17 August 2021

How to manage stress as a parent of a disabled child

parent of disabled children

While rightly our thoughts and energy are directed towards the people who live with disabilities, it's also worth thinking about the parents of disabled and special needs children. All parents have to deal with a tremendous amount of stress but when you add a disabled child to the equation, that is only amplified. If we let it, stress can easily get the best of us but there are things parents can do to make things a little easier and look after their own mental health. In this article, we offer some tips for how parents can manage the stress that comes with being a parent of a disabled child.

Find support

Finding support is key for all parents of disabled children. Going it alone, trying to do everything yourself, is naturally going to result in stress and exhaustion.

It could be something as simple as sharing more responsibilities with your spouse, asking family members to look after your child while you take some me-time, or talking to friends about how it’s all going. Further still, you can also seek the support of a professional carer if that is a suitable option for you.

Lisa, from the blog aVery Bright Life, is a parent to a child with a disability and knows all about the stresses associated. Lisa spoke to us about her advice to parents, sharing that talking to other parents in your situation is incredibly valuable:

“Parenting a child with disabilities can be stressful in ways I never even thought about before having my daughter. When the stress and anxiety started to negatively affect my life, I knew I had to make some changes. I’ve tried all the things: finding the humour whenever possible, exercising, prioritising sleep (I’m still working on that one), meditation, and the basic laundry list of common de-stressors. One thing I’ve found that helps me the most is connecting with other parents of kids with disabilities.

“I can be beyond worried about an upcoming appointment for my daughter or about something in her future that scares me, but after talking it through with parents in my community who ‘get it’, I always come away feeling less worried and more positive. My best tip for managing stress is finding your community. Whether you discuss specifics or just chat and have a laugh, it’s important to feel supported and to know there are other parents who understand the unique challenges that come with raising an atypical child.”

Understand what causes your stress

Reducing stress without understanding what exactly is causing it is difficult. Angie Fenn, Head of Advice at Contact, the charity for families with disabled children, told us: “Families with disabled children are often under enormous emotional and physical pressures. It’s important to work out how stress affects you. The first step of trying to reduce stress is recognising when you’re getting stressed.

“Then think about some simple strategies such as: planning your time; trying to cram in too much will end up making you feel stressed when you do not achieve everything. Just say no – know your limits and stick to them. And avoid people who stress you out. If you know a particular person touches all your hot buttons, limit the amount of time you spend with them.”

Plan ahead

As in most aspects of life, planning and organisation tend to reap benefits. Planning ahead is also a helpful approach for parents of disabled children as it’s a great way to reduce stress. By simply planning the next day the night before, such as what tasks need to be achieved, what your child is going to have for lunch, and what time you need to be at any appointments, you can get ahead of the game. You could write down a to-do list on a piece of paper or on your phone or you can physically get things ready for the following morning before you go to bed.

Health resource Very Well Family recommends: “Focus on getting the important tasks done and do less important tasks if and when time permits. You and your child can benefit from developing good planning habits. Divide big tasks into smaller, more manageable tasks. Set realistic timelines for completion of each task.”

Take time for yourself

woman reading a book in bed

Rightly, the vast amount of our time and energy goes towards caring for our children, especially when they have a disability. It can be very demanding and ask a lot of parents. It’s important, however, to remember to take some time for yourself when possible. If you can rely on some support from others, take some time to have a break, even if it’s just to enjoy a nice walk, go out for dinner, read a book, or just enjoy a relaxing pampering session at home.

Hayley, from the Down’s syndrome blog Downs Side Up, recommends the following for parents: “Without a healthy, happy main carer, who will cope with your child? Fit your own oxygen mask before those of others. Take time out, even if it is only 10 minutes a day to walk round the block while a friend or partner watches the children. Chat on the phone to an old friend and don’t talk about the children. Buy yourself a new lipstick. Eat a little healthier. Get a trusted friend or family member to watch the children while you get some sleep.”

Set yourself more realistic standards

You are only human. This is a crucial fact to remember as a parent of disabled or special needs children. You can’t do everything, and you can’t do everything perfectly. There is only so much that you can juggle at once and mistakes will happen. But by putting too much pressure on yourself you are only going to pile on the stress as a result when things inevitably get too much.

Louise Gillard, the Team Leader for Parents Connect at the disability equality charity SCOPE, shared with us the following advice: “Many of us are brought up thinking that we should put ourselves last, as parents, partners and in our communities. This can end up making us stressed and ill as we are not looking after our own needs. We can be afraid of seeming selfish or uncaring if we take time for ourselves and say ‘no’.

“But we must take care of ourselves so that we can look after everyone else. Keeping well is about learning how to relax and recover. While we cannot escape from stress, we can learn how to minimise its effect on us.”

To counteract this mentality, learning to set yourself more realistic standards is important. And as, Louise from SCOPE suggests: “Do not put too much pressure on yourself. Expect bumps along the road and let them go once they pass.”

Being okay with asking for help, even before you think you might need it, could be another component. Learning to say “no” can also be a big help. If friends, family, or work are asking too much and you just don’t have time, be polite, tell them no, and excuse yourself. There are only so many commitments you can take on and by simplifying things and prioritising, you will make life so much easier.

Try to appreciate the positive things

When you have had a bad day or your child is going through a particularly tough time, it can be easy to let it get the better of you and only focus on the negatives. If we allow ourselves to only think about how tough everything is, our mental state is not going to benefit, and our stress will never alleviate.

Louise from SCOPE recommends finding “something positive to focus on every day”, advising that parents can “relish time spent together, notice nature from your window, find a good news story on the internet. There is a lot of good out there.”

As a coping tactic, parents could consider taking stock at the end of the day, once their child has gone to bed, and think about the positives. What good things have happened today? What are you thankful for? Think about the pleasures your child has enjoyed this past week or how they have progressed in a certain area. By putting things into perspective each day and focusing on the good, it can help to reframe our thinking and hopefully reduce stress.

Stay active 

man running outside

A known method of reducing stress is by staying active. Getting regular exercise can be easier said than done of course, especially when parenting a disabled child. However, if you can create some time to go for a run or head to the gym, then your mind will benefit as well as your body. If you can perhaps get out and exercise before your child wakes up, or after they have gone to bed, for example, your stress hormones will reduce, and your body’s natural mood elevators will be stimulated. It’s also a great way to take your mind of things, focus on a particular task, away from your normal environment, and take some time to be alone with your thoughts.

Lighten the mood

In an already stressful environment, adding unnecessary negative vibes isn’t going to help things. By lightening the mood whenever you can, tension can be released, and stress can be relieved. Instead of always have the news on or being glued to every political discussion, turn to humour, turn on a favourite comedy series, watch a favourite animated movie, put something light-hearted on to diffuse stressful situations. There is so much out of our control, but we can cultivate a more positive atmosphere at home by making a few key decisions about something simple as what gets put on the telly.

Tips for dealing with stress as a parent of a disabled child

  • Find support
  • Understand what causes your stress
  • Plan ahead
  • Take time for yourself
  • Try to appreciate the positive things
  • Set yourself more realistic standards
  • Stay active
  • Lighten the mood

Being a parent of a disabled child isn’t easy but there are ways that stress can be managed. We hope the above tips and advice have proven useful.

If you think your child might benefit from a straight or curved stairlift at home, please get in touch to see how we can help make that a reality.

For more tips, guides, and advice, make sure to visit our news page.