your children to experience some disappointment and to manage it then to have every perceived need met. It is also healthier for you to model self-care for your children. Everything you model for your children adds a tint to their lens of perception. Your children are more likely to practice self-care and self-kindness in their future, if they are exposed to the concept by you.
7. Tune into the love you have for your child. It may feel hard to do sometimes, and that’s OK. My grandfather used to say, “Even when I’m mad at you, I’m mad about you.” I remember feeling very guilty when I admitted to my mother that I felt like putting my hyperactive tornado child “through the wall”. Her response was to laugh, and to say, “Marsha, I have some news for you…” Apparently she had experienced similar thoughts decades ago about me. We will have conflicting thoughts and feelings; the healthy thing to do, is to nonjudgmentally strive to balance them. Your child can be angry at you, and still love you, just as you can be angry with your child, and love them. It's all good. Take that deep breath, step back, and think about the deeply rooted love that exists within you for your child. It is always there to tune into, like a gem in your heart that will help you find that balance when you turn your attention towards it.
8. Use your tools and skills every day. Unused tools become rusty. Integrate some of the strategies that work for you into your daily life instead of waiting to be overwhelmed. Develop some healthy self-talk that you practice each day, so that you are creating and strengthening new thought patterns. It won’t take any extra time or energy to use healthy self-talk as passwords such as, “take a deep breath” and “relax your muscles,” or to practice mindful eating and mindful walking, to give your mind a break, to experience moments in time as they occur, and to be present and awake for yourself and for your child.
Marsha Mandel, LMHC has a private practice in Cornwall, NY, where she provides individual counseling as well as groups for parents of children with special needs. Visit www.mandelcounseling.com for further information.