In my first article, I looked at how extra stress is part of the package with special needs families, and I also explored some ideas that might motivate us to try to keep that stress down to a reasonable level. Now, we look at some concrete steps to start that process.
TIPS FOR EASING OUR STRESS LEVELS…
We need to take care of our mental and spiritual health
Apart from dealing with normal day-to-day stress, we parents of children with special needs often have a lot of grieving happening in the background. It is not that we underestimate the potential of our child to achieve all sorts of wonderful things in life, in their own way, and to bring something of value to this world. We are just saddened by their struggles, and we are gradually forced to create a new picture of how their lives might look.
Often, this grieving process includes us letting go of ideas about our own lives or our ideals about family life. For me, one of the things I had to say good-bye to was the idea of great family meals around the table. Yes, we still do them, and on the odd occasion they are terrific, but a tiny fleck of green or hidden onion in the rissoles, or the introduction of a new food, can dramatically change the mood. Even keeping everyone sitting down for any length of time is a major challenge!
I also find myself grieving the fact that I can no longer always be the type of wife or friend, or sister or daughter that I would like to be, simply because I am exhausted. My roles in these other relationships have been partially eclipsed by my role as a mum. It is often the accumulation of little things that contribute to that growing frustration inside - there are times, for instance, when I have had a birthday card sitting beside my bed for three weeks before I have had the chance to write on it!
I am sure many of you have been on your own journey with this kind of grief and worse. It can really stretch you emotionally and at times it can feel lonely and overwhelming.
You may have a faith that keeps you grounded. If so, prayer and meditation are something to keep alive in your life – great antidotes to worry. The listening ear of a close friend or family member can also be a tonic for a weary heart.
At times, it may be very helpful to access the support of a professional counsellor. If you are a ‘Carer’, both you and your partner may well be able to access a number of counselling sessions for a very small cost (or for free if you cannot afford it). Your GP can also help you with a Mental Health Care Plan. Personally, I have also found online support groups to be very helpful. Just sharing your burdens with others who really know what you are going through can ease the emotional stress and turmoil you are feeling inside.
We need to consider Diet, Sleep and Exercise
At the very least, and as far as it is practically possible, we need to take time to prepare and eat nutritious meals, to have a good amount of sleep, and to exercise. As parents of special needs children, we may have to be very creative in the way we achieve these basic things to keep our nervous systems regulated, but we should start here.
We need to give up things that don’t really matter
Parents of kids with special needs have a lot more on their plate than most parents. We all need to give things up. This will be a personal decision, but for me, one thing to go was the ironing. I fold. I don’t iron, except on school photo days! Oh yes, and the house tends to be messy a lot of the time too. I only tidy it when I need to for my sanity's sake.
We need to allow others to love and care for our child with special needs, and our whole family!
It goes without saying that we cannot walk this journey alone.
Many of you will have the love and support of extended family. Some won’t. You may find that trusted people in your neighbourhood are willing to help you when they know your situation. Even things like having friends drop your other children home from school or other activities can really help your day to go more smoothly.
Your child with special needs may even be able to have some involvement in community clubs such as Scouts/Guides, or even sports. Church can also provide a caring community. I have found that being part of a community has made a huge difference to our family life and stress levels.
We need to have a financial plan in place
Our finances are often an area that we ignore because we don’t have the headspace or the energy to tackle them. It all just seems too hard. But this in itself can create more stress because we worry about how we are going to pay for ongoing therapy, special equipment, schooling and so on. A financial planner who understands families with special needs can help you to free up money for therapy and other needs in the short term, and also to move forward with good control of your spending and saving habits in order to achieve long-term goals. He/she can then help you to prepare for your child’s future. It is all part of regaining that sense of control.
We need to set aside time and money for date nights and respite
Ensure that your budget allows for date nights, babysitting and some kind of respite! As I established in my first article, taking time out for ourselves is part of reducing our stress and loving our family. It can help break the vicious cycle of stress on stress.
We must never forget to take time out to do the things we love!
In the early days after a diagnosis, few of us (and I hope I don’t offend by saying that this especially applies to mums) are very good at self-care. But eventually, we have to put back something for ourselves into our lives, because living any other way is not sustainable! So, start small, and try to do something you love once a week, even if it is only for half an hour.
In closing, I wish I could say that I was successfully managing my stress using these strategies, as I raise a child with special needs. I have successes, and I have failures. It isn’t an easy walk. I take one day at a time. Let me just say that tomorrow morning, I will take time to say my prayers, and I will mindfully drink my coffee, and enjoy that one moment in time, so that I will at least still remember it an hour later!
Contributed by Erika O'Brien, guest blogger