Parents Caring for Special Kids Should Take Special Care of Themselves

By Kameena S. Ballard-Dawkins

Taking time to chat with a friend can be an important part of self-care.

You need to make the gluten-free, casein-free lunches for your kids’ nut-free campus and get your pet to the vet. You really should reply to those emails from last week and finish the paperwork to approve your son’s speech therapy before you take his sister to gymnastics class. Did you even remember to tell your husband to get dinner?

The demands of family life make it hard to juggle everything and still have time left for ourselves – especially for parents of children with disabilities. But self-care for special parents is not a luxury. Taking care of yourself has to be a priority if you want to provide the best care for your child.

Faced with this suggestion, some parents may become anxious about how to find the time for themselves without the guilt of not being seen as constantly “on top of things.” I’ve been guilty of this many times as the single mother of a 15-year-old daughter on the autism spectrum. Here are some steps we all can take to take better care of ourselves.

Get more rest. Experts suggest a full eight hours a night is best for our health. For special parents, however, children’s sleep issues may be keeping this from happening. I can definitely relate to this. If this is also your family, try building a sleep training program through Occupational Therapy, ABA or other therapy and intervention services with your child’s care team. Consult a medical professional, who might be able to recommend supplements that will help.

Eat better. Making meal preparation part of your routine and eating healthy snacks and meals throughout the day can help you get all of the nutrients you need to stay healthy. If possible, get your child involved in helping you make their healthy lunches and meals. They will enjoy having more control of their food choices and you will have less to do.

Keep a list of things you want to do for yourself, so you’re focused when you get a break.

Manage your time. Create a structured environment with an open and visible calendar, so that you and others can see what your plans are. Spending just a few clear moments on this list each day will help you to communicate during busy times. The added organization will make it easier to see when you have time for self-care time and relaxation.

Get help. Don’t be shy about asking! Make a list that includes family members, neighbors, friends and your community with a note of each of their talents and strengths. When you need a break, check your list to see who might be able to pitch in and spend some time with the kids. I always include my daughter and my nephew (who is also on the spectrum) in the decision making, allowing them to choose things they’d like to do while I use that spare time to take a breath and plan which book I’d like to read later.

Try respite care. This offers a regular, planned break for special parents and has been shown to help sustain family caregiver health and well being and even save marriages. Be consistent in scheduling respite care and make notes ahead of time of self-care actions you can take while your child is in respite care. That way, you won’t waste those precious respite-care minutes trying to decide what you’ll do. Things to consider include meditation, prayer and religious practices, journaling, creative writing, art, poetry and music. I love them all!

Join a support group. Explore your own counseling and therapy options including a parent support group with others who understand and empathize with the life challenges that often come with a child with special needs.

Kameena S. Ballard-Dawkins

Take a class. Attending classes can empower you to create more opportunities to provide even better care for yourself. Taking cooking and nutritional classes, for instance, might provide new strategies for feeding picky eaters at home, and might also open up your social circle. You’ll meet others who share your interest – even those outside the special-needs community.

Not all of these self-care strategies will be a fit for every parent, but I hope some of them inspire you. Finding a healthy balance for yourself will help you to provide the best possible care for your family. So, even with all that you have to do, take great care of you.

Kameena S. Ballard-Dawkins is the mother of a  15-year-old daughter with ASD, and also provides  support for her identical twin sister’s  7-year-old son with autism. She is an  active parent partner to Autism Speaks and the Autism Speaks-Autism Treatment Network/AIR-P site at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. 

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