7 Habits of Highly Effective Parents of Children with Special Needs
Many parents of special needs children appear to parent with grace, balance, and energy. In addition they also seem remarkably stress-free and organized. How, in the face of all of these challenges and more, do they keep it together? What habits do they embrace that allow them to be highly effective parents for their children?
Habit One: They are proactive advocates for their children and educate others.
Parents become experts about their children and their needs. They conduct ongoing research; ask questions of therapists, doctors, specialists, and other professionals, and keep an organized binder full of notes and important information. They create and add to their at-home, special needs libraries. They are knowledgeable about vernacular, treatments, and services. They are well versed in the state and federal laws that regulate services for their children. Because of their knowledge, parents are effective educators of their child's faculty and staff. They are powerful advocates for treatment, services, and support-in and outside of school.
Habit Two: They maintain a sense of "normalcy" within the family.
Effective parents realize that although everyone in the family is affected by their child's disorder, they are not defined by it. Parents work to ensure that siblings have childhoods and do not take on adult responsibilities. They encourage siblings to spend time with their friends. Parents are proactive about training other family members, friends and sitters about how to care for their child so that they can have time for themselves-individually and as a couple, perhaps going out on weekly dates. They also spend time in the company of other adult friends.
Habit Three: They take care of themselves.
Effective parents nurture their needs holistically — meaning they take care of their physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual need — and recognize that doing so is important for themselves as well as their children. "Good self-care can range from 30 minutes of quiet time per day to bi-weekly massages. It depends on your budget and what will help you feel recharged and ready to face a new day," says Althia McLaughlin, licensed professional counselor at Southeast Psych in Charlotte. "Always make it a point of having something special to look forward to. And always look for ways to break up the monotony of life." They also eat nutritious food and don't skip meals. They make sure their bodies are properly hydrated. They schedule time for regular exercise, by themselves or with friends. They engage in activities that offer creative or intellectual enrichment.
Habit Four: They manage their stress.
Effective parents are intentional about reducing stress in their lives by setting time aside each day to promote calm and centering. They adopt practices such as prayer, deep breathing and meditation to replenish their inner reserves. Rebecca, a mom of a son who has a diagnosis of autism, says, "When in doubt, I choose grace to forgive people for letting me down or for rejecting my son, for whatever reason.
"Being a parent, in general, is a job that is loaded with stress. Being a parent of a special needs child means that the stress load is greatly magnified," says McLaughlin. Learning how to manage your children’s schedule will alleviate a lot of stress."
When parents lead lives that are stress-free and balanced, all family members, especially children, win. Research, by the Gottman Institute supports that children fare better emotionally, socially, and academically when parents manage their stress properly.
Habit Five: They make rest a priority.
While any parent can tire in their parenting responsibilities, parenting a child with special needs can elevate fatigue to a whole different level. Sometime parents don't realize the extent of their exhaustion. Effective parents realize the importance of getting to bed as early as possible, or taking naps to offset the sleep they lose due to their child's irregular sleep patterns — up and down throughout the night, late to bed, and/or early to rise.
Habit Six: They surround themselves with energy givers.
People are either energy zappers or energy givers. Effective parents opt to spend time in the company of people who lift them up, make them feel confident, positive, and happy. They realize energy givers help them to feel energized, inspired and motivated. Parents of children with special needs appreciate and need this energy.
Habit Seven: They have a support group.
Parenting a child with special needs can be lonely, however there is no need to be alone in the journey. Effective parents are part of or have created a group of parents whose parenting journeys are similar to theirs.
"One of the best things a parent of special needs children can do is to have a strong support system," says McLaughlin. "It is essential to regularly connect with other parents who can relate to your family’s challenges. From them, you can gain insight into what has worked well for them. And you may even find that through providing them with insight into what has worked for you, you gain a sense of confidence in yourself as a parent."
Judy M. Miller is a mom to four fantastic kiddos — three with special needs.
View all articles in the 2014-15 Exceptional Child Guide