Parenting a typically developing child is challenging enough. How does a parent of a special needs child feel then? Frustration, inadequacy, the feeling of not being and not doing enough, burnout, overwhelm, isolation, loneliness, mental and physical exhaustion are some of the issues they have to face. For all these reasons it’s imperative that they develop self-maintenance skills. That’s where mindfulness and meditation for special needs parents come into the picture.
Mindfulness and meditation can help special needs parents:
- Reduce chronic stress, depression and anxiety
- Meet their needs without feeling guilty, i.e. practice self-compassion and self-care
- Accept things as they are
- Refill their energy reserves
- Resource themselves with patience, resilience, gratitude, or for that matter, any other quality they need to thrive
Cause for Concern
According to a study published in the Pediatrics journal, parents of children with complex medical conditions are more likely to struggle with mental health issues. Carers UK 2014 survey done on carers showed that “92% said that caring has had a negative impact on their mental health, including stress and depression.” Moreover, chronically-stressed mothers of special needs children had blood cells that were genetically about a decade older than that of typically developing children’s parents. And in another study, mothers of autistic children were shown to experience the same level of chronic stress as combat soldiers, Holocaust survivors, and people with PTSD.
How Mindfulness and Meditation Can Help Special Needs Parents
Mindfulness and meditation have been proven to have a positive impact on parents of special needs children by increasing parent’s well-being and lowering their stress. It changes how they respond to difficult situations and improves their relationships. Parents who practice mindfulness model positive behaviors for their children, which in turn reduces their children’s challenging behaviors. Such parents have more compassion for their children and for themselves.
Lower Your Expectations – Accept Things as They Are
One study showed that parents of special needs children have unrealistically high expectations from their children. They struggle with accepting them as they are. The study showed that mindfulness training helped special needs parents be more accepting of their children, which in turn lowered their levels of stress, anxiety and depression. Their children had fewer behavior problems and more positive interactions with their parents.
Mindfulness and Meditation Tip for Special Needs Parents:
Accept things as they are. Every moment is as it is. Observe each moment separately. Do not associate whatever is going on now (your child’s emotional outburst) with the thought, “it’s always going to be like this.” Instead, say to yourself, “this is now, and then is then.”
No matter the chaos you are in, mindfulness helps you not react to it. Don’t bottle it up either. Just stay present with the experience. When it gets difficult, use the breath to breathe your heavier emotions out and come back to the here and now. Don’t cling to your thoughts or emotions; notice them, and let them come and go. Labeling thoughts can help. Notice an angry thought and say to yourself with kindness, “Ok, this was my angry thought,” and let it pass. Don’t get entangled with it and don’t feed it. Breathe instead.
A Glass Can Only Spill What It Contains – Why It’s Good for Your Child When You Are More Selfish
Being your child’s primary carer, I’m sure you are all in, giving it all your energy, resources and time to be the best parent you can possibly be to your child. Many parents have quit their jobs and careers, not to mention hobbies, social activities and leisure time. However, a glass can only spill what it contains. You need something to fill up your reserves so you can show up for your child in the best way possible. Ask yourself, how will my child benefit if I am stressed, anxious, or low on energy? Guess what – it won’t.
To quote Julia, who runs a Youtube channel A Gift Of A Special Child and is a mother of Olivia, a special needs child, “I noticed that when I was feeling well physically and emotionally, Olivia picked up instantly my good mood and was enjoying herself as well. Everything at that moment was much more positive, lighter and brighter. I had an aha moment that I have to be happy so that my daughter can be happy as well. How could I do it? I had to become a bit more selfish and less selfless and that would be more beneficial for the whole family.”
Taking Time To Nourish Yourself is One of The Most Valuable Things You Can Do For Children
Jyoti Manuel, a teacher trainer in therapeutic yoga for children with special needs said that, “as a parent myself, what I’ve really learned over the years is how important my state is. And I think as parents, we tend to put our kids first. And then we get depleted. From my own personal experience, when I’m depleted, my kids are a mess. What I’ve learned is that to take a bit of time to nourish me actually is probably the most valuable thing I can do for my children. And it’s not something we tend to understand because you always want to make things better for everybody else, and you always put yourself last. Actually, as a parent what we have to do is put ourselves first. Because you are your children’s rock. And if your rock isn’t steady, they have nothing to hold on to.”
Mindfulness and Meditation Tip for Special Needs Parents:
Take time for self-care. It can be as short and easy as sitting down in your bathroom for a few minutes, with your eyes closed, focusing on your breathing. Start by taking a few deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth.
Spend Time Away From Your Child
The Institute for Social Research and Department of Family Medicine at the University of Michigan did a five-week-long mindfulness training of 52 parents and teachers of special needs children. The results showed that during and after the training all participants experienced higher levels of awareness, patience, and compassion. They were more aware of how they regulated their emotions, they were less judgmental and more tolerant. But here’s the catch: teachers, who were not in contact with children during the course of the study (summer) showed higher gains in terms of stress reduction and compassion than parents (who were in regular contact with their children during the study).
Mindfulness and Meditation Tip for Special Needs Parents:
You need to get away from your child on a regular basis to gain some perspective and clarity. Find someone to watch them as often as you can. You coming home feeling replenished and refreshed, without feeling guilty, can only do your child good. One mom who comes to my yoga classes said to me once, “I go to yoga so I can be a better mother and wife. And my husband knows it. So, him watching over the kids for that time is never a question.”
