It seems almost too obvious to say outright: Being a parent is exhausting – physically, emotionally, and financially. But for parents of children on the spectrum, who face greater educational and medical challenges than the average family unit, this burden can weigh even heavier and put tremendous stress on even the most dedicated and loving parents.
As Paul Wang, Autism Speaks’ senior vice president for medical research, noted in 2014: “The parents of children with autism spend huge amounts of time and energy on their children’s behalf and can be incredibly stressed both physically and emotionally. They are true heroes to their families.”
He’s right: These parents are heroes – and like many loving, fiercely devoted parents, they often push self-care to the side in order to care for the ones they love. Their Herculean efforts are certainly admirable; but every parent needs to take a moment to care for themselves as well. Self-dismissal can have damaging effects on the parent and even on the parent-child relationship months or years down the road.
According to a study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, mothers of children on the spectrum are more likely to suffer from depression, stress, sleep dysfunctions. All of these can negatively impact the quality of parent-child interactions on a day-to-day basis, and if left untreated, can even lead to a breakdown or burnout. In attempting to provide never-ending positive care for their children, parents might find themselves temporarily in a situation where they are physically or emotionally unable to take care of the child they love. In this context, maternal and paternal self-care isn’t simply helpful; it’s necessary for long-lasting, positive relationships within the family unit.
Setting aside an hour (or even twenty minutes!) for mindful meditation a day has been proven to lessen stress levels and combat depression in mothers of children on the spectrum. Moreover, mothers who practice mindful relaxation have been shown to have fewer negative interactions with their child on an ongoing basis. These practices include taking time for non-judgemental emotional processing and using daily meditation to cope with daily stressors; you can learn more about mindfulness as it relates to parents of children on the spectrum here.
Other good self-care practices for parents to keep in mind include spending one-on-one time with spouses or partners. A little relationship maintenance will go a long way toward creating and maintaining a healthy family dynamic, and will further boost communication for a cohesive parenting team.
Similarly, hobbies provide an outlet for parents to maintain their adult social circle and center themselves in enjoyable, constructive activities outside of the context of the child. This expands the parent’s external support system and allows them to socially engage in a way that both gives them a time off from the stress of being a parent and allows them to find satisfaction in pursuits that satisfy their individual interests.
Although self-care occasionally can seem like something for an overwhelmed parent to push off, it is absolutely vital for parents with children on the spectrum to take time for themselves in order to keep a healthy emotional state, and to maintain a healthy and happy relationship with their child.