Professional Tips: Self-care for parents

According to a University of Wisconsin study, parents of children with autism have stress levels comparable to combat veterans.

Between the hours of therapy appointments, unpredictable behaviors, demanding jobs, and uncertain future the stress compounds and takes a mental toll. Most parents focus on the child’s well being at the expense of their own. Sound familiar? Then this blog is for you!

We spoke to Jackie Chang, a Marriage & Family Therapist, who’s worked with families,  adults, adolescents, and children affected by autism, ADHD, anxiety, depressive disorders, and adjustment problems. According to Jackie, self-care for a parent is just as important as the focus on the child(ren).

Parents who don’t practice self-care end up experiencing burnout and compromising their own health.

This leads to depression, anxiety, and physical ailments over time. It’s important to feel your best.

So how does a parent know if they’re not taking care of themselves?

  • Decreased tolerance levels for tantrums
  • Being more reactive, for example yelling at kids more than usual.
  • The feeling of going from 0-60 very quickly
  • Changes in sleeping patterns, more or less than usual
  • Changes in diet. Over or under eating.
  • Losing interest in things you used to enjoy

People need to be mindful of how stress affects them. It’s important to compare and contrast behaviors. If you sense that your current behavior has red-flags, compared to when you were at your best, then it’s time to pump the brakes, check in with yourself, and re-evaluate what’s different.

  • “I don’t need help!”

Parents, especially moms, feel the need to do it all and do it all ourselves. Admitting that you need help is not an easy step, but taking that step is key to your well being. Parents have to be open to asking, and receiving, helps from each other, family, friends and not feel the need to do this all by themselves.

  • “Isn’t it normal to go through up and downs, especially since I’m just learning about the diagnosis?”

While it is completely natural to have mood swings in the early stages of your child’s diagnosis it never hurts to seek out help. If these feelings are persistent and affecting other parts of your life,  that’s a sign you may need to see a therapist.

  • “I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the diagnosis. Everything seems very uncertain and that’s not great!”

A lot of parents get stuck on the label and tend to focus on the “deficit” and the negatives rather than their child’s strengths. Multiple IEP and parent meetings only seem to reinforce these thoughts since they mostly revolve around “what your child can’t do”. In order to have a more balanced mindset, do your research. Understand what the diagnostics criteria are and be open minded about it. Reach out to other families or organizations that have a parent resource (eg. parents helping parents), monthly groups, autism speaks has resources. Meeting other parents going through the same experience will make it worth your while.

  • “My schedule is crazy, where do I even begin?”

Working parents and stay at home parents should use different tactics for get self-care.

Working parents lack of time and are constantly on the go.

  • The feeling is that there aren’t enough hours or gaps to insert anything. Jackie’s recommendation is to schedule self-care and keep the commitment.
  • Take turns with your partner, or ask family members for help, so you can get some help with your self-care routine. 

Stay at home parents often dedicate every single minute of their day to their child and end up isolating themselves and not prioritizing their needs.

  • They can extend their self care by with being with others. Seek other stay-at-home parents and join a group. Get other people to participate so you keep one another accountable. It’s a moment for you to be with other adults and engage in adult activities, because the monotony of routine can lead to depression. One way to do this is joining an app called Meetup.
  • “What advice do you have for couples parenting kid(s) on the spectrum?”

An ASD diagnosis adds stress to a marriage because its typical one parent dedicates themselves (the stressed out one) and the other person is the “side person”. While both parents need to divide the work, sometimes this is not possible because one parent may have to work. Coming together to delegate which parent will take on each task is very important, relieving stress on both parties when tasks are divided.

Take the time to be a couple and not just parents.

Enjoy activities together and don’t be embarrassed to ask friends and family for help, or hire a babysitter and carve out that alone time to enjoy each other. Remember that before you were parents, you were a couple. It is still important to cultivate that relationship, and show each other much-deserved attention.

  • “I’d like to get help, but can’t seem to find the right therapist for myself!”

The right therapist can be crucial for one’s well being. Do your research on the types of therapy available and find a therapist who will be a good fit for you. If you can’t make it into the therapist office,  certain providers may also offer online therapy. Psychology today is an excellent resource to help one find therapists in your area.

  • “What should I expect from therapy?”

Once you and your therapist agree on a schedule, it’s important to open up and process what you’re thinking and feeling. Once you’re in the office, it’s important to feel safe and comfortable so you can have an open exchange on any topic that feels like it is inhibiting you.

A common misconception is that people think that therapy is a quick fix and things will get better in a few weeks. In reality, therapy is a process.

Parents usually feel worse before they get better. It’s important to not give up and push through the rough patch, as this is usually when parents give up because it gets too intense. In reality, this is a sign of progress and it’s critical for parents to push through this as it teaches you about yourself and gives you tools to handle your new life.

  • “General advice for parents raising kid(s) on the spectrum”

Generalization is key. More progress and generalization opportunities can be made when parents are inclusive of friends and family. The ones who were more comfortable revealing their diagnosis and open to educating those around them end up receiving more help and see more progress in their children. This is because everyone pulls together as a community, and simple things like friends encouraging the child to maintain eye contact while having a conversation leads to more opportunities to practice their skills in different environments with different people.

We understand that it’s easier said than done. It’s a known fact the first few steps are often the hardest, and it’s been also proven that parents who stay with the course are more successful with their families and themselves! Parenting is hard and self-care is not selfish.

About

Jackie is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MA, LMFT, who has had over 10 years of experience with adults, adolescents, and children with behavioral and emotional problems. Areas of specialty are autism, ADHD, anxiety, depressive disorders, and adjustment problems. She believes that it’s already stressful to be a parent and it’s helpful to have someone guide you through the process so they can get a little more help in understanding the diagnosis and the process. We encourage you to reach out to her via her website!