How to Take Care of Yourself While You Take Care of Others: A Guide for Special Needs Parents
It took over 17 years, but I finally got it. I guess I am nothing if not stubborn!
I took the long, painful path to learning the importance of taking care of myself. I’m here to save you the trouble. Trust me, the long road isn’t more beautiful in this case.
As the parent of a child with high needs, developmental delays, learning differences, disabilities, special needs…whatever you call it…I’d bet a million bucks that you put yourself last every single time.
It’s time to start making some changes and I am going to teach you the methods and tips I use to make it easy and doable in your stressful, busy life.
A Heavy Weight
I’ve been the mother of a child with special needs for almost 20 years. She’s an adult now…legally. But realistically her physical age is the only thing that makes her an adult.
My daughter needs support for everything from dressing to communicating. She is labeled as “severely multiply impaired” by her school system.
At home, we celebrate that she can walk, read and most importantly, that she can now communicate her needs and wants by pointing to words/pictures on a board. She has several diagnoses that make her level of abilities scattered and complicated.
One thing I learned years ago is that it does not matter what our kids’ diagnoses are or what their level of abilities are, we have more in common than not as we make our way on this journey of special parenting.
We have things in common that other parents do not have and cannot relate to.
We carry a tremendous amount of stress, grief, and guilt…and it is heavy.
It is heavy as we grieve the loss of a “normal” parenting journey. It is heavy as we carry the guilt of always wondering if our child’s shortcomings would be better if we had only done more. It is heavy as we muddle through the stress of all the extra – extra expenses, extra appointments, extra worry for them.
These are the things that weigh on us every day.
These are the things that we think of when we see each other out in public and give one another that knowing nod with a slight smile that says, “Hello fellow warrior, I see you.”
Understanding the Weight of It All
A few years ago, the weight of so much grief, guilt and stress took its toll on me and I hit the bottom of depression and the height of anxiety.
Through the process of healing so many wounds, I finally started to understand the true weight of all that I was carrying.
I started to realize the truth of needing to do more to counter-balance it all. I started to see how critical taking better care of myself was…and more importantly, I finally figured out how to do it. Because that was really the issue, knowing how.
Everyone talks about “self-care” and you always hear that you have to take care of yourself, but no one talks about what that means or how to actually do it when the needs of your child are great, immediate, and never ending.
Plus, I have two other children, two dogs and a marriage that need attention!
No one ever acknowledges the impossibility of that. I am here to acknowledge it. I am here to say that it feels unachievable to do “self-care” when you have a child with high needs that often cannot wait.
I am also here to tell you that although it feels impossible, it is not. I know the magic secret and I’m going to tell it to you.
What is “self-care”?
The reason self-care feels unachievable is because we do not really understand what it means.
My only vision of self-care was massages, vacations, and bubble baths. And those things aren't always attainable or realistic.
Over the years, the extraordinary knots in my back and increasing migraines forced me to get consistent, sometimes weekly massages. And I am fortunate to be able to take regular vacations…sometimes as a family, sometimes as a partial family, sometimes as a couple and sometimes by myself.
I knew that those things alone were so much more than many others can do, so how could THAT not be enough?!
I realized that when you have daily grief, ongoing high stress, and chronic guilt, periodic self-care will never be enough.
I learned that I had to start implementing daily acts of caring for myself if I wanted to counter-balance the daily struggles I lived with. I learned that “self-care” is truly small acts of self-love practiced multiple times a day.
This is the key to taking care of yourself while you take care of others. This is the only way to find balance as a parent of a child with special needs. This is the way to a more peaceful daily life.
How to Actually Do It
I’m going to focus on my top three tips for caregiver self-care, with the most important part being how to do it!
Because our lives are so unique and not understood by others, I know that helping you understand how putting one more thing in your day will be not only possible, but beneficial.
I have two important methods to making self-care successful.
Self-care Method 1: baby steps
Re-train your thinking to understand that it’s the little things throughout the day that make a difference.
And the more of those you can build up over time, the more balanced and calm you will feel.
Self-care Method 2: habit stacking
This means to add a small self-care activity right after something that you already do every day as a habit.
So, if you drink coffee every day, what can you add in while the coffee is brewing, or as you drink it? What if you journal while you make and drink your coffee each morning?
Make your current habit a triggering reminder to do the self-care activity. For example, when I was interviewing Kelly Winkler of Mindful Moments for Families and Schools for my podcast (episode to air in February 2021), she said that she takes three deep breaths as soon as she buckles her seat belt, before she starts the car. This helps her shed any anxiety she was carrying before she drives. Brilliant!
Top 3 Tips for Caregiver Self-Care
Now for my top three tips for caregiver self-care!
Self-care tip 1: take deep belly breaths throughout the day
If you are not familiar with belly breaths, then practice right now. Instead of bringing the air from a big inhale into your chest (your chest expands), bring the air into your belly, causing your belly to expand out big like Santa Claus. Inhale for the count of 3, hold it for the count of 4, and exhale for the count of 5.
Self-care tip 2: sit down for 5 minutes and do nothing
Start with once a day, then work to make it twice a day, every day.
When you sit down, tell yourself, "I am worth five minutes!" Sit down with your feet up.
The important part here is to not multi-task; do nothing else. This might be the hardest part for you, I know. But I want you to focus on relaxing each part of your body.
Set the timer on your phone so you give yourself the full five minutes.
This one takes a lot of mindset shifting; you must believe you are worth 5 minutes, and you have to convince yourself not to be busy with something and focus on relaxing your body.
It is not easy, but SO worth it and has a huge immediate impact on my stress level.
Self-care tip 3: be in or with nature as much as possible
There is just something about nature’s beauty and energy that is so healing.
Implementing this can be a little trickier than the other tips because everyone’s physical surroundings are so different. But here are a few suggestions for you to choose whatever works best for you.
You can go for a short walk every day and really take in your surroundings. This requires having a set time every day that works in your family’s schedule and is convenient.
An easier version of this is to make it a point for you to be the one who goes out to get the mail every day and to take your time doing it. And maybe over time, you can walk a little further each day or take a minute to stop, close your eyes and just listen to what’s out there – the birds, the traffic, the dogs.
Eat lunch outside if/when you can.
And if the only bit of nature you can have in your life is a houseplant, then spend 3 minutes every morning really looking at your plant and talking to it (I’m serious!).
Make It Happen!
Now you know that it is possible to take care of yourself when you have a child with special needs.
Remember that it is possible through baby steps and habit stacking. If you use these methods, you will be able to start building self-care into your everyday life and feel calmer and more peaceful when dealing with the chronic stress, grief and guilt that are part of our package.
Start with my top three tips, which are: 1) deep belly breaths, 2) sit down and relax your body, and 3) spend intentional time with nature.
If you start with any of these and continue to build them as habits in your day, you will start to feel calmer and more balanced.
And remember, you are a better parent when you are calmer and more balanced. So, taking care of yourself is not selfish at all! Do it for your child. They need you to be the best version of you!
Do you have any tried-and-true self-care routines? I’d love to hear from you if you implement any of my methods and tips. Please let me know what works for you!
For more on caring for yourself when you have a child with special needs, subscribe to my upcoming podcast and follow me on social media. Find me on Facebook @larakittsllc or on Instagram @lara.kitts. My podcast, Changing Your Dreams: Parenting a Child with Special Needs, is launching on January 25, 2021.