Meditation to Help Special Needs Parents Resource Themselves
Science has progressed so much that we now know a lot more about how the brain works and can use this to our benefit. Our brains have experience-dependent neuroplasticity, which means that experiencing something over and over again makes it easy to bring it up in the present. So, let’s use this.
Suggested below is a powerful tool to help you build a more resilient, compassionate, patient and stress-free self. Treat the following exercise as an experiment. Ease off any pressure and take it playfully, lightly and with curiosity.
1. Take a moment to identify which are the qualities that you need to resource yourself with so you can be better to yourself and your child.
2. Practice the following activity on a regular basis for at least 5-10 minutes a day.
3. Notice what happens.
1. Have a beneficial experience
Choose a pleasant experience or quality which you want to integrate in your life. It might be something that is already present in your life, you just didn’t take the time to notice it. Search for things that make you feel good in and around you. It could be a quality or a talent you possess. Maybe you notice what a good job you did cleaning the kitchen. Perhaps it’s the satisfaction you felt when you ate that home cooked meal this afternoon. Usually, such emotions fly by, we feel them for a second or two and we move on. What if you could integrate this quality into your being and experience it at will? You would feel more satisfied moving through the day.
For this practice, let’s choose the feeling of satisfaction: evoke in your mind a time you felt satisfied. Become aware of the sensations in your body as you are thinking of this experience, the thoughts and emotions going through your mind and body. Think of other things you are satisfied about. Bring this knowledge to the foreground of your awareness. Note that you aren’t making anything up – you are simply sticking to the facts about what makes you feel satisfied in your life.
2. Enrich it
The next step is to enrich this experience. Do this by lengthening, intensifying, expanding, freshening and valuing the experience.
- Lengthen it – this means that now you choose to stay with this experience a bit longer.
Normally, such an experience lasts for a few breaths and then the mind wanders away to something else, such as your to-do list for the day. But, this time when the mind does what it normally does, come back to the experience for five, ten or twenty seconds longer. Protect the experience by keeping it away from distractions.
- Intensify it – next, open to it. Let it become bigger in your mind. Breathe it in, and get excited about it.
- Expand it – notice any related thoughts, sensations, and emotions.
- Freshen it – detect what’s new or different about the experience. Become curious about it. Imagine it’s happening to you for the first time.
- Value it – we tend to learn from things that are personally valuable to us. So, observe why this experience is valuable and important to you and how it can help you.
3. Absorb it
There are three ways in which you can absorb an experience: intend to receive it, sense it sinking into you, reward yourself.
- Intend to receive it – consciously decide to take it all in
- Sense it sinking into you – imagine the experience is like a warm soothing bath and you’re about to lie in it. Give yourself over to it, let it become a part of you.
- Reward yourself – tune into everything that’s pleasant about the experience. By doing so, your body will release more dopamine and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters that will mark the experience as something that’s meant to be preserved in your brain for future use.
Note that this activity is not about clinging to experiences because, inevitably, everything comes and goes. Rather, you are giving the beneficial experience a gentle nudge to be present in your awareness longer and more often.
4. Link it
This part is optional and you might do just fine using the first three steps only. The mind can hold two opposite things in awareness at the same time. Let’s say you are feeling satisfaction about how peacefully you responded to your child just now, but at the same time, somewhere at the back of your mind you are aware of all the times you lashed out. Which way does your mind go – enjoying the recent pleasant interaction or all those not-so-great ones? With linking, the key is to stay with the beneficial experience rather than the unpleasant one. We can reshape the negative, painful experiences and imbue them with positive qualities using the pleasant experiences we have generated.
So, let’s take a positive experience alongside a negative one. For example, let’s pick anxiety and calm. First, focus on calm using the first three steps. Then bring just the idea of anxiety and keep it somewhere “over there.” Then, if and when you feel comfortable, bring up something that causes you to feel anxious. Remember to keep the anxious experience smaller and less prominent than the calm one. Lastly, imagine or sense that the positive is penetrating the negative. When doing linking, remember to stay on your own side – let the good experience prevail. Use your imagination, creativity and intuition when doing this.
Be aware though that sometimes you might not have enough resources for the fourth step, especially if it’s something very painful for you. If this happens, take a break from the practice or stick to the first three steps, and it will be more than enough.
Conclusion: Mindfulness and Meditation Help Special Needs Parents Resource Themselves
Raising a special needs child usually has a toll on parents’ mental health. The road ahead is rough, and your child needs you, so resource yourself. Apply the tools mentioned above any time you have some minutes to spare. It will come back to you in amazing ways. You got this.
Senior Contributor At L’Aquila Active, Tatjana Glogovac
Tatjana is a writer and educator in mindfulness, emotional intelligence, learning, psychology and self-development. She is a certified yoga and meditation teacher. Her goal is to make yoga and meditation a practical daily tool for everyone looking to find some peace of mind and a healthy physical practice for their bodies. This especially goes for people struggling with anxiety, stress, depression, excessive worrying, overthinking, and other ailments of the modern man. You can join her online yoga and meditation classes on Vivaya.
*This article was originally published at L’Aquila Active and was reposted with full permissions.
You can read the original article here: “Mindfulness and Meditation for Special Needs Parents”