Parents raising kids with special needs must manage their stress

Stress is common in any family. But in a special needs family, it is alarmingly common. In fact, many parents suffer from post-traumatic stress and health problems secondary to stress. Parenting a child with special needs brings with it many additional challenges–compared to parenting a “neurotypical” child–such as behavioral problems, educational issues, additional financial pressures and the effect on siblings, to name a few. However, there is good news: Anyone can learn to better manage stress and when they do, the entire family benefits.


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  • acknowledge that stress is more common in families with a special needs child
  • identify your sources of stress
  • become an expert on your child’s condition
  • get healthy
  • develop a stress management toolkit

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  • judge yourself too harshly
  • belittle someone else’s stress
  • ignore your stress
  • neglect your health
  • over-identify yourself as a parent of a special needs child

[publishpress_authors_data]'s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do acknowledge that stress is more common in families with a special needs child

You are not the first parent–and you most certainly won’t be the last parent of a special needs child–to suffer from extreme chronic stress. It is an incredibly challenging situation to be in, and you most certainly didn’t ask for it. The additional stressors include:

  • Behavioral problems, such as your child having a tantrum in a store, can be very stressful.
  • Sleep problems are common in children with special needs and lead to cranky children. And if you are chronically sleep deprived, they can lead to exhaustion and a reduced ability to cope with stress.
  • Unexpected development. Many children go through periods when development is slow or unusual, and then seems to improve, only to worsen again.
  • Financial issues, due to the cost of doctor visits, therapies, education and sometimes legal costs needed to access services.
  • Acute health problems are more common in children with special needs–both physical and mental health problems.
  • Relationship issues within family due to increased stress or conflicts in opinion re treatment.
  • Loss or change of career. Many parents, most commonly mothers, must quit or change jobs, so they can be available to meet their child’s needs.
  • Siblings. Having a sibling with special needs has significant effects. Some siblings become stronger and more empathic, but others are resentful and develop their own behavioral problems in response.
  • Challenges with social skills and relationship difficulties can be a source of stress. Every parent wants their child to have successful relationships and friendships.

Do identify your sources of stress

Take a moment for honest self-reflection about your sources of stress and write them all down. This can be quite cathartic. When we were cave-people, our sources of stress came mainly from real-life threats to our survival. But today, our stress triggers come from two sources: external to us (events, our children, our situation) and internal (from our own brain and mind).

In parents of special needs children, there are undoubtedly more sources of external stress arising from your child’s complex situation. And over time, internal sources of stress in the shape of negative thinking, grief, anxiety and uncertainty pile up, all of which creates one big pile of stress.

Additional internal sources of stress include grieving; negative thoughts, such as “Why me?” and “Why my child?”; guilt and blame; uncertainty and worry about your child’s future; and embarrassment and fear that others will judge you.

Do become an expert on your child’s condition

Knowledge is power. Your child needs you to be a strong, empowered advocate for him or her. When you walk into a meeting with a doctor or a special education team, you need to be armed with accurate knowledge about your child and his/her condition.

Begin by keeping good records of every visit, letter and meeting. Find reputable sources of information on your child’s disability and learn as much as you can. Learn about treatment options, education protocols and what to expect. Get help from a support group, library, coach or other professional if you are struggling.

Do get healthy

A healthy body and brain reacts better to stress. Health is a balancing act between health liabilities and health assets. Reduce health liabilities, which are things that are bad for your health, including poor diet, inactivity, smoking, spending time with toxic people and avoiding medical care for health problems. Health assets should be increased with healthy diet, good hydration, positive thinking, good sleep AND having fun and nurturing yourself.

Do develop a stress management toolkit

A stress management toolkit is a pre-identified list of things that help you manage your stress. Just as stress is based on our own personal perspective, so is our stress management. Some people love massage, other people hate it. Some people find classical music relaxing, while others love nothing more than to chill to Nirvana. Tools include the following:

  • Lifestyle changes, such as exercise, listening to music or eating well.
  • Build positive relationships and consciously spend time with people who make you feel good.
  • Engage in activities that put you in a positive state. Have fun because you deserve it.
  • Journaling is like having a conversation with your own subconscious mind.
  • Neuroscience research shows that mindfulness practice is an extremely powerful tool in managing stress and can change the function of the brain. This includes diaphragmatic breathing, meditation, relaxation and prayer.
  • Spend time in the glory of nature.
  • Do what works for you.

[publishpress_authors_data]'s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not judge yourself too harshly

You are undoubtedly doing your best under difficult conditions. Being a parent of a special needs child is tough, really tough. It is important to set realistic expectations and small achievable goals. It is better to overachieve and set the bar higher next time than to underachieve and feel demoralized. Spending time with other parents of special needs children may help with this. While their situation is different and nobody can ever completely understand what you are going through, it is good to share disaster stories and hot tips.

Do not belittle someone else’s stress

Stress is incredibly personal. If your brain is stressed by something, that thing is stressful for you. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. Your thoughts are your reality. This is very important with regard to your child. The world may be a scary, unpredictable and overwhelming place for him or her. Things that 99 percent of the rest of the population don’t find stressful may stress your child. For example, a label on a t-shirt, a hand dryer in a public toilet or a long line in the grocery store.

Do not ignore your stress

Stress is bad for your physical and emotional health, your relationships, your parenting and your performance in all you do. Face your stress head on and do something about it.

Do not neglect your health

You may think you don’t have time to exercise, meditate or eat well, but you have to think of these health assets as an investment. Your children do not need you to be a downtrodden martyr, who is sick or crying in the bathroom. Rather, they need you to be happy, healthy and fulfilled. So you will be able to help them thrive.

Do not over-identify yourself as a parent of a special needs child

Changing your identity to someone with a problem is bad for you long term. You are still the same amazing person you were before you had your child and his/her problems began. Just like parents who are going through divorce, have a serious health problem themselves, are bereaved, or have financial or legal problems, you do have more on your plate.

Learn to congratulate yourself for the amazing job you do, reflect on what you have learned (adversity always teaches us lessons) and focus on making your life better in the future. This is where you have the power.


Parents of special needs children suffer increased levels of stress. For the sake of their own health and sanity, they need to learn to manage their stress. Taking time to nurture yourself as a parent of a special needs child is not selfish, it is essential. Stress is highly personal and so is stress management. So take control of your stress and do it soon. You and your family deserve to be living balanced, thriving lives.

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