Raising a child with special needs places high demands on a parent’s mental faculties. Often, the intense level of attention required by a child with special needs can lead parents to neglect their own care. However, focusing all efforts on a child can do more harm than good. Parents can use mindfulness practices as helpful tools to address their own emotional needs and be better primed to attune to those of their children.
Parenting any child is a time- and effort-consuming endeavor that makes it difficult to fulfill one’s own needs. This is only more so the case for parents of children with lower than typical levels of self-sufficiency. Psych Central notes parents of children with special needs experience higher than average levels of stress and long-term health issues. Anecdotally, Liane Kupferberg Carter,a mother of two children with special needs has written about the difficulties she faced balancing life and chaotic family demands.
The mental health effects on parents of children with special needs, however, should not be brushed off as unavoidable consequences of a challenging family situation. Studies have shown that children pick up on the stress levels of their parents. Therefore, parents who ignore their own stress and anxiety are creating conditions that can worsen their children’s anxieties.
Additionally, children with special needs often function best under the care of a fully present parent. If parents don’t address their own mental health, they can become distracted and dissociated, which directly impacts their children’s ability to thrive.
Take, for example, children with ASD, who often have special interests – an intense focus on one topic of interest usually coupled with a disinterest in engaging with other subjects. Experts at the online master’s in speech-language pathology at NYU Steinhardt stress that mindful attention to the special interests of a child with ASD can turn what is often thought of as a distraction into a valuable learning tool.
If a child with ASD only wants to pay attention to train schedules, for instance, parents can tune in to that frequency and embed academic, interpersonal, and socialization lessons into a train-related context. If parents are consumed by their own stress and anxiety, they may overlook these valuable teaching moments for their children.
Embracing mindfulness to engage in the present is of course easier said than done, especially when dealing with the myriad of anxieties that come from parenting a child with special needs. Regardless, there are tactics you can embrace to help address your emotional needs as a parent and individual adult. Some turn to guided meditation apps, others to focused outdoor exercise.
Experts recommend embracing predictable routine and practicing bringing attention to daily activities during which you typically zone out. It is also helpful to seek the help of a professional therapist. A weekly appointment ensures you have regular time to center and address your needs without any competing stress or demands from family and friends.
Parents of children with special needs have spoken out about their efforts to achieve balance and emphasize that it is a learning process. They employ different tactics to ease their emotional load to be more present with their children. Seth Meyers, a psychologist and father of a son with special needs, discusses his own need to engage with friends who can emotionally support him.
Child Mind details the journey of Cynthia Braun, a mother of a child with special needs who learned about mindful parenting in a class taught by developmental pediatrician Dr. Mark Bertin. She embraced meditation and breathing exercises that helped her reorganize her family’s chaotic morning routine to start each day in a more calm environment. The same piece discusses how children benefit from parents who eschew perfectionism and strive for peacefulness.
Whatever your particular route to emotional balance, it’s vital to realize that the strategy of pushing aside your own needs as a parent under the guise of helping your child is far from beneficial. Address your own mental health so you can create a calm environment for your child that fosters present, connected interaction.