We’ve all heard the announcement as we’re settling into our seats for takeoff: “If oxygen is required, put on your own mask before assisting others.” Logically, this makes sense, but emotionally, it’s difficult to stomach the idea of taking care of yourself at the possible expense of others. As parents, we all experience the same mental tug-of-war, which can be exacerbated by well-meaning but guilt-inducing messages from family, friends, professionals, and the media. It can feel as if you need special permission to take time for yourself!
Parents of children with special needs may feel this pressure especially intensely given their additional commitments and expectations of their time and efforts. However, parental self-care is not about neglecting your child’s needs. For all parents, but particularly those of children with special needs, taking care of yourself can actually make you a better parent. When you tend to yourself, you have more emotional, physical, and psychological stamina for your child’s everyday care and the unexpected or crisis situations that inevitably arise.
But what IS self-care? Does it require unlimited time, money, and freedom? Luckily, it doesn’t. Self-care includes all of the things you do for yourself to keep yourself healthy physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. Examples of self-care include:
Physical: Eating healthy food regularly; fitting in exercise; getting preventive and medical care; getting enough sleep; turning off or putting away electronic devices (TV, phone, tablet) for portions of the day and at bedtime.
Emotional: Expressing your emotions to a supportive person, not taking on too much; making time to connect with your spouse or partner.
Social: Keeping in touch with family or friends (this could be electronic, by phone, or in person); trying a new hobby.
Spiritual: Visiting a place of personal spirituality or worship; meditation; journaling.
This list may seem overwhelming, but the good news is that doing even one small thing for yourself will make a difference. Here are some ways to integrate self-care into your daily routine:
Prioritize: Your time is already scarce, so don’t feel guilty about saying “no” to, or postponing, additional commitments.
Commit to one non-negotiable self-care act: Schedule time into your daily/weekly routine for this activity and let your family know what the time is for. Your non-negotiable self-care does not have to take a lot of time or energy. It may mean getting up a few minutes earlier so you have time for a quiet cup of coffee, asking a caregiver to stay 15 extra minutes so you can take a walk around the block, or setting your phone to “do not disturb” at a specific time each evening.
Ask for or enlist help: Schedule a qualified sitter or ask a family member or friend familiar with your child’s needs to provide extra support one or more days per week. Set aside that time to connect with friends or schedule a date with your spouse or partner.
Consider special-needs respite: Every parent needs and deserves a break. Respite services are available for a few hours, a weekend, or longer, and provide a safe, nurturing environment for your child with specially-trained caregivers, while you can take some time for yourself to recharge. In many places, respite is available to qualified families at little or no cost.
When parents aren’t able to take care of themselves, it can make the job of parenting that much more stressful and can lead to exhaustion, illness, and resentment. By taking small steps toward caring for yourself, you’ll notice a change in how you feel and cope with the unique challenges of parenting.
Ered Massie, LCSW, ACSW, is a licensed clinical social worker and clinical assistant professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center. She specializes in family therapy, mood disorders, oppositional and defiant behavior in children and adolescents, and autism spectrum disorder. She also has extensive experience in client advocacy and navigating the mental health, developmental services, and educational systems.
At Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone, we understand that caring for infants, children, and teenagers is a special privilege. That’s why we partner with our young patients and their families to offer expert medical and surgical care. Our specialists treat children with conditions ranging from minor illnesses to complex, more serious issues at locations throughout the New York metropolitan area.