Parents of disabled children need to acknowledge stress

Becoming parents is often the most stressful thing any couple can go through. The new demands you face as parents can change the entire dynamic of your household and you may need a whole new set of coping strategies [3].

Stress is part of life – it can be a motivator, driving us forward, and giving us the push we need to make positive changes in our lives. But, when it gets overwhelming, it can hinder us and make us less effective. You can’t make stressful situations disappear, but you can learn to make them more manageable by changing the way you react to them. Acknowledging your stress is the first step towards this. 

As the parent of a disabled child, it’s likely that you may face higher levels of stress than other parents – daily tasks like bathing and dressing your child can be more stressful [1] [2]. 

It can be hard to detach yourself emotionally from whatever is going on with your child, particularly if they have a condition that requires constant management [3]. When your chosen coping methods haven’t worked and things don’t seem to be improving, your stress can start to feed itself and it might feel like things will never improve [4].

If you’ve been hiding from your stress, or hoping it will go away, it’s time to look it in the eye, acknowledge that it’s there, and let it know who’s boss. 

The value of acknowledging your stress 


As a parent, your instinct might be to set your stress aside and push forward to get everything done. It might feel like you don’t have time to acknowledge your stress, but doing so can allow you to take hold of the reins and give yourself more power to deal with it [3]. 

As you become more aware of stress, you become more able to deal with challenging situations. You may notice that your stress levels start to ease, making you a more effective parent, and a happier partner [4]. You can even start letting go of the stress caused by past incidents and building a route to recovery [3].

Keep a mood journal

Make a note of all the times you feel stressed. What happened, how did you feel, and what did you do about it? Approach this as a curious observer, and avoid making judgements. For the moment, you just want to gather a record so that you know what you’re dealing with. Avoiding judgement means you can be more honest with yourself about how you’re feeling.

Notice your reactions to stress

Do you grind your teeth, hunch your shoulders, or bite your nails? Are you drinking or smoking more than usual? Whatever you do as a reaction to stress, make a note of it, and how you felt afterwards. You may notice that your reaction to the stress doesn’t actually make it go away and, in some cases, can make it worse. The more you understand this, the better equipped you’ll be to start adjusting your coping strategies.

Describe the physical symptoms

Naming your feelings can make them feel less abstract and more like something you can deal with. As well as emotional words like ‘anxious’ or ‘miserable’, write down the physical feelings like ‘tight stomach’ or ‘jelly legs’. 

Do a health check

Take note of how you’re eating, sleeping, and exercising. Your physical and mental health are linked, so look out for patterns in the way your health habits affect your reactions to stressful situations.

Try some breathing exercises

If you’re finding it hard to acknowledge your stress, stop and take a deep, slow breath in through your nose. Release it gently through your mouth. Do this again. Close your eyes and focus on your breath for a few moments. Investing this time will be worth it for the time you win back by learning to deal with your stress.

Accept that there are some things you can’t change

Even though you can’t always change your circumstances, you can often change the way you respond to them. This starts with your internal, emotional response, which is what you’ve been learning about through your mood journal. Recognising your current responses can be enough to nudge you towards making a different response in future, such as stopping and taking a few calming breaths before continuing.

Tell someone else

Talking to someone can help you articulate your stress, and understand it better. If things have been difficult in your relationship, describing your stressful reactions to your partner can help them understand what you’re dealing with. Sit down with your partner, let them know you’ve been feeling stressed, and talk through the steps you’re taking to understand and conquer your stress.

Involve your partner

Be aware that your partner may also be under pressure, and encourage them to share their experiences with you too. If it feels appropriate, you can even keep a journal of your experiences together. In times when one of you is feeling stronger than the other, having an established process can make it easier to offer support.

Moving on


As you begin to develop a picture of your usual response to stress, you may notice patterns and links. Sometimes, just being aware of these is enough to start shifting them, but you may find it also helps to vary your routine and try to vary your responses. Start with small changes and notice what happens as you mix things up. Does replacing your second cup of coffee with a green tea make the morning feel less manic? Does stopping to breathe in the middle of hanging out the washing make it feel less like it’s taking the whole afternoon? Little things can make a big difference.

One of the most powerful steps you can take is to reach out to others and ask for help. This can include social support from your partner or other people close to you, and support from professionals like therapists and counsellors [3].

If you feel you could benefit from some extra help, even if only for a little while, it’s important to seek help. Speak to your GP, or a member of your child’s support team, and let them know you’re finding it hard to cope. Keep asking until you get the right support for you – as a wise parent once said, “you can’t pour from an empty cup… look after yourself as well!”

For more advice, including where you can go for support, visit Contacts advice page on coping with stress

References


[1] Estes, A., Munson, J., Dawson, G., Koehler, E., Zhou, X., & Abbott, R. (2009). Parenting stress and psychological functioning among mothers of preschool children with autism and developmental delay. Autism, 13(4), 375-387.

[2] Zablotsky, B., Bradshaw, C., P., & Stuart, E., A. (2013). The Association between Mental Health, Stress, and Coping Supports in Mothers of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43(6), 1380-1393.

[3] Dardas, L., & Ahmad, M. (2015). Coping Strategies as Mediators and Moderators between Stress and Quality of Life among Parents of Children with Autistic Disorder. Stress and Health, 31(1), 5-12.

[4] Hayes, S., A., & Watson, S., L. (2013). The Impact of Parenting Stress: A Meta-Analysis of Studies Comparing the Experience of Parenting Stress in Parents of Children with and without Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43(3), 629-642.

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