Many parents of a special needs child appear to parent with grace, balance, and energy. In addition, these parents seem remarkably stress-free and organized. How, in the face of all of these challenges and more, do they keep it together? What habits do they embrace that allow them to be a highly-effective parent for their special needs child?
Habit 1: They are proactive and advocate for their child and educate others. This parent becomes an expert about their child and their child’s needs. They conduct ongoing research; ask questions of therapists, doctors, specialists, and other professionals; and they keep an organized folder (digital and/or print) full of notes and important information. They create and add to their at-home special needs libraries. They are knowledgeable about the vernacular, treatments, and services. They are well-versed in provincial and federal laws that regulate services for their child.
Because of their knowledge, this parent is an effective educator of their child’s faculty and staff. They are powerful advocates for treatment, services, and support - in and outside of school.
Habit 2: They maintain a sense of ‘normalcy’within the family. An effective parent realizes that although everyone in the family is affected by their child’s disorder, they are not defined by it. This parent works to ensure that the siblings have wonderful, memorable childhoods and do not take on adult responsibilities. This parent encourages siblings to spend time with friends.
This parent is proactive about training other family members, friends, and sitters about how to care for their special needs child so that they can have time for themselves - individually and as a couple, if in a relationship, perhaps going out on weekly dates. This parent also spends time in the company of other adult friends.
Habit 3: They take care of themselves. This parent nurtures their own needs, and recognizes that doing so is important for themself as well as their children. An effective parent takes care of their physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs.
They eat nutritious food and don’t skip meals. They make sure their bodies are properly hydrated.
They schedule time for regular exercise, on their own or with their friends. They engage in activities that offer creative or intellectual enrichment.
Habit 4: They manage their stress. An effective parent is intentional about reducing stress and encouraging calm in their lives. Rebecca, a mom of a son who has a diagnosis of autism, says, “When in doubt, I choose grace, to forgive people for letting me down or for rejecting my son, for whatever reason.”
When a parent leads a life that is (for the most part) balanced, all family members, especially the children, win. Research by the Gottman Institute supports that children fare better emotionally, socially, and academically when parents manage their stress properly.
Habit 5: They make rest a priority. While any parent can tire in their parenting responsibilities, parenting a child with special needs can elevate fatigue to a whole different level. Sometimes a parent doesn’t realize the extent of their exhaustion. I didn’t. My child’s physical therapist pointed this out to me.
An effective parent realizes the importance of getting to bed as early as possible, or taking naps whenever possible to offset the sleep they lose due to their child’s irregular sleep patterns - up and down throughout the night, late to bed, and/or early to rise.
Habit 6: They surround themselves with energy-givers. People are either energy-zappers or energy-givers. An effective parent opts to spend time in the company of people who lift them up, make them feel confident, positive, and happy. They realize energy-givers help them to feel energized, inspired, and motivated. A parent of a special needs child appreciates and needs positive energy around them.
Habit 7: They have a support group. Parenting a child with special needs can be lonely; however, there is no need to be alone in the journey. An effective parent is a part of or has created a group of parents whose parenting journeys are similar to theirs. Christy, a single mother of a child with mental health issues shares, “I’ve found that meeting and sharing with people who have raised children with similar issues helps me. They understand what I deal with, without me having to explain it. Their support helps me to be calm when I’m with my child.”
Judy Miller, MA, savors time with her kids. She is a Certified Gottman Educator and the author of What To Expect From Your Adopted Tween; Writing to Heal Adoption Grief: Making Connections & Moving Forward; and For Families and Friends: Advice, Suggestions, and Honest Dialogue About How to Best Support Parents on Their Adoption Journey.
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