Find ways to feel empowered while parenting a child with needs

As parents of kids with special needs, we have very unique challenges. The truth is our children need us more. And their care requires us to have extra stamina and a way to maintain our energy.

In a recent study, researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison gauged the impact that parenting a child on the autism spectrum can have on parents' stress levels.
For eight consecutive days, researchers followed a group of mothers, whose offspring were either adolescents or adults with autism. The researchers conducted daily interviews with each mother about her experiences and took their hormone levels mid-way through the eight days to assess their stress chemical balance. The results were shocking. Hormone levels were consistent with people experiencing chronic stress. The researchers compared the mothers’ blood work to that of soldiers in combat—and found their levels to be similar.

The ongoing events and responsibilities of parenting a special needs child can result in our bodies undergoing increased challenges that can have a compounding effect. This can eventually drain our ability to cope on a daily basis and can result in negatively affecting our health levels.

Consequently, we need to find a way to support ourselves to maintain our energy, health and happiness. It is vital to support oneself with conscious coping strategies and extra self-care. This article contains tried and true advice for parents.


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  • set realistic and joyful goals for you and your family
  • let go of the “shoulds”
  • be selfish, take time for you and create stimulating adventures
  • consciously release stress throughout your day
  • nurture your love life

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  • try to be perfect
  • compare your family life to others
  • hold on to toxic guilt and anger
  • isolate yourself
  • focus on the negatives

Siobhan Wilcox‘s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do set realistic and joyful goals for you and your family

Many parents feel as if they have been thrown overboard without a life jacket after receiving a child's diagnosis. You are grieving lost dreams of an idealistic family life, whose creation began back when you were a child. These are dreams of relaxing holidays abroad, community parties, college graduation, doting mother of the groom and grandkids.

But you are not alone. Try to create new dreams and goals, more aligned with your current life. This supports you feeling more relaxed, reduces any grief and increases personal power.

Do let go of the “shoulds”

In line with re-dreaming, often we hold beliefs of what we “should” or “must” be doing. If we actually examine the belief behind the should, it is usually an outdated, inherited belief. We absorb our beliefs from our upbringing–family, culture, community, media, religion, education and peers. However, many no longer serve us today.

To begin to shift this for yourself, start to take note of the shoulds you use on a daily basis. Notice whether they are serving you or adding to your anxiety/stress levels. Awareness is key to making positive changes that improve your coping skills.

Do be selfish, take time for you and create stimulating adventures

Often, parenting a special needs child comes with extra responsibility and increased routine. As adults, our brains need change and stimulation to support our well-being. Engaging in activities that you enjoy and finding exciting, or even new challenges, is healthy and fun.

Look for specials online. Try new activities that make you feel alive. This releases positive endorphins into your body. Get your partner and friends involved as well, and it can be even more rewarding. If you notice yourself often saying, “I will have my usual,” be sure to change it up.

Do consciously release stress throughout your day

Just as illness is often brought on by the accumulation of many little tensions, so can wellness be brought about by the practice of little relaxation activities throughout your day. One of the simplest ways to deal with stress is to interrupt the accumulation of it by taking breaks during the day to discharge tension.

It is important to have a number of easy techniques that you can use anywhere at anytime. Try to use them regularly, at least a few times a day. Once you are aware that you are holding tension, you can start to counterbalance it. Taking a relaxing slow breath, rolling your shoulders or yawning are a few that work great.

Do nurture your love life

Recent statistics around the rate of divorce when a child is on the autism spectrum show it to be as high as 80 percent. This is much higher than the U.S. average. Just as you must make time in your week for self-care and trying new activities for yourself, it is just as critical to allocate special time to nurture your love relationship. Even if it is impossible for you to get a babysitter, make time in your day when your kids are at school. Make a date morning if evenings are impossible.

Keep it fresh and have fun. At the beginning of each month, choose a couple of potential date days and make at least one work, such as a movie, walk on the beach, brunch, bookstore browse, yoga class, farmers market or massages. The important thing is to consciously support your intimate relationship by taking time and making time to allow your partnership to be strong.

