Self Care for Parents of Children with Special Health Care Needs
By Tracie Hayward
Have you ever flown on an airplane, and heard the flight attendant say "In case of a decline in the cabin pressure, please put your mask on before assisting others."? Do you know why they say that? Because, as parents, we have a natural urge to help our children before we help ourselves! However, when you are the parent of a child with special health care needs, your role often extends beyond that of "just" a parent – we are often our child's nurse, therapist, teacher and counselor all rolled into one.
What will happen to your child if something were to happen to you? It's a scary thought but a necessary one, especially for parents whose child requires special care. If we as parents don't take care of ourselves, how can we expect to effectively care for our children? It's just as important to take care of our own health and well-being as much as we take care of our children's. The rate of depression, stress and other health-related issues in family caregivers tends to be higher than that of the general population. But where do you find the time and resources to give yourself a break? And, can you get past the notion that self care is selfish, and give yourself permission to take a break?
Finding the time and resources to take a break from caregiving can be challenging. Even more challenging can be finding someone you trust to care for your child in your absence. If you don't have friends or relatives nearby, try asking your child's teachers, therapists, or aides if they know anyone, or even if they might be interested. Try posting an ad at a local college seeking students who are interested in working with children with special health care needs as a career. I know a mom who made friends with other parents of children with special health care needs through a support group, and they started a co-op where they would watch each other's children to let the others get some free time. Even if you have no one who can care for your child other than yourself, you can carve a few minutes out of your day to take a break. You could wake a few minutes before your child each day for a cup of coffee or some meditation. After your child goes to sleep for the evening, take some time to develop an exercise routine. There are many free, online videos that you can access for guidance.
It is important to keep yourself physically and emotionally healthy so that you can be the best parent possible to your child. I've found that what works best for my emotional health is simply the act of talking to other parents who are in similar situations to mine. If you are interested in getting connected to other parents, consider reaching out to family organizations in your state. It's nice to know that there is always someone there who understands what I am going through and who can let me know that I'm not alone.
As caregivers, it's often hard to admit that we need help, or we may find that we have trouble asking for help. Asking for help is NOT a sign of weakness. It is not selfish to focus on your own needs and desires when you are a parent of a child with special health care needs – it's an important part of the job.