Parenting can be challenging. However, caregiving for children with special needs can be especially overwhelming, making self-care especially imperative. One of my roles is that of a clinical assessor, in which I visit families in various settings to determine the appropriate supportive services. During my clinical observations that span one to three hours and various settings, I am continually amazed with how much planning and tight scheduling is required to maintain the household and daily routine. I observed caregivers of children with special needs advocate for the best treatment and supportive services, all while requesting little for themselves. Many parents craft these airtight schedules around their children, considering every important need and resource except the one most vital to the children – the parents themselves. Through this ultimate sacrifice, these parents may ultimately be harming themselves, their relationships, and their effectiveness by neglecting their own self-care. These parents who do not plan breaks for themselves so often end up breaking down.
Various studies have shown that parents of children with special needs suffer from increased stress levels well above that of parents of children with more typical development. “The psychosocial, endocrine and immune consequences of caring for a child with autism or ADHD,” a 2011 study by Brian Lovell, Mark Moss, and Mark Wetherell, measured the increased levels of cortisol for caregivers of children with autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), revealing the potential for various health problems as it negatively impacts the immune system.
Stephen Gallagher, Anna Phillips, and Douglas Carroll also found deleterious health effects to such selfless caregivers in their 2010 study, “Parental stress is associated with poor sleep quality in parents caring for children with developmental disabilities.” For that reason, it is of major importance these parents recognize self-care as a priority for themselves and as a benefit to their family. A list of suggestions is detailed below. And while it may be impossible to incorporate everything on the list, making time for just a few might make all the difference:
-Get enough sleep
-Get regular exercise
-Socialize with other caregivers of individuals with special needs
-Spend time away
Starting with the first thing many adults are willing to sacrifice during a busy day, sleep is not always taken in the recommended 8-hour cycles. Still, setting a general time for some shuteye is important. Squeezing in a midday nap may help make up for lost sleep. As for staying hydrated, even if you are not able to regularly refill your water bottle you can boost your hydration through incorporating some aqua-rich foods, such as watermelons, strawberries, oranges, and cucumbers. On the subject of exercise, many parents have no problem staying active, being consistently on the go or driving their children to appointments. However, exercise is most effective when it is a type chosen for enjoyment, whether it be walking, yoga, meditation, dancing, swimming, gardening or any activity that sparks happiness. Perhaps even more effective than exercise at lifting you emotionally is talking to a friend, especially one who can relate. Expanding your social circle to include other caregivers of individuals with special needs may provide branches of emotional support to catch you when you fall. Caregivers of special needs children can encourage one another and serve as mentors for those new to special needs services. If engagement in a special needs support group is manageable, it will also help with spending an hour or two away from the business of the home, providing much needed respite. For more information regarding special needs services, including babysitting and support groups for caregivers of children with special needs, visit special needs resource websites such as ExceptionalServices4u.com or AutismSpeaks.org).