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Coping with Depression in the Face of Parenting a Special Needs Child

Updated on December 18, 2017
DMChristiansen profile image

Christiansen's son, Jackie, is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). She is the author of Planet A: A Mother's Memoir of ASD.

Sometimes Our Children Take All of Our Energy

When my son was diagnosed with autism, I became a fighter. From the beginning I wanted to take a positive approach and learn to celebrate all the great things that my son could do. I didn’t want to focus on the negative because I knew that autism was what I had to work with and I was going to do the best that I could in that realm. This positivity has worked well, but there are times when I fall into depression, wondering how I will help my son get through his difficult times and wishing that things were different. A great majority of parents with special needs children experience depression at some point in their lives due to the overwhelming struggles that they and their children face. It’s okay to feel sad and even disappointed in where life has taken you. But here are some ideas to keep in mind when you’re at your lowest.

Depression and Physical Illnesses: There are many physical issues associated with depression. Depression has been linked to heart problems, thyroid issues and even cancer. The truth is that when we are depressed, we are less likely to take care of our own needs and this can lead to more frequent common illnesses. Many people who are suffering from depression may also find that they have more frequent colds or come down with the flu or infection more easily. To combat illness, try to remember to eat healthy and exercise regularly. Even a daily walk can help keep your body healthy while giving you mind a chance to relax. You might even find your sadness lighter after your daily break. Make some time for you, even if it is only thirty minutes a day.

Stress Causes Exhaustion: The stresses of parenting a special needs child are immeasurable. We wear many hats and must always be on call for any issue that may come up. The time that it takes to explain even the simplest concepts to our children is, in itself, exhausting. Add in the full-time job of dealing with insurance issues, IEPs and teacher’s meetings and there is little time for anything else. Many families with special needs children also have typical children and their needs must be factored in as well. By the end of the day, all we want to do is crawl into bed and fall asleep. The exhaustion that we feel can be overwhelming and lead down the path of depression. But it’s vital not to forget that our needs are important as well. Making sure to get the proper rest that you need and taking time out for your own interests can help you remember that your health matters. It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. Take a step back and realize that you are important. Think about the things that you enjoy and make a bucket list of the activities that you might be able to fit into your weekly schedule. It might be a bike ride or an arts and crafts project or even a computer game. Even if you can only budget fifteen minutes of time from your day, it is time for yourself. These little events can help take some of the stress away and ultimately may help you sleep better. Many therapists agree that putting together a schedule with your special events incorporated can help battle depression.

Sadness: There have been many times when I have been sad. Thinking about my child’s future, dealing with the judgments of others, and feeling as if I’m losing a part of myself because all my focus is on my child has led me down the sadness path. There is a real difference between depression and sadness. Sadness is an emotion. It comes on at various times in our lives when we face changes that are difficult. Sadness fades as we become accustomed to new situations or when we have enough time to cope and deal with issues. Sadness feels like depression, but true depression is ongoing and effects our choices and taints everyday experiences. It can also take away our energy and desire to be motivated. It is a sadness that is difficult to overcome. Even with feelings of sadness, it may be hard to find your way out. Remember that no one can possibly understand what you are going through and so judgments from the outside mean very little. Find that one good friend to confide in when you are feeling low. Take pride in your role as a special needs parent and realize that you are stronger than most. Setting goals for yourself can help shake away the blues. Plan a special trip for you and your partner or have a date night to talk about some of this things that you’re dealing with. Even if date night is really just dinner alone at your dining room table, it is a good chance to vent about some of your feelings. A goal of creating more personal time is a perfect beginning. Decide to accept that others will not always understand, and that’s okay. And know that you are doing the best that you can, regardless of what others think.

Parents of special needs children have an important job. Sometimes we find ourselves so caught up in the everyday grind that we forget that we need support and care as well. When my son’s needs leave me feeling overwhelmed, I gently remind him that if I don’t get the time I need for myself, I may not be healthy enough to take care of his needs. And it’s true. The world will not end if I take a fifteen-minute walk.


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    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 4 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Another interesting installment. Wow, this combination looks really tough.