Raising a family blessed with a special needs child is uniquely overwhelming. Special needs families understand multitasking, joy, heartache, and stress in ways that transcend common understanding. Disruptions to any child’s routine can sometimes be difficult, but disruptions in the routines of special needs children can usher in weeks, if not months, of challenging behaviors, regression, and incredible amounts of stress.
Prioritizing our emotional well-being under this new COVID reality feels particularly important. Children are excellent observers. They tend to model their parents’ behaviors, including those related to managing stress. Parents who deal with stress in unhealthy ways may inadvertently risk passing those behaviors on to their children. Intentional parenting, on the other hand, can help parents model healthy coping behaviors that will contribute to their child’s overall self-confidence, sense of safety, and management of anxious/stress responses.
Investing in our emotional well-being is a worthwhile endeavor. Self-compassion involves giving ourselves the same kindness that we would offer to others. As special needs families, our unique superpower is empathy. We understand how difficult, how long the days can be. We understand the loneliness. We understand the grief. We also understand the joy and the beauty in those quiet moments when your baby finally responds to your efforts. We feel everything so deeply. We can exercise an incredible about of compassion when we see others on similar journeys. Our hearts knit almost instantly. Exercising self-compassion means reserving some of that empathic superpower for ourselves.
Our families deserve an intentional effort to stay healthy. Here are a few helpful ways that families can manage stress in this post-COVID era:
Stressors are different than stress itself. Stressors are situations that are experienced as a perceived threat. They activate the body’s stress response and we respond by either fighting, running, or hiding. Stressors are unique to every individual and family unit. The stress response that one member in our family can have to a particular stressor can impact the family as a whole if that individual family member’s stress response is an unhealthy one. For example, a dirty kitchen might be a stressor for one member of the family but not for others. If the family member affected by the stressor responds by fighting, then those in the immediate vicinity of that situation might experience the negative repercussions of that stress response. By managing our stressors (i.e., working together to keep a clean kitchen as in our example) families can mitigate unhealthy stress responses and lower the overall stress of the family. If you can name the stressor you can work as a team to change it.
Make a Plan.
Some stressors are within our control, others are not. The loss of a family’s main income, or the sudden injury or illness of a family member, for example, are life events that we can plan for, but little we can do in terms of prevention. When life stressors like these arise, it is important that we are prepared not only for our physical needs but also for our emotional needs. Our bodies naturally find ways to cope and we tend to gravitate to those things that have worked in the past. Making a coping plan means thinking through how we manage stress and ensuring that our bodies are reaching for healthy responses. For example, if our stress response is to turn to food (guilty party of one here), managing our portions and balancing between a good mix of healthy and more comforting foods can help us feel better long-term. Other healthy ways to cope with stress can include: creative or artistic activities, going for a walk outside (vitamin D from the sun is difficult to supplement, our bodies need time outside), listening to calming or inspirational music, meditation or yoga, and serving someone in your community (human connection can have a wonderful, calming effect). You can engage in these as a family to help the family unit as a whole cope with a sudden stressor. If we already have a healthy go-to plan in place, we are more likely to recover quickly from the perceived or real threat.
Change One Thing at a Time.
No need to swallow the entire elephant at once! Stress will always be part of our lives. Managing stress is a marathon, not a sprint. Focusing on improving one thing at a time will help us navigate this task in a healthy way. Working towards changing one thing at a time can also help us avoid burnout and will likely keep us more motivated. If we can successfully change one thing, we are more likely to approach more and more tasks with the same enthusiasm and success. Even if you choose something small to change, if you are consistent in your progress you are likely to see big, cumulative changes. Consistency will always be more powerful in the long run. Remember, progress is more important than perfection.
Focus on Connection.
If all else fails (or even when it does not), focus on connection. There are some days, weeks, perhaps even months that are simply too overwhelming to do anything well. When those heavy moments hit, engaging in activities that will bring you closer together as a family will be worth the investment. Our children need us to be okay in order to feel secure and they are more likely to remember the happy times playing a game or spending time as a family than the days when mom or dad’s to-do list was completed flawlessly. Stealing away quiet moments to connect with family members individually is another positive way to grow your family connection. If you are making mistakes along the way that just means you are trying. Our homes should be places of refuge and peace. Focusing on connections can contribute to building homes of respite.
Stress is a Constant—a Fact of Life.
We cannot eliminate stress completely, but we can manage it in healthy and productive ways. Our mental health is a continuum, sometimes we are in crisis other times we are excelling. The key is to manage our responses to life’s stressors, be prepared for when stress rises, and connect with the people in our lives that are most important.
By Nancy Y. Miramontes
Nancy Y. Miramontes, Ed.S., NCSP (she/her/hers), is a Kids Who Count Board Member. She is the Internship & Practicum Coordinator at Brigham Young University, and is an Assistant Clinical Professor —School Psychology, Counseling Psychology, and Special Education.