A few weekends ago, I heard a life coach named Dorit Atar talk about handling stress when dealing with a difficult situation, such as caring for and loving a child with special needs. Below is my interpretation of what she spoke about (with some personal nuggets thrown in) – I know her thoughts and advice hit home with me, and I’m guessing they will for most any parent.
Don’t stress over something you have no control over
We feel the most stress when faced with a situation in life that we weren’t prepared for or didn’t ever expect. Feelings of self doubt come hand in hand with this, and we often feel that we don’t have “what it takes.” I remember this all too well – the day after I found out about Teagan’s diagnosis, I lay in bed with her and cried (me, not her) for hours, and all I could think, was “how in the hell am I going to deal with this.” For weeks, I couldn’t imagine how I would ever be happy again. But as Dorit says, we all possess resiliency. And it’s true – because I am happy. Life is what you make of it.
Determine what you can control and what you can’t
We experience stress when demand outweighs our perceived resources (skills, knowledge, etc.) Aside from skills and knowledge, I’ll add people you know you can count on to that list of resources. Not having family near at a time like this is a real bummer. So rely on who you can – for us, it was the school district, a neurologist we really liked, and friends who lent a supportive ear. Ask questions until you at least feel like you know what steps to take in the short term.
Take care of yourself
This was a big point of Dorit’s – in fact, the title of her presentation was “Self Care.” In her words, self care is a NECESSITY, not an indulgence, and must be viewed as an essential aspect of daily life. Without caring for yourself, you will not be able to effectively care for others. So get that massage, or go have that drink with a friend – and no guilting yourself! “You need to refill your tank so that you can continue giving: serve others form the overflow, NOT from an empty vessel.” The benefits of being good to yourself are numerous – health, happiness, better relationships, confidence, and the ability to set an example for your children of how they should treat themselves. Don’t abandon activities you used to like – alter them to make them fit. Laugh. My mantra when I’m feeling down in the dumps: This is a life changer, not a life ruiner.
Keep yourself mentally in check
Speaking of guilt, a lot of this can come from the reaction you have when you find out your child’s situation isn’t one you ever would have expected. But guess what? It’s okay to be sad. It doesn’t mean you love your child any less. You aren’t super human, and will need to cope. Practice mindfulness and live in the moment as much as you can, without dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. A therapist or life-coach can be really helpful here.
Nurture your relationships
With your spouse, with your family, friends, etc. Invest in the relationships that make you happy, and kick to the curb any that don’t (PLEASE everyone, everywhere, do this). This goes for those involved in your child’s care as well – we’ve switched neurologists, speech therapists, and two occupational therapists because we weren’t satisfied with the work we were doing with them. Find the people who you feel are best for you and your family. Create healthy boundaries with people in your life – if people talk to you in a way you don’t like, there is nothing wrong with asking them to change that. The people who step up to support you may surprise you – life is busy, and those you may expect to always be around might not have time, but then someone you never would have dreamed of may be one of your most enthusiastic cheerleaders. When I first started this blog, I received supportive messages from people I hadn’t spoken to since I graduated high school (15 years ago now – YIKES!), and had people who I hadn’t even guessed would read offer me ideas for resources, which was amazing. Don’t be afraid to lean on your support system – as a very wise, very skinny coworker I used to have once told me, “People love to help.” And don’t forget to say thank you now and then.
Take care of yourself physically
Get your body moving – do yoga. Run. Dance. Whatever trips your trigger and gets your butt off the couch. In the immortal words of Elle Woods, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. ” Up your fruit and veggie intake, and don’t overindulge in fat, carbs or caffeine. Get proper rest and take time to RELAX.
Spiritual self care
This is a tough one for me, as I’ve been disgruntled with the man upstairs for some time now. But this isn’t necessarily religion, as much as it is an acceptance that there are certain things beyond your control. Meditate, or pray, or if it’s right for you, find comfort in a community church, synagogue, etc. And be thankful. Gratitude is the building block of happiness. As much as I hate the hand my girl has been dealt (supposedly this feeling will go away at some point), I am so thankful for her, and grateful to her for the joy she brings to my life. The love I have for her is indescribable, as I’m sure most parents understand. I am thankful for her progress. I am thankful for those who have helped us and been there for us along the way. These things are enough to make me happy. On the good days, that is all there is too it – and on the bad days, I will choose happy, and hopefully someday, it won’t be a necessary choice to make anymore.