Is Parenting Stressful? There’s Help!
Stressed out? Feeling overwhelmed by ongoing therapies, the latest Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting, or just trying to get your kid to eat something (anything) besides chicken nuggets? Studies show that parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience more stress than those of typically developing children or even those with other developmental disabilities.
High levels of parental stress are of great concern, as they are associated with damaging effects, such as depression, marital difficulties, physical health problems, less effective parenting, and increased problematic child behaviors.
So what can you do to reduce your stress levels without feeling like you are creating more work for yourself? While the temptation may be to reach for a glass of wine or another cookie (which we all need once in a while), these are short-term fixes and may actually create more problems down the line.
Here are five ideas you can implement RIGHT NOW to set things in motion in order to reduce stress for the long haul, so you can enjoy your life and your child.
Get respite care
We love our children, but there is nothing better than a break to recharge and reduce stress. A parent recently told me she had her first day off in five years. Sadly, this is surprisingly common. When was the last time you took a real break? Parents suggest that having even a couple of hours off has recharged them and even made them more patient with their children! Have a babysitter or family member who can give you a break once a week? No? Many social services offer free or reduced cost respite care for family members with children on the autism spectrum. You can also try babysitting services, such as Care.com, which offers background-checked providers with experience in special needs. I know that trusting another person with your child can be hard (or trusting your child with another person, for that matter). Another option is to tag team with a partner or spouse. I know it’s hard to make time. Doing this one thing will help you and all of your relationships.
Find your people
You are not alone. There is so much you can get from connecting with other parents who are walking in your shoes. Does your community have an online support page (Facebook, perhaps)? Maybe you can find an autism parent support group that meets around town once in a while. Or, just strike up a conversation with another parent in the waiting room of one of your child’s many therapies. There is no better resource for gaining support, sharing ideas, and feeling understood than other parents who are on the same journey. If your community doesn’t have these supports in place yet, create one! Libraries and coffee shops are great gathering spots (as are restaurants, parks and, on occasion, bars.) Word to the wise: keep the “gluten” and “vaccine” talk off the table for group meetings – save those hot-button conversations for private talks. Regardless of your perspective on treatment, it’s wonderful to be with other parents who just get it.
Find your services
While most places are struggling to provide adequate services to their growing ASD community, there are still lots of ways to get outside support. Many parents don’t realize what is available to them. Contact the social service agency for your community and ask them what services your kid/family can receive. Look at Parks and Recreation departments for adaptive programs. Check out your YMCA or Easter Seals. Autism is expensive and certainly takes a village, so discover what the IDEA and ADA entitle you to. Talk to other parents in the area to find out what they are doing. None of this has to be done today, but knowing that getting the help your child needs is a great stress reducer. And, if you feel like he/she is not getting the services needed, contact your disability protection and advocacy agency (every state has one) to speak with someone about your rights. This is a free service that can answer challenging questions. Oh, and did I mention parents? They are fabulous for helping you weed through the services in your area.
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Give yourself a mental break
You are a loving and remarkable parent. You are enough. Everything is going to be okay. Repeat. Sometimes we feel like we have to do everything we can (and can’t) to help our children. But here’s a little secret… things can and will get better/easier/more manageable. Sure, you are going to face challenges, and you will worry about your child (for eternity), but your being there (healthy and happy) is one of the most important things you can do for everyone’s well being. Your child will not fail because he/she misses an OT appointment. It’s really okay if your child only eats chicken nuggets for a year. One day your child will go to sleep on his/her own. You are a loving and remarkable parent. You are enough. Everything is going to be okay.
Do something to make yourself feel better
Yes, I could tell you the evidence that eating well, exercise and sleep are proven stress relievers. But on those days that everything seems to be too much, you need something RIGHT NOW. Watch a funny TV show, take your dog on a walk, call a friend, bake something, or just take a nap. Extreme self-care is your friend. Make sure you carve out time EVERY DAY to do something you like. Autism is a marathon, not a sprint. Sometimes you have to walk; sometimes you’ll keep pace. But taking time to stop and refuel your spirit will keep you in the race for the long haul.
Emily Daniels, MSW, RP, MEd, is a psychotherapist and social worker in private practice in Fort Collins, CO who supports families with children with disabilities. Emily runs groups for young people on the spectrum and provides individual, sibling, parent and partner counseling using a strengths-based approach. In addition, Emily is the mother of a 10-year-old, super-enthusiastic boy on the autism spectrum.
This article was featured in Issue 82 – Finding Peace This Season