Put your oxygen mask on first

Your child receives a diagnosis of a developmental disability from a healthcare professional. Then what? How do you deal with all the feelings associated with this? It is not easy. Many parents experience times of isolation, increased stress and exhaustion. There is also scheduling appointments for therapists, doctors, and managing everyday tasks. The emotional toll is high. Some parents repress their own feelings of grief in order to get their child all the services they need. Others might be unable to function and/or feel stuck. The feelings of grief related to their child receiving a diagnosis can also lay dormant and come out when least expected.

Support is available. The significance of having a support network cannot be overestimated. Information and resources are gathered, bonds are formed, and there is comfort in knowing you are not alone.

The most important thing is to take care of yourself first. Think of it like this: When you are on a plane, whose oxygen mask are you told to put on first? The flight attendant explains that it is necessary for the parent to put their oxygen mask on themselves before putting a mask on their child. Similarly, only after you help yourself are you able to truly help and support your child.

My goal is to help clients learn ways to take care of themselves first, in order to effectively cope with the additional responsibilities of having a special needs child. What does it mean to take care of yourself? It is important to focus on your emotional and physical health when dealing with the chronic stress of a loved one with a disability. Your emotional health, like your physical health, needs nurturing. What does it take to replenish your emotional tank? Here are some ways to think about taking care of yourself:

  • Meet your basic needs (stress and lack of attention to your body can impact your mood).
  • Be aware if you are hungry, thirsty, tired, in pain, or are having issues with hygiene.
  • Be sure to refuel your body. Treat your body to a healthy diet, enough sleep, regular exercise and other healthy behaviors.
  • Create a basic self-care plan. Make a commitment to yourself to improve your physical health one area at a time (sleep, eating, or exercise).

Having a differently-abled child can be challenging, but joyful at the same time. We must recognize the need to take care of ourselves first. When we are calm and present, it is easier to look at any situation objectively. Then, we are able to look at and appropriately support the meaningful achievements, big or small, that our children accomplish.

-Michelle Alexander, LCSW-R