How Special Needs Parents Can Find Help to Manage Stress

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Raising children with special needs is stressful. Some situations are more stressful than others, but even a relatively mild learning disability can make daily life more complex. Fortunately, there are options for finding help and support.

In this article, you'll learn why it's stressful to raise a child with special needs. You'll also find tips and ideas for lessening stress by managing your own feelings, simplifying your life, and sharing the load.

Parent working at home on laptop with child with special needs

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Special Needs Parenting Is Stressful

Researchers have asked, "Is it more stressful to raise a child with special needs?" They have discovered that the answer is "yes."

Stress-related biomarkers are substances such as interleukin-6 and C-reactive protein that are elevated in the bloodstream when a person is under stress. For example, a study found these elevated among parents of children with special needs, as were psychological tests for stress.

Researchers also found that parents of children with special needs may be more prone than other parents to depression and physical illness. These issues don't disappear as children grow up because most special needs are lifelong issues.

Impact of Special Needs on Siblings

Children with special needs can have both negative and positive impacts on their siblings. They demand a great deal of time, energy, and (in many cases) money—and that means that siblings may miss out on time with parents as well as social and extracurricular activities.

On the other hand, in some cases, having a sibling with disabilities can have positive outcomes. Some siblings of children with special needs are more responsible and empathetic than their same-age peers, and many decide to go into careers that support children with special needs.

Parents do need to be aware of the extra time and resources they offer to their child with special needs. They must keep an eye open for any behavioral or emotional issues the sibling might experience. It can be helpful to involve other adults in the sibling's life to provide special attention and opportunities; often, a grandparent can step in to support the sibling when parents are unavailable.

Why Special Needs Parenting Is Stressful

Stress can come from various issues, depending on the parents' situation, the child's disability, and the particular demands on the parent. Some of the top sources of stress, according to the Child Mind Institute, include:

  • Feeling isolated from other parents and friends
  • Feeling overwhelmed by the number of therapies and other obligations that come with having a child with special needs
  • Feeling guilty or sad about a child's disability
  • Anxiety about a child's wellbeing and future
  • Coping with financial issues that can result from providing therapies or leaving work because of a child with special needs
  • Friction within the family can result from one parent focusing most of their time and energy on the child with special needs
  • Exhaustion that can occur when a parent is working, caring for their home, and also caring for a child with special needs
  • Sleeplessness that can result from anxiety

How to Manage and Reduce Stress Related to Special Needs Parenting

Feelings of isolation and guilt can make it very hard to manage stress. So, too, can lack of practical and emotional support. Complex schedules and meetings can become intellectually overwhelming. Fortunately, there are tools and resources available to help with all of these issues.

Recognizing and Addressing Grief and Guilt

Cristin Condon is a life coach who works with parents of children with special needs and is the mother of a child with Down syndrome. Condon explains, "Parents do go through a grieving process and may feel guilty about having those feelings."

Grief and guilt are normal feelings for parents of children with special needs, but they can increase anxiety and depression. It's important, she says, to "get good at recognizing and managing grief" because it may come up again and again over time.

Managing the Workload

Many parents of children with special needs are overwhelmed with the number of demands placed on their time and energy.

Says Condon: "In general, mothers seem to feel more overwhelmed than dads … all the invisible work that women do for the family becomes harder. The appointments, permission slips, becoming the keeper of the IEP, all these things tend to be taken care of by the mom, regardless of whether she works full time. Working together to manage the child’s needs can be huge."

Finding help to triage demands (deciding which should be addressed first), delegating some responsibilities, organizing paperwork, and creating a schedule can make a big positive difference.

Finding Respite Care

Often, parents are unaware of available services that can help lighten the load. In particular, most states offer funding and options for respite care. Respite care is a service that allows the parent and child to have separate time for part of a day, overnight, or several days. It can be done at home or out of the house.

The National Respite Care Network offers detailed information about how and where to locate help finding both in-home and out-of-home respite services. In some cases, just a night out can make a big difference in a parent's mental health.

