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Stress and the Special Needs Parent

July 18, 2012 | Beth Arky

Parents—especially mothers—are constantly bombarded by the latest "best" way to raise children. These range wildly from the strict, pushy Tiger Mom to the laissez-faire French Maman. Now comes a study reported on that parenting styles affect parents, too. The more "intense" your style of mothering, it seems, the greater your own risk of stress and depression.

The study, based on an online survey of 181 mothers with children age 5 and under, used several measures of "intensity," including whether you feel mothers are more "necessary and capable" than fathers, whether you feel it's your job to provide the most stimulating activities for your child, and whether your child's needs and wants should always come before your own. The study found several of these factors linked to lower life satisfaction and greater depression and stress. While parenting per se didn't put mothers at risk, "aspects of intensive mothering beliefs are detrimental to women's mental health."

It makes sense that moms who give their all to their children and lose sight of their own needs would eventually end up depressed, especially if their children—and spouses, potentially—come to take it for granted. Yet implicit in the study is the idea that these mothers have the option to lighten up on their intensity.

We can't help thinking of mothers caring for special needs kids, whether they have ADHD, autism, sensory processing issues, disruptive behavior, anxiety, or learning disabilities. I daresay many of these moms would be happy to relax a bit, but their children need intense parenting and constant attention. It's not optional.

These are often moms who've had to earn an unofficial PhD in their child's diagnosis, and whose job descriptions include being caregiver, case manager, and advocate. It can take tireless work to connect with the right doctors, teachers, therapists, online resources, and other moms fighting the same fight. They're wrestling with tough issues like medication and bullying, struggling to manage difficult behavior, find the right school, set up play dates, and find experienced sitters, often leaving a paying job to focus on their child's care. It's easy to see why special needs moms would be at risk for stress and depression. (There's a reason Sunday Stillwell named her popular autism blog Adventures in Extreme Parenthood.)  

With this in mind, autism mom blogger Alysia Krasnow Butler (Try Defying Gravity) launched something called the  Oxygen Mask Project. The name refers to the idea that if your plane is going down, you put on the oxygen mask first so you can help your child with hers. The site offers an important message: "It's time to realize that when parents take care of themselves first, it's not selfish. It's survival.... We're not talking spa vacation. We're talking sitting down for a meal. Drinking our coffee when it's hot." There, parents may share how they are making lifestyle changes to make mental health a priority.

No one is saying that parenting typically developing children isn't stressful. (As one mom of two once told me, "It's the hardest job you'll ever love.") But when your child has special needs, the job intensifies—and with it the need to help moms keep their heads above water.

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xtremeparnthood · Jul 19 2012 Report

Thank you Beth for the mention and for bringing to light an issue that is all too common with mothers of special needs children.

josiemac · Jul 18 2012 Report

Such a wonderful article that just happens to hit astonishingly close to home. Add to the mix of two out of four children with A.D.D. that both parents struggled with it too. I stayed at home, even homeschooled for a number of years, and it was all incredibly rewarding minus the very things described in the article. Now I face the challenge alone, juggling work and a lot of grief. Any advice for a single parent with a learning disability trying to live a healthier life? There seems to be so little for adults with L.D.'s parenting kids with them. Sure could use some good advice. :)

krismac · Jul 18 2012 Report

Thanks so much for this great article Beth. The Oxygen Mark Project helped me realize how important it is to take time for myself, and I shouldn't feel guilty for stealing a few minutes away to read a book or for going for a walk by myself. I need it so I can be who I want to be when I'm with my kids, not the frazzled, frustrated mom I had let myself become for so long.

akbutler · Jul 18 2012 Report

Great post and so important to discuss. So many times we feel, as special needs parents, that we need to be "heroes" and do it on our own 24/7. But we need to slow down, take a breath, and remember that we count too.

flannery · Jul 18 2012 Report

So important to remember that, as a caregiver, we need time for ourselves too, in order to be able to give our best to our kids. Excellent article, and thank you for the links.

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