Now that school has begun, I find myself back in the same place that I occupy every school year: Anxiety City.
Sure, I visited there during the summer as I tried to balance giving my son the chance to be a kid with making sure he didn’t lose the previous year’s gains. This return to a familiar place reminded me about the importance of self-care. We talk so much about caring for our children, but Mom and Dad need care as much as our kids do. Now that we have settled into the routines of the new school year, I wanted to share some tips for caring for the special needs parent in your life.
What You Can Do for a Special Needs Parent
Honestly, these tips could apply to any parent that you might know. All parents are tired; the depth of that exhaustion might vary depending on the life stage. Having a special needs child, though, takes it all to another level. If you have a friend or a relative with a child with challenges, physical or developmental, here are some ways you can help:
When my son was a toddler, I did my best to schedule playdates with other kids his age. I knew that he was behind developmentally, but the time spent with other kids gave him a chance to see what other kids were doing. It gave him a chance to pick up on social skills in a way he couldn’t from my husband and I because we weren’t his peers. It was also a chance to do something that felt normal when we were dealing with so many questions about his development.
Offer those parents a chance to get everyone’s kids together. Let the kids play so that they can learn from each other and give each parent a chance to breathe while doing something fun.
Offer to babysit that family’s other children while the parents take their special needs child to a doctor visit or a therapy appointment. That is a great help for a family that already has to work out the logistics of scheduling the appointment and then getting there.
Alternately, start a babysitting coop with your friends where, depending on each child’s needs, everyone trades an evening out with another friend. This will give everyone a chance for an evening out, downtime that all parents need.
As a parent with a special needs child, I know that I live in Anxiety City, but those mental vacations that my husband and I take periodically are necessary to maintaining ourselves. Both of our children need us operating optimally so we take our chances for playing tennis or hanging out with friends when we can.
Whether it’s a quick latte at a nearby coffee shop or an evening with dinner and a movie, organize a night out with that mom or dad and other friends. Give everyone a chance to talk about their children, about those stressful moments, and about the happy moments. As a special needs parent, I want to be able to share my son’s accomplishments even if it takes him longer to get there than his peers. I appreciate my time with my friends because I can have a break from the worry while also celebrating my sons and their moments.
If You’re a Special Needs Parent…
As a parent, I know how hard it can be to turn off that role and allow myself a break. Logically, as an adult, I know that I need the time, but squelching the guilt that comes whenever my youngest squeezes me for one last hug as I go out the door is tough. If you find that you’re the same way, I want to remind you that you deserve care and feeding just as much as your littles ones do, and it’s important to practice self-care.
With that in mind, first, be willing to accept help. I know that’s hard. I know you want to do it yourself and that you and your partner do it better than anyone else. Your kids appreciate you being at your best, though, and, if you need another pair of hands to get you there, do it. It will be a good thing for you and your family in the long run. If someone offers to watch your kids while you take their sibling to an appointment or therapy, let them! The lowered stress level is worth it.
Next, be honest about what you need. If I’m having a bad day and the kids are adding to it, I don’t want to ask my husband to give me an hour alone since I know he’s tired and stressed too, but I know I need to do it. If I’m feeling disconnected from my friends or my husband, I know we need some time together and I need to speak up and make it happen. Sometimes you might feel like you can’t say what you need because you realize that others have challenges too, but give yourself permission to do it anyway. Your family needs your honesty just as much as they need you.
Lastly, give people a chance. By nature, I tend to be more independent and, at times, a bit cynical about people. I might find it hard to trust people with my kids at first because I worry about all of the things I can’t control, especially with a child on the spectrum who might not be able to speak up for himself. If I want my children to understand how to care for themselves, I have to show them how to trust people just as much as I need them to learn how to trust themselves. Our family has a wonderful babysitter all because I gave her a chance to spend time with my kids. If I hadn’t, my husband and I wouldn’t have chances to spend time with our friends or smack a tennis ball around. Let your children see you trusting people and you will teach them how to trust others.
Now that another school year has begun and we’re back to focusing on activities and homework, let’s remember that Mom and Dad need some care and nurturing as much as the kids do. If you have a friend with a special needs child, their care and feeding is essential to their ability to care for their children, much as any parent. While babysitting and playdates might not work out, a simple text or note to tell those parents they’re doing a great job can mean so much to a family with a special needs child.
If you’re ready to make plans with your friends, check all of our resources for activities with and without kids.
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Jennifer Kelly grew up in the Birmingham area, but migrated to Huntsville for graduate school and put down roots after meeting her husband, Jamie. In addition to being a mom to her two boys, she is a tennis ninja, trivia nerd, freelance editor, and aspiring writer. You can visit her at The Sir Barton Project, a blog about her upcoming book.