Taking Care Of The Caregiver


“Self-compassion is simply giving the same kindness to ourselves that we would give to others.” – Christopher Germer

Having a child with special needs requires extra care and attention from the family members that surround them. Special needs include children with physical, behavioral/emotional, developmental, and sensory impairments. This includes a range of abilities and challenges faced by each child and therefore the family as well. Often, the needs of the primary caregivers (this article will focus on mom and dad) are underserved; meaning that the main focus for the family is on the child with special needs, which could include matters relating to school, therapies, doctor appointments, equipment, and medication management.

According to research, over 18 percent of children under the age of 18 are considered to have a special need, and each of these children is cared for by someone who may not be taking care of themselves at the same rate. Neglecting your own physical, emotional, or mental health needs will inevitably lead to more serious situations, which could include major medical problems, depression, or child abuse. Here are some ways to take care of yourself:

Sleep: One of the biggest sources of stress for caregivers is fatigue. Getting up in the night to take care of medication, equipment, or a child with a cold can lead to daytime sleepiness and increased irritability. Sharing night time duties, if possible, or taking a nap during the day can help your body rest and be more attentive to your child’s needs.

Exercise: Finding time to exercise can be a challenge. However, regular active movement not only improves  physical health but mental health too. Fatigue can interfere with the motivation to exercise, so finding a workout routine that fits your day is important and will encourage you to stick with it.

Nutrition: Eating a balanced diet can be difficult if your child has food allergies or special diets. Taking time to prepare meals for you and your family can be turned into a family event by trying new recipes or new food. The website choosemyplate.gov is a resource complete with recipes, tips for eating on a budget, and dietary guidelines.

Daily recharge moments: Taking care of child with special needs might require long days with short opportunities to recharge. This might be in the way of a cup of tea in the evening, sitting and watching TV during nap time, or spending some time reading.

Respite care: Respite care is planned or emergency care that is coordinated for families that are caring for a special needs child, allowing the primary caregivers to replenish their inner resources. The Exceptional Family Member Programs, through the military, provides resources and case management services for the child identified with  special needs as well as the family.

Support group: Finding families or parents in similar situations or facing similar challenges can be highly beneficial in building a support network. It may seem too difficult to find time away from the house; however, with the availability of resources online, there are many ways to connect with others. Facebook groups, blogs, national organizations, or local get-togethers can create a network of people that can assist you with finding treatment, innovative ideas or equipment, or just a place to vent your frustrations.

Asking for help: This can be one of the most difficult parts of caring for a special needs child. Often, parents feel guilty for asking for help, but the truth is that parenting does take a community. Bearing the burden on your own is the fastest way to burnout as a parent and can lead to impulsive decision-making with long lasting consequences. Reaching out to neighbors, family, and support systems not only benefits you, but allows your child to be involved with other caretakers as well.

Separate identity: The titles of being “mom” or “dad” are a largest part of a parent’s identity; however, allowing yourself an identity separate from your children can boost your morale, confidence, support, and ability to recharge. A working parent is able to create this while on the job, being known in the work environment as their job title or position and fulfilling that role during those hours. However, engaging in recreational or leisure activities that fits your interest can be an important part of allowing yourself to step out of the parent role for a short time and connect with peers in a different way. Some examples include: book clubs, sports, art groups, poker nights.

Time away: Extended time away from your child may sound like a difficult task; especially if you do not have family that lives close by; yet it is important to have alone time with your spouse away from your child(ren) to connect with each other as partners rather than parents. Again, focusing on your identity as a partner and role as a spouse can reaffirm the commitment you have to your family and the care you are providing to your child(ren). It will take planning and coordination to organize the caretaking tasks of your child (medication, equipment, behavioral plans, therapies) beforehand, but allow you much needed space to care for yourself.

Acceptance: “To believe or recognize as true or correct.” It is often times difficult to come to accept that your life, your family, your child, is not what you had planned on or expected. Acceptance can come in many forms for a family. Recognizing that your child is not “typical” and is going to need additional assistance either temporarily or long term, can be physically and emotionally draining. Accepting that means that as a parent, you are navigating a path that may be unknown. Acknowledging challenges, limitations, advocacy, and priorities can assist you in preparing alternative strategies that will work for your family.

Recognize your own medical or mental health needs: Often times, when taking care of a special needs child, your own medical or mental health needs get pushed to the side. Taking time and increasing your awareness to changes in yourself can assist in attending to these needs. This could include changes in pain levels, appetite, mood, irritability, motivation, activity level or a variety of other things. Visit your primary care doctor to address these concerns if they have lasted longer than two weeks or begin to interfere with your daily functioning.

One way to identify and stick with a selfcare plan is creating a self-care log, list, (or as shown previous page) a wheel including psychological, physical, spiritual, emotional, personal, and professional self-care components. Recognizing your own recharge moments or activities is important in allowing yourself to be the best parent you can, while also allowing time to step out of the parent role and into another one, at least for a short amount of time.•


Jennifer Woodworth is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Vista, CA. She has worked in the mental health field for seven years. Her husband is retired from the Marine Corps and she has three children ages six, eight, and ten.

Autism Consortium
Children and Adults with ADHD
School information (Definition/IEP)
American Psychological Association
www.apa.org/about/gr/issues/military/critical-need.aspx /
Tricare.mil Caregiving others
Exceptional Family Member Program

National Military Family Association
Military OneSource

Ability Path
Military One Click
Specialized Training for Military Parents (STOMP)
University of Southern California 30 quotes that promote self-care

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