Siobhan Wilcox‘s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not try to be perfect

Perfectionism seems like something to strive for. We are always being told to improve ourselves, to do better, to get As or to be a good girl/boy. But this can create exhaustion. Our special children can continually frustrate our ambitions for supposed perfection.

We begin to avoid taking help from others as they might not do the job as well as we can. We start to spend too much time on one project as it has to be perfect, while ignoring other parts of our life that can bring more balance. We begin to micro-control, so it can be perfect. We all want our house to look clean, our children to look presentable and our projects at work to get noticed. However, watch for the “perfectionism bug.” If you become aware that the p bug has bitten you, take a deep breath and go back to the goals you set for your family and yourself.

Is this perfectionistic nature supporting you in creating joy or moving you away from happiness you wish to achieve? If it is moving you away from joy, choose to reframe your situation. Let the dishes pile in the sink for a day and don’t iron your underwear. Instead, take the time to do something fun or relaxing–and notice how this feels in your day.

Do not compare your family life to others

Our special families are just that–special and unique. It can be stressful to hear others talk about their children’s’ successes in academics and sports, if this is not the reality at your home. If you start to notice that you are getting stressed listening to such conversations, begin to energetically disengage. You are not being rude, you are just maintaining your center and energy levels.

Do not hold on to toxic guilt and anger

Guilt and anger are important natural emotions. They serve us in helping to realize we are feeling disempowered and unsupported. Feeling them does not create a problem. What creates an issue is when we don’t release them appropriately. Unreleased guilt and anger become toxic and fester. They reduce our ability to cope rationally and increase our stress levels.

Letting go of emotions and situations that are not serving you can require outside support, such as a coach or counselor. However, before you get to that point, you might want to try these other techniques:

  • journal on a regular basis to reduce stress responses in the body and make you feel more supported
  • write letters to all involved. Express how upset you are and then tear them up
  • go and shout at the sea. The combined power of the surf and noise of the waves always seems to help release stuck, old emotions.
  • sit in your car in a quiet place and scream at the top of your lungs, beat up a pillow or talk to a close friend about how you feel.

Do not isolate yourself

Many parents feel isolated in their own communities, while surrounded by people. When we are under extra stress, our tendency is to retreat and become a hermit. Although we often need this time to nurture ourselves, be mindful of balance. Connection, laughter, hugs and friendship all support you–even if those around you have no idea of what you could possibly be going through on a daily basis.

Often as parents, we meet our close friends through our children. This can be a challenge if you don’t have a child that likes to play with others or if you are in a situation where it is difficult for them to find friends. Consciously create a community that supports you–even if it is not close to home. Attend workshops with like-minded people, take an evening class that inspires you, find support groups where other parents are dealing with similar challenges, or invite people over for a potluck or coffee morning. Choose to stay connected and feel inspired as often as you can.

Do not focus on the negatives

As you read through all of the above suggestions, you will notice that developing awareness of how you are feeling and how you are reacting is key.

Research has shown that if left unchecked, our thoughts are up to 70 percent negative. Psychologists call this negative dominance or negative self-talk. They also say we are not in charge of our first thought in a situation, as this is an automatic one. However, we have control after that. As soon as we develop the awareness of what we are thinking, we can counterbalance it with a more positive approach.

Noting how we are feeling during our day with a quick body scan will help you discover where you are focusing your thoughts. If we feel tension in the body, our thoughts also will be processing negatively as our mind, body and spirit are all interlinked.

One tool to begin supporting yourself is to consciously add in a gratitude practice to your day to help counterbalance your negative self-talk. It’s simple: You just list everything you are grateful for – all the small and big things – and notice how your body and mind relax. Use this throughout your day to support and empower yourself.


Awareness is key to developing coping strategies that work for you and your family–and help you thrive. Make space for yourself, breathe deeply, take time to relax, and remember to be gentle on yourself and how you speak to yourself. Love, laugh and connect. And most importantly, surround yourself with supportive individuals. Allow yourself to be grateful and inspired each day.

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