5 Helpful Practices for Parents of Children With Special Needs

04/30/2014 12:44 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2014
Dan Dalton via Getty Images

By Alma Schneider for

As the parent of a child with special needs, I often replay the scene from those inflight safety videos where the grownup puts on her own oxygen mask before helping her child. On an airplane, taking care of ourselves first saves lives, because clearly, we won't be much help to anyone if we're passed out on the floor! When it comes to the day-to-day care of children with special needs, however, salvation may be more about toning down the stress so we can be more capable, competent and more effective advocates for our children. Easier said than done, though, right?

The Toll of Stress

If you're a parent of a child with issues -- or you have a friend who is -- you know that on most days, stress and anxiety are par for the course. Research suggests that anxiety has a way of jamming our signals, so we're less able to accomplish our goals, even if it's just getting everyone to bed at a reasonable hour. Remember test-taking back in school and how those jitters turned your mind to mush? You might have second-guessed your answers, skipped sections by accident or simply stared blankly at questions to which you knew the answers only hours earlier. How much better might you have performed if you'd just been calm and clear-headed?

The same is true about parenting a special needs child, multiplied exponentially. Taking care of ourselves, taking steps to be happier and making a conscious effort to steady ourselves can mean the difference between a full-on tantrum and a crisis well-managed.

Bring on the Calm

So, how do we bring more peace into our frazzled lives? Try these strategies, which should fit into even the most chaotic schedules:

1. Join or create a support group for like-minded parents. Having a child with issues can be very isolating. Few stress-relievers are as effective as hearing other people share their story or receiving support from someone who knows exactly what you're going through. Support groups can meet in someone's home, online or at a local house of worship, and if there aren't any groups in your area already, start one yourself! It is empowering to take control, and you'll help others in the process.

2. Try yoga or meditation. Simply being conscious of slowing down your breathing can make you healthier, calmer and more capable of seeing things clearly. The added benefit is that you'll also get fit, giving you more physical energy, which also helps with stress.

3. Take a pause. Make a concerted effort to simply pause for a few seconds before reacting to a stressful situation. Take a deep breath, count to five, or do both. It can help you avoid reacting impulsively and doing or saying things you'll regret. Instead, the pause gives you time to think of a more effective strategy -- or at least a more thoughtful response.

4. Say thank you. Grateful people tend to enjoy more positive emotions, vitality and optimism, and have lower levels of depression and stress, research shows. Next time you feel tense, prompt yourself to appreciate the things that are going well -- even if it's just sunny skies, a string of green lights when you're in a hurry or the fact that no one is screaming or whining right in this one blissful moment.

5. Do what you love. It's a luxury -- and a necessity! Step outside your caretaker role once in a while and do things you really enjoy. It may feel self-indulgent to see a movie, get a massage, take a guitar lesson or sign up for a cake decorating class, but nurturing yourself deepens the reserve of emotional energy and patience that you have for your family.

Just like with the oxygen mask, if we do not take care of our needs, we will not be at our best. Only when we are functioning well physically, emotionally and spiritually can we address the often constant needs of our children. We owe it to them to take care of ourselves. Excuse me now while I go get a pedicure!

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