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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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