Self-care For Parents Of Children With Complex Needs


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Every child needs a healthy and present parent who cares about their needs above all else. This is the easy part. It comes quite naturally to want to give of yourself to your children. But when that child has special needs that are demanding emotionally, physically, psychologically and otherwise, it is important as parents for us to remember that our children don’t just need us, they need us well

Self-care is one of those things that slips away one small piece at a time, until your child, their needs, your hectic schedule and lack of sleep can suddenly seem like a life sentence of isolation and struggle. But, it does not have to be this difficult.  

Managing your own self-care can help you to: 

  • Be more mentally present for your child 
  • Be more productive  
  • Manage your physical health, prevent exhaustion, and sickness 
  • Reduce stress 
  • Improve the quality of life for yourself and your child 
  • Empower you to face the challenges of your day 

You advocate for your child with society, with medical care teams, with the school system and somehow advocating for yourself as a human being seems to be forgotten. Who else will step in and demand that you take care of yourself? When you improve yourself, experience a more pleasant life, your child is reaping the benefits of these efforts, just as much as you are.  

We make it harder on ourselves by carrying heavy emotional baggage into our parenting. Let go of those self-deprecating thoughts, the rumination over what you weren’t able to accomplish, or all you could have done better. That guilt will paralyze you and steal your joy.  

Sometimes, all it boils down to is giving yourself permission. Unpacking the bags you’ve packed for that “guilt trip” you seem to go on every time you “take time away” from your child to tend to your personal needs. Thinking this way is natural, but the slope is slippery.

Logic would remind us that healthy and happy people can accomplish so much more, but as parents, we interject our own emotional issues into the equation. Feeling like you must somehow “suffer” with your child will not rectify their issues or improve them in any way, but what you do to lift yourself, lifts them. 

What you need is a plan. A strategy that ticks off the boxes of your personal needs as you play multiple demanding roles as a parent. 

What you do to lift yourself, lifts them. 

Here are some things that you can do to make sure your needs are addressed so you can manage the challenges of parenting a child with complex needs without losing your mind and spirit in the process. 

Self-care tips and strategies 

Think of your self-care routine as a four-sided square; Mind, Body, Planning, and Network. 

Self-care For Parents Of Children With Complex Needs

Mind 

Nourishing the most important aspect of self, the mind, is ground zero for building a wellness plan to provide your best self to your child. An exasperated, depleted, weakened mind will hamper all of your efforts to function as a productive human being. This means that what you want in your life, what you dream of, what brings you joy must become a priority.  

Nurturing yourself on an emotional level, a psychological level, and tending to your mental needs are not mere self-indulgences, but a way to keep your sanity on the most difficult of days. Here are a few things you can do to make sure your mental clarity and emotional wellness become a part of the equation. 

  • Find new ways to incorporate things that you enjoy into the activities you have with your child. Love hiking? Take your child for a walk and explore a new park. Love reading but can never find the time? Keep a book handy and read a small portion each day. Get creative to blend your own interests into your daily activities.  

You’d be surprised how easy this is to do if you just give yourself permission to address what you enjoy as well.

“Happiness is a quality of the soul…not a function of one’s material circumstances.”  Aristotle 

  • Don’t be afraid to vocalize your needs to other people. Negotiate with them ways to work in the “me time” that you need to stay positive. Perhaps they can take over for a brief time for you to have a bit of time to yourself.
  • Listen to self- affirming podcasts or leave yourself notes of self-affirmation. Focusing on having a positive mental attitude goes much further than moments of venting. Venting is a habit that will seem to be relieving stress but is actually pulling you toward the negative emotions rather than steering the mind in a more positive direction. You could have an app deliver affirmations to your phone each day to keep you motivated. 

“Fall seven times and stand up eight.” – Anonymous

  • Don’t be afraid to talk to a counselor or a medical professional when you feel down or overwhelmed. Keeping yourself mentally healthy is the most important thing you can do for yourself, and your child. 

Body 

One of the most difficult things to address as a special needs caregiver is taking care of your body. This includes your eating habits, sleep schedule, exercise routine, and even basic hygiene. The less effort you put into taking care of your body, the less your body will be able to perform for you every day while you are in the trenches, blazing a path for your child. If you were to drive yourself to exhaustion or fall ill, where would your child be in terms of their care?  

Let’s start with a big one–sleep. 

Few things can bring you to your parental knees faster than utter exhaustion. 

Medical News Today tells us in an article entitled What to Know About Sleep Deprivation” that “Although occasional sleep interruptions are generally no more than a nuisance, ongoing lack of sleep can lead to excessive daytime sleepiness, emotional difficulties, poor job performance, obesity and a lowered perception of the quality of life. 

