From the Heart: Self Care for Parents of Children with Disabilities

In today’s blog, I’d like to get a little more personal, and write to you from the heart. As a mother of a child with autism, there were times in the past when I struggled to look after myself, and I didn’t even realise it at the time. Things were particularly challenging for me when my mother became very ill. After she passed away about two years ago, I started making positive changes and paid more attention to myself. I’m now no longer surviving, but thriving. I hope that by speaking up about the need for self care, I could help a fellow parent out there to find ways to care for themselves a little better. 

Parenting is no doubt challenging, and parenting a child with a neurodevelopmental disorder,  health challenges and/ or disabilities often brings about additional challenges. Sometimes, without us even realising it, our priorities and concerns can cause our self care to fall by the wayside. Let us remind ourselves that the drive to provide for, nurture, protect, and empower our child does not have to come at the cost of our own wellbeing.

Why it takes a toll

Sometimes, it’s hard to admit it, much less say it out loud. You don’t want to sound like you’re not grateful, or that you’re complaining. No one wants to feel judged. But I’ll go ahead and say it – it can be incredibly difficult and stressful to manage the behaviours, challenges, needs and supports of a child with a disability. It can put a strain on your resources, finances, mental health  and even relationships. It can also cause you to feel alienated from your close friends and family because you may feel like no one really understands what you’re going through. Sometimes, not even your partner.

On top of that, you have multiple concerns over your child. For example, you may wonder if they’ll learn to communicate and express their needs, or if they’ll get up to something that will get themselves hurt. Is the world going to be kind to them? Will they get better? Can they be independent someday? The list of worries go on and on. 

I know that for me, personally, there was a period when I had actually forgotten what it meant to just “relax,” because I was constantly on high alert. With so much on our minds, self care may seem self-indulgent. Without self care, however, the feelings we have, such as isolation, grief, anxiety and stress, can undoubtedly take a toll on our mental health, leading to caregiver burnout. 

Simple steps to self care

As adults, you’d think that we’d already know how to “look after ourselves.” But when you’re struggling, rather than thriving, even getting out of bed in the morning or having a good meal can be tough on some days. However, self care is possible, especially when we make a conscious effort and take small steps towards it, rather than big leaps. Here’s a list of the simple things that you can do to practice self care each day.

 1. Eat better

Don’t skip meals, learn about nutritious foods, and include them in your diet every day. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, a well-balanced diet supports a healthy immune system and helps with energy, mental clarity, physical health and mood stabilisation.

2. Exercise regularly

Aim to exercise at a moderate intensity for around 30 minutes, 3 days a week. According to the National Centre for Biotechnology Information, exercise reduces anxiety and depression, as well as improves mental health, self-esteem and cognitive function.

3. Get enough sleep every night

Most of us need 7 or more hours of sleep every night to recharge our brains and rest our bodies. According to the American Psychological Association, poor sleep not only leaves you exhausted, but it also makes it difficult for you to cope with stress, regulate emotions and maintain cognitive function. I’ve found that eating better and exercising really helps me to get better sleep, something that I had struggled with for years.

4. Stay hydrated

Experts recommend that we drink roughly 11 to 16 cups of water per day. Staying hydrated is essential, because according to the Harvard School of Public Health, it regulates body temperature, keeps joints lubricated, prevents infections, delivers nutrients to cells and keeps organs functioning properly, as well as improves sleep quality, cognition, and mood.

5. Take time to do things you like

When you’re always putting your child’s needs before your own, you can gradually forget to celebrate the things that make you “you”. It’s important to make a point to regularly do something that sparks joy in you, like taking a walk in a park, having dinner with a supportive friend, getting a massage, going to the gym, or taking classes to learn a new skill.

6. Meditate

With so much on your mind, it can be hard to shut off internal and external noises that may include intrusive thoughts and your inner saboteur. Meditating can help you practice slowing down, clearing your mind and being present in the moment. If you’re not sure where to start, search for Youtube videos or apps on guided meditation.

7. Take time away from your child/ children

The old saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child,” yet so many of us feel the pressure of “doing it all on your own.” You may even feel guilt about needing, or taking a break from your child or responsibilities. You may not have an available support system that can take over from you when needed. If this is the case, talk to your partner, family member and friends. Know that it is ok for you to reach out to them and ask for help, so that you can take a bit of time for yourself. Everyone around you can pitch in a little.

8. Revive your adult-only social life 

As a parent of a child with a disability, it can be hard for you to leave your child behind, even if it’s just for a few hours. But with planning and help from those around you, date nights and time with friends who care about you can be made possible. According to Stanford Medicine, social connections help us to prevent isolation, fight depression, have some fun and maintain our emotional health.   

9. Don’t be so hard on yourself

Parents, and in particular mothers, often face pressures from various sources, such as social media, parents, in-laws, relatives and other mothers. Coupled with the fact that we’re often our own biggest critics, this can often lead to feelings of inadequacy and self doubt. Know that it’s ok to feel overwhelmed. It’s ok if you don’t get everything right. It’s ok to lose it once in a while. Believe that you are not a bad parent. Believe that you are good enough.

10. Recognise stress

According to the Mayo Clinic, constant stress suppresses your immune system and puts you at risk of health issues like anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, muscle tension and pain, heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke, sleep problems, weight gain, memory and concentration impairment. It’s important for you to know the signs and symptoms of stress and learn ways to alleviate and manage it, not only for a better quality of life, but for a longer, healthier life.

Self care is not indulgent, but is a critical necessity. It helps you to replenish and maintain your energy, focus and positivity, so you can be more emotionally resilient and resourceful, as well as persevere. By making a conscious effort to look after yourself and your needs each day, you will also be able to be more present for your child and family.

This article was reviewed by Joanna Hutt, Director, Principal Physiotherapist and Sensory Practitioner of The Energy Source.

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