Prioritizing Self-Care

When parents feel overwhelmed they may put their own needs last. This can lead to stress and depression. Over time, this can make the situation far worse than it needs to be.

Self-care is key for all caregivers, and, says Condon, "Most of what I do is give people permission to enjoy time off, or cry, or take a nap, or do fewer of the things they’re being told to do [by websites and social media]."

It's important to recognize that self-care is not "selfish" behavior. Often associated with bubble baths and spas, self-care can involve meeting basic needs such as eating healthy meals, getting enough sleep and exercise, and spending time with family and friends.

In the long run, these activities make it possible for parents to support their children and one another without becoming exhausted or overwhelmed.

Seeking Support

Special needs parents often feel isolated and may also have feelings of shame, guilt, anxiety, or depression. By processing these feelings, parents may be able to get past them—and start finding positive aspects of living with a child with special needs. There are several different options for support; a few include:

  • Local special needs parenting groups that meet in-person
  • Online special needs parenting groups
  • Organizations, such as The Arc, which provide parenting programs and opportunities to connect
  • Life coaches or cognitive therapists who work with parents one-on-one to provide support and techniques for reducing stress. Be sure to find a healthcare provider who understands special needs parenting.

It may take some time to find the best possible group or therapist, as every situation is unique. Give it time, and remember there may be no "perfect match" out there.

Connecting With Your Child

Many children with special needs are nonverbal or have severe speech and social delays. When this is the case, it can be hard for parents to make a connection. This can be extraordinarily difficult, as it's hard to know what your child needs, wants, or feels.

Condon, who worked for years as a speech therapist before becoming a life coach, often works with parents to develop strategies for communication. Even the most basic communication can change the way parents engage with their special needs children.

Finding the Joy

While there is no doubt that special needs parenting can be stressful, it can also be a uniquely joyful experience. Small triumphs can be far more exciting for special needs parents than for parents of typically developing children.

Children with special needs are often aware of and engaged with the world in unique ways that can be inspiring. When parents have the time and energy to see beyond the demands of the moment, they are often able to see the joy that special parenting can bring.

Summary

Parenting a child with special needs is stressful, and stress can cause many physical and emotional issues for parents. Fortunately, there are a number of ways that parents can relieve stress. Options include finding help and respite care, prioritizing self-care, and seeking support through parent groups and therapy.

A Word From Verywell

Special needs parenting isn't easy, and sometimes it can be overwhelming. If you're feeling overwhelmed and struggling to make it through each day, now is the time to seek help.

Start by checking in with your local school district or early intervention agency to find out what's available to families with special needs children. You may quickly find groups, services, and even counseling options to help you manage your time, energy, and emotions—so you can be there for your family and yourself.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the most stressful age to parent?

    Every parent's journey is different, and families experience stress at different times depending on health and financial issues. In general, however, the middle school years are usually the toughest. Parents expect more of their children, while children are eager to test their limits—and tweens have the physical and mental capacity to get into serious trouble.

    Parents may also feel increasingly isolated from their peers because middle school parents are less engaged at school than when their children were younger.

  • What impacts do special needs have on a family?

    Special needs can have a huge range of impacts on a family. In some cases, the impacts are mild because the special needs are mild or easily treatable. For example, some speech difficulties can be treated through speech therapy and may vanish by the time the child is in elementary school.

    In other cases, special needs can be overwhelmingly difficult because treatment is costly and time-consuming or because the special need causes behaviors that are dangerous to the child or others.

    Special needs can, but don't always, cause economic, physical, and emotional issues for siblings and parents. Families' responses to a special needs child vary greatly depending on factors such as income, emotional stability, and availability of supportive friends, extended family, and services.

  • How does a stressed-out parent affect a child?

    Studies show that when parents are stressed, their children are often stressed as well. This can lead to behavioral problems such as temper tantrums. It can also cause children to have emotional issues such as anxiety or depression. Behavioral and emotional problems can create social problems for children.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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