Attention special needs parents. I want to share with you two things you can do today to decrease your stress and worry.
But first, want to acknowledge that if you are like most of the parents I know raising a child with special needs, you are stressed and you are worried.
And you have good reason to be stressed. You have good reason to be worried.
So before we talk about skills and strategies and ways to manage the big challenges on our agendas let us first say that whatever you are thinking and feeling about the situation you find yourself it is likely extremely reasonable.
When our children struggle, we struggle. Often our children need us to be cheerleaders and advocates but we are also scared and anxious. We are worried about the future and we may be struggling in the present.
We are all in a tricky situation.
There is the undeniable reality that things are hard. This is especially true if you are in a transition with your child. For example, if you are trying to find them new services or a new educational setting or you are challenging an IEP. There is a lot of waiting involved and a lot of uncertainty.
Here is another thing: when you are raising a special needs child you do not have the luxury of pretending everything is going to be just fine. Often, in fact many different types of professionals outline in great detail all of the ways things are not fine.
Of course families of children with special needs face all of the typical stressors that all typical families face such as issues with work, money and juggling busy hectic schedules.
So it is tricky. These are children that need more of you but yet they are the source of a lot of stress and distress. They need us to be the calm foundation of the family (as all children do) but yet their particular needs and demands often create very strong emotional reactions for us as parents.
The thing is though, how you deal with your personal emotional reactions matters. How you are coping matters. It matters for you and it matters for your children.
Here are two of my best coping techniques. I do not just teach them and talk about them as a psychologist. I live them as the parent of a child with special needs.
1) Letting go of Catastrophic Thoughts
In cognitive behavioral therapy, imagining the worst possible scenario is known as catastrophic thinking. We all do this at times. But it can lead us into very difficult emotional terrain.
Because how we think is tied to how we feel it is very important to tease out our worries and fears. When we think in negative ways we stir up our sense of distress and doom. When this happens we may not always be able to be open to the possibilities or seeds of change in the present.
This is not to say you should you should not worry or that you should assume a good outcome when all the data points in the other direction.
Some fears and some worries are appropriate, motivating even. No parent should ever be told not to worry or that worry is irrational. This is especially true for parents of children with special needs. We specialize in worry.
But we can do without the thoughts and worries that lead to scary and irrational places.
Let us examine the thought that tends to create a lot of distress for me. Here it is: if we do not get my smart but severely dyslexic daughter placed in the exact right program for next year she will never learn to read and will have a life of failure.
When I start thinking this way I start to get very upset.
I start to calm down when I say this to myself: we are gathering all of our information and will make an educated decision that is the best possible decision at this time.
And even more importantly, even if our decision is not perfect (and what is perfect) it will move us forward and we will learn and grow. And we will rally and address any problems that come up. Even if the worst happens. And that is a big IF. We will deal with it. As we always do.
Here the trick is calming down the irrational thoughts, which then calms down the feelings. Change the thought. Change the feeling.
Separate the worries and fears that are useful and move you forward from the ones that immobilize you and overwhelm you.
It actually works.
Interrupt your litany of fears and worries. Hold them up to the light of day and see which ones are truly serving you and which ones are only fueling panic and distress.
2) Focus on the here and now or practice mindful parenting
Commit to a focus on the here and now. Living mindfully is a great way to cope with catastrophic thinking and anxiety in general because it focuses our attention on what is actually happening instead of what could happen.
Of course no one is mindful all of the time. No one. But committing yourself to trying it out on a regular basis can truly have a calming effect on everyone in the family.
We can do mindful parenting in many different ways. Bake a cake and focus on the cake. Play a game and focus on the game. The idea is to turn off, temporarily, the technology and other sources of stress and tune in to our children. Build a fort. Listen to a favorite song.
Expect that your thoughts will wander into the worry or into the fear or the future. Do not judge. This is normal and it happens to even to most experienced mindfulness experts. Just gently bring your attention back to whatever you are doing right now.
When we focus on what we are actually doing right now we take the power out of our worries for the future. We prioritize actual problems instead of imagined catastrophe. We live fully with our wonderful quirky children. We bring our whole selves to parenting. Of course in the end this is the best thing we can do for our children and for ourselves.
Allison Andrews PsyD is a psychologist committed to supporting stressed out families and couples, particularly the parents of children with special needs. To this work, she brings her training as a clinician as well as her experience as a mom to a quirky kid (and a neuro-typical kid) and her experience growing up with a sister with special needs.
Follow her on twitter at @AllisonPsyD