There is no questioning the importance of restorative sleep, and a certain amount of attention is necessary to both manage and prevent sleep deprivation.”–MNT 

If you are feeling stretched too thin, it is very likely that prioritizing restorative sleep can do wonders to improve your stamina and mood. If you have to hire someone twice a week to come and sit with your child, read to them or watch a movie with them so that you can take a nap, so be it. This is a matter of your physical health. 

When it comes to lack of sleep, consider it as important as your smoke detectors not working or your car having a loose wheel–dangerous and can lead to disaster. I know it is hard when you feel like every moment you are awake you must be taking care of something that needs to be done. But it’s important to get serious about moving sleep up the list of things to do. 

Let’s face it, you can’t function at all if you aren’t sleeping. One friend of mine, a mother to a rambunctious toddler, one with bipolar disorder and ADHD (in other words, a raging ball of emotional and physical energy), became so sleep deprived that she fell asleep while cooking dinner. She was jolted to an alarmed, awake state, realizing her forehead was on the stove right next to the boiling water–and she was sleeping! 

She also sleep-walked outside one night in her nightgown, thinking she was checking on her son. Sleep deprivation can put you in harm’s way. If you are not able to manage any other self-care aspect at all, focus on this one. 

Think of it this way; If an appliance in your home needed batteries to operate, you’d provide the batteries without thinking any less of the appliance. Some things are meant to run on batteries. Our bodies run on sleep. We shouldn’t think any less of ourselves for needing to recharge our own batteries with a little shut-eye.  

Furthermore, depriving yourself of sleep to “prove” something to the world, your commitment, your love–is simply not logical. Recognize when you are pushing yourself beyond healthy limits and take a moment to ask if you are making things harder for yourself. And why? Remember that emotional baggage thing?  

If maintaining a regular sleep schedule is impossible with the responsibilities that you carry, then it is time to ask for some assistance (hire a sitter, ask your spouse or a friend?) or for us to set aside tasks and sleep when they sleep.  

Body care, in addition to a healthy sleep routine, also should include: 

  • Hygiene (If you have to elicit help for a 5-minute shower, then plan for this and make it happen. You’ll feel better!) 
  • Eating healthy  
  • Exercise–there are many ways to incorporate exercise into other daily activities. Even a 5-minute walk gets the blood moving and elevates mood. Try walking with your child in the morning to help keep circadian rhythms in place that will support a healthy sleep cycle. 
  • Get regular medical care for yourself. You would, without question, do this for your child. So do it for yourself. 

Planning 

A little planning can go a long way. Make a chart that includes your personal care goals for the week as well as your child’s. Seeing your goals in print helps you to feel more at ease with working these things into the routine.  

Planners, apps, notebooks; whichever you find to be the most helpful and productive is the best strategy for you. Some people prefer handwritten lists. I use a calendar app and schedule to keep me organized. Add “take a walk” or “20 minutes of reading time” and make the commitment to yourself to schedule your needs.  

Set a timer for small tasks so that you don’t spend too much time on them. When you cook a meal, double the recipe and freeze a second portion for a ready-made meal for another day.  

The more planning you do in your routine, the more empowered you feel to accomplish all you need to do. Be careful not to overthink every detail of what you “think” you need to do–and focus on what you actually need to do. Oftentimes we put more pressure on ourselves and forget that the sun will still rise and shine tomorrow even if we didn’t reorganize the closets Marie Kondo-style. 

Set realistic goals, prioritize the most important things, and make sure that YOU make the list. 

Network 

As humans, we aren’t designed to tackle the world alone. Isolation and loneliness are powerful. Developing a strong network of other parents, support groups, religious organizations, friends and family members, community groups, school staff, and our doctors and medical professionals, will help you to meet your social needs as well as manage your schedule. 

Do not be afraid to ask for help. Do not be afraid to delegate or trade responsibilities with others. Take time to seek out groups, organizations, resources, and yes, friendships. This community is your village and it “takes a village” to raise a child, especially a child that has more specific care needs that can be overwhelming. 

Arranging a sitter once a week so that you can have a cup of coffee with a friend can do wonders to maintain your sense of individuality.  

It is so easy to see yourself only in the parental role, but you are also a daughter, a sister, a friend, and an individual. Finding some time to be this other person with whom you have lost touch can make you feel more like a human and less like a servant to the needs of others. It is restorative and can even be fun.  

In conclusion, your health and wellness matters. Just get started and make improvements where you can. 

Implementing even a few of these strategies can make you feel so much better, but the ultimate reality is that your child will know a healthier you. It is a great gift that you can give to them, but know that you also deserve to grow as a person. 

Take small steps. You can start by scheduling in some self-care activities. Look around your community for opportunities to socialize or opportunities to delegate and share responsibilities. And above all, give yourself permission to be your own person, even in the midst of your challenge.  

Team SafeSleep

Hi! We're a team of scientists, doctors, teachers, and coaches experienced in helping people with special needs. We hope you like our research and share it with others who might find it helpful too :)

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