For anyone who has ever flown, the oxygen mask safety speech is a routine part of boarding. Frequently, it falls into the background as we adjust ourselves in preparation for several cramped hours in the sky. But, that speech carries a beautiful message regarding self-care.
The Oxygen Mask Rule is simple: if the cabin loses pressure, oxygen masks will fall from above. You are to place yours on yourself before trying to help others. For parents, this may seem rather preposterous! Of course we want to protect our children and feel an urge to forget our own mask in the process of securing theirs. This instinct reflects a common occurrence in the daily lives of many parents. The problem with breaking the Oxygen Mask Rule is that we increase the risk to not just our own health, but also for those relying on us to keep them safe.
If you break the Rule, you may get your child’s mask secured just as you run out of air. In such a scenario, you are at best leaving your child to take on the responsibility of maintaining his safety while working to take care of you. This unintentional handoff of responsibility is unfair and avoidable by following the Rule.
How do you apply the Oxygen Mask Rule in your daily life?
Here are five principles to consider:
1. Adjust Focus
Frequently, parents place their children in a lens of hyperfocus. For parents of a child affected by autism, this is increased due to the need to manage therapy and doctor appointments, Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings, social activities, support group attendance, etc. Try adjusting the lenses to bring the whole family into focus. Yes, as a parent you carry a responsibility to your child with special needs, but that responsibility extends to your partner, your other children, and most importantly, yourself. Include your child in focus with all of these pieces. If you take yourself out of focus, you may not even be aware when you need your oxygen mask. The same can be said of other members of your family.
2. Increase Self Awareness
Practice personal check-ins. Throughout the day, take a moment to close your eyes and ask, “Is my oxygen mask secure?” If not, what can you do to get it back in place? Just like the cabin losing pressure, we can begin to feel the effects of suffocating without our oxygen masks. Irritability, racing thoughts, tearfulness, forgetfulness, and distractibility are just a few signs that your mask needs attention. Techniques range from practicing one minute of mindful breathing to scheduling a wine and art class with friends, or taking time to receive your own therapy. Ultimately, you create your own oxygen mask (and you can absolutely have more than one!).
3. Be a Model
As you increase awareness, consider how your child practices self-care. How are you modeling healthy strategies of self-advocacy such as saying “no” or asking for a break? Children with autism often struggle with self-regulation, and it is imperative that they receive constant training to promote healthy personal and social development. This is really where you are able to help your child put on her own mask once you have learned to operate and adjust your own. Consider it the full-circle of self-care!
4. Set Boundaries
Speaking of modeling, one of the greatest gifts in self-advocacy you can teach a child is how to ask for space and time. How many times have you met with a teacher who wanted your child to do something besides yelling and hitting when he was upset? A major skill to develop is setting boundaries and recognizing limits. Incorporating sensory breaks, having access to fidget tools, and scheduling active tasks are included in many IEPs for kids at school. What strategies do you use when feeling overwhelmed and in need of a break? Try scheduling a 15-minute “Personal Break Time” each day as way to promote self-care and as a practice in respecting rules and setting boundaries at home. During these break times, set clear guidelines that each member of the family should rightfully expect not to be interrupted by anyone. While this means you won’t be able to shout “Don’t forget to take out the trash!,” it also means that you are teaching your child not to expect you to leave your own Personal Break Time because Netflix froze in the middle of Ninjago. Establishing boundaries is the foundation of respect and necessary for any healthy relationship.
5. Balanced Parenting, Not Perfect Parenting
As a parent, the first thing we must accept is that perfection is unattainable. You will never read every article on the latest cutting edge therapy, be able to apply each technique from the new expert’s book, or get your kid into all of the trending social skills opportunities. This, of course, is not due to lack of effort! Parents are human, and chasing the goal of perfect parenting is exhausting and dangerous, not just to your health but to the relationship you are focused so intently on protecting. Opportunities will be missed, appointments forgotten, and words shouted in anger. Every parent experiences these “failures,” and that is OK. In fact, it is perfectly normal. Modeling this concept for your child includes acknowledging the challenge, sharing how it made you feel, and exploring how you navigated the solutions and consequences.
Taking care of yourself provides you with the energy to take care of others models healthy living strategies for your child, promotes independence, and creates an atmosphere where loving relationships can flourish.
Chris Nealy earned both his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (BA ‘05, MSW ‘11) where his research focused on autism and family impacts. Currently, Chris provides office-based, nature-based, and in-home psychotherapeutic services for individuals, families, couples and groups affected by autism and/or ADHD. He is a hobbyist techie who embraces nature, spending much of his time with clients at Triple Play Farm where he practices Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy, often integrating video modeling, mobile apps for behavior tracking and journaling, and mindfulness education through interactive programs. He is co-owner of Halcyon Mental Health, PLLC located in Matthews on the outskirts of Charlotte, NC.
He is a fan of Harry Potter, mindfulness, zombies, videogames, and getting lost in the woods. In his free time, Chris enjoys reading Stephen King novels, backpacking, and getting his hands on new gadgets.
This article was featured in Issue 57 – Conquering A New Year