Parenting any child comes with challenges; parenting a child with special needs amplifies them. Based on her own experience raising three children with developmental delays, Mighty Mommy offers six tips for managing the stress and keeping your sanity.
Being a parent is both a privilege and an incredible responsibility. When our children are newborns, we care for all of their basic needs. As they grow, we watch them reach milestones like learning to walk, talk, read, problem-solve, and interact with the outside world. It's a monumental undertaking.
There are countless days when being a parent is incredible. There are also endless times when it's exhausting and straight-up difficult. It still blows my mind that I've been raising eight precious human beings for over 25 years, including three with significant developmental delays. And although those delays posed parenting challenges, navigating through them was also the most gratifying time of my life.
There are countless days when being a parent is incredible. There are also endless times when it's exhausting and straight-up difficult.
With the right mindset and stress relief tools in place, parenting a child with special needs can be fulfilling and just a little less energy-draining.
How to refer to a child with special needs
Before I offer you some sanity-saving tips, here's a word on the language we use to talk about children with special needs, which can be a sensitive topic for parents.
Merriam-Webster defines "special needs" as:
Any of various difficulties (such as a physical, emotional, behavioral, or learning disability or impairment) that causes an individual to require additional or specialized services or accommodations (such as in education or recreation).
For the two decades I raised my children who were developmentally-delayed, it was common to hear them referred to as "special needs children." Today, we know that a child's condition doesn't define them, and we've changed our language to reflect that. We say our precious little one is "a child with special needs" rather than a "special needs child."
Of course, being understanding when people don't know how to refer to your child is also important. A friend of mine—who is the school psychologist at our elementary school and also the parent of a child who recently died of Rett's Syndrome—has great advice on this topic:
It doesn't matter what term you use as long as you use it with love and compassion. I've never taken offense to anyone who cares! And most people do [care].
6 tips for parenting a child with special needs
Here are six sanity-savers and strategies to make your day-to-day life more manageable as you love and support your child.
Make self-care a top priority
When you're the parent of a child who has significant challenges, it's crucial to create time in your life to care for your personal needs. The Child Mind Institute explains that parents may be headed toward caregiver burnout if they don't care for themselves. Their article Why Self-Care Is Essential to Parenting says:
The consequences of chronic stress related to raising kids who have intense needs are real. Studies show that parents of children with developmental, psychiatric or learning disorders are far more likely than others to experience:
- Marital problems
Of course, this is easier said than done.
Your schedule is chock-full of appointments with therapists and specialists. Your child requires extra attention throughout the day, which doesn't leave you time to keep up with the laundry and dishes, never mind soaking in a hot bubble bath for a bit of respite.
At the beginning of my journey with my three kids who were severely language-delayed, I felt like I wore a red cape all day long.
I remember the drill well. At the beginning of my journey with my three kids who were severely language-delayed, I felt like I wore a red cape all day long. I didn't stop to eat, shower regularly, or even sleep properly. Then I got sick with a whopping case of pneumonia that landed me in bed for two weeks. It was then that I realized that life could go on without me managing every aspect of the daily grind. I learned quickly that taking care of my own physical and mental health was essential if I was going to help my family thrive.
I share some strategies for finding time for yourself in 5 Ways That 'Selfish Parenting' Can Benefit Your Family. My favorite way to make extra time for clearing my headspace and getting excited about each day is getting up earlier than everyone else in the house. Whatever extra time you make, be sure you devote it solely to yourself. Sip tea, soak in a hot bath, curl up with a book ... but don't let yourself be tempted to fold laundry or put away dishes. Protect your "me time!"
Cultivate a positive mindset
Parents who are raising children with challenging needs require a positive outlook more than ever. I love this definition of positivity explained by Kendra Cherry in Understanding the Psychology of Positive Thinking:
Positive thinking does not necessarily mean avoiding or ignoring the bad things; instead, it involves making the most of the potentially bad situations, trying to see the best in other people, and viewing yourself and your abilities in a positive light.
Practice putting positivity into your daily life. Here are three easy ways to get started:
- Practice gratitude. Keep a daily gratitude journal or begin your day by verbally saying three things you are grateful for in your life.
- Practice positive self-talk. When you catch yourself saying something negative, dismiss it immediately and replace it with something positive.
- Read positive and inspirational materials. Spend time each day reading something that encourages you to feel inspired and uplifted.
Stay connected to family and friends
Don't be afraid to share the news of your child's diagnosis. The support from a close circle of family and friends is essential for parents of children with a disability.
I didn't share our children's delays with my close network because I felt I could manage the load alone. Eventually, I opened up about our challenges and was embraced with overwhelming love and support. I was sorry I waited so long!
Once I stopped isolating myself, I met one of my closest friends through our resource department at school. We had kids with similar disabilities and we were able to lean on one another through good times and bad. Best of all, we were able to celebrate our kids' milestone victories together. Twenty years later, we still have a close bond.
Create schedules and routines
One of my favorite words in my parenting vocabulary (right after "I love you") is "routines"! My routines are one reason I was able to raise eight kids so close in age. If not for these sacred rituals, I'm sure someone would have found me crying in a hidden corner in my house.
I believe routines are vital in creating a calm, productive, and less stressful home environment. With our numerous therapy appointments, visits by in-home specialists each day, and caring for the rest of my family and household responsibilities, our routines were crucial.
If not for these sacred rituals, I'm sure someone would have found me crying in a hidden corner in my house.
Children naturally crave boundaries and schedules, but many children with special needs need them even more so. Before my three young children had the language to express themselves, they relied on our schedules and routines to help them know what to expect. Because we were consistent, they soon began to thrive in our everyday activities.
Routines aren't born overnight. When formulating the groundwork for a new family routine, you need to think small to make your new lifestyle something manageable and not overwhelming. Focus on establishing a single straightforward routine first and then grow more from there.
Declutter and organize your environment
We had an in-home therapy program for our three language-delayed kids. For nearly three years, this entailed having two or more speech and occupational therapists in our home five to seven days per week. That meant that most days I couldn't stroll through the house in my bathrobe or be the least bit indiscrete because we always had people from outside our family circle in our midst. (Releasing that pent-up burp was definitely out!)
Although these wonderful specialists soon became like family members, I had to maintain some sense of decorum while they were guests in my home. The only way I was able to stay sane was to purge and declutter regularly. And it was actually quite therapeutic!
My favorite decluttering plan is the KonMarie method by Marie Kondo. Her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, explains how to use a category-based approach. Her philosophy of only keeping things that "spark real joy" is a fantastic concept. Simplifying your everyday surroundings will add more joy and less chaos to your life.
Make time for nature
My last tip is the one that was life-changing for me. A parent I met through a monthly playgroup, the mother of a child with cerebral palsy, suggested connecting with nature as often as possible. Getting outside and breathing in fresh air or sitting in your backyard listening to the trees rustling in the woods is good for the body and spirit.
As a society that spends so much time indoors and connected to electronics, many of us miss everyday opportunities to clear our minds with a gift readily available—Mother Nature. The article How Nature Can Make You Kinder, Happier, and More Creative cited several studies that provide evidence that being in natural spaces—or even just looking out of a window onto a natural scene—somehow soothes us and relieves stress.
As I mentioned in my first tip about self-care, I try and take advantage of waking before the rest of my family. Several mornings each week I use this time to take power walks near the bay. The days I begin with these inspired walks are the days I feel I can conquer almost anything!