Tips for Reducing Stress Related to Parenting Kids on the Autism Spectrum

"My (high functioning autistic) child is one of the most wonderful blessings of my life – yet at times, stress may cause me to wonder if he is at the root of my most intense times of irritability and anxiety. I don't like thinking like this. Any tips on how I can reduce my stress while at the same time, care for my son's special needs.?"

Let’s be honest. Caring for a child on the autism spectrum can be tiring. On bad days, we as parents can feel trapped by the constant responsibility. The additional stress of caring for a child with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) or Asperger's (AS) can, at times, make a parent feel angry, anxious, or just plain "stressed out." These tensions are a normal, inevitable part of the family, and parents need to learn ways to cope so that they don't feel overwhelmed by them.

To see if you are experiencing toxic amounts of parental stress, answer the following questions:
  1. Are you often irritable?
  2. Are you suffering from lack of sleep?
  3. Are you worried about your child’s future?
  4. Are you worried about your family’s finances?
  5. Do you avoid of social interaction outside the home as much as possible?
  6. Do you choose the self-serve lane at the supermarket and the ATM at the bank because doing things by yourself is just easier?
  7. Do you ever find yourself so rushed and distracted that it’s “just annoying” when a cashier or neighbor tries to make chitchat with you about the weather?
  8. Do you ever get so caught up in one subject (e.g., IEP worries or your frustration with your child’s school) that you catch yourself repeating the same complaints to anyone who will listen?
  9. Do you find yourself snapping at your child for interrupting you, then feeling guilty afterwards?
  10. Do you have a disregard for personal appearance and social niceties?
  11. Do you keep meaning to pick up the phone and call a friend, but find yourself too busy or distracted?
  12. Do you scan each room you enter for things that might trigger a meltdown in your youngster, (e.g., unusual smells or loud noises)? …and do you find yourself doing so even when he isn’t with you? …for that matter, after avoiding those things for so long, do you find that they now irritate you, too?
  13. Have the cute hairdos and perky outfits been replaced by ponytails and sweats?
  14. Have you ever had the thought, “I don’t like my child”?
  15. Have you found yourself getting annoyed when your spouse tunes you out or tries to change the subject?

If you answered “yes” to several of these questions, you too may be suffering from parental stress associated with parenting a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Stress becomes a problem when you feel overwhelmed by the things that happen to you. You may feel "stressed out" when it seems there is too much to deal with all at once, and you are not sure how to handle it all. When you feel stressed, you usually have some physical symptoms. You can feel tired, get headaches, stomach upsets or backaches, clench your jaw or grind your teeth, develop skin rashes, have recurring colds or flu, have muscle spasms or nervous twitches, or have problems sleeping. Mental signs of stress include feeling pressured, having difficulty concentrating, being forgetful and having trouble making decisions. Emotional signs include feeling angry, frustrated, tense, anxious, or more aggressive than usual.

The stress of parenting a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder does not have to damage the bond you have with your child. In fact, if you take the necessary steps to reduce stress in your life, it can actually strengthen the closeness of your relationship with your youngster.

20 Tips for Reducing Stress Related to Parenting Children on the Spectrum

1. As a mother or father, it’s a necessity to take care of yourself so that you have the energy and motivation to be a good parent.

2. Avoid fatigue. Go to bed earlier and take short naps when you can.

3. Coping with the stress of parenting an HFA or AS child starts with understanding what makes you feel stressed, learning to recognize the symptoms of too much stress, and learning some new ways of handling life's problems. You may not always be able to tell exactly what is causing your emotional tension, but it is important to remind yourself that it is not your youngster's fault.

4. Develop good relationships. Family relationships are built over time with loving care and concern for other people's feelings. Talk over family problems in a warm, relaxed atmosphere. Focus on solutions rather than finding blame. If you are too busy or upset to listen well at a certain time, say so. Then agree on a better time, and make sure to do it. Laugh together, be appreciative of each other, and give compliments often. It may be very hard to schedule time to spend with your family, doing things that you all enjoy, but it is the best time you will ever invest. Moms and dads and kids need time to spend one-to-one. Whether yours is a one or two-parent family, each parent should try to find a little time to spend alone with each youngster. You could read a bedtime story, play a game, or go for a walk together.

5. Have a realistic attitude. Most moms and dads have high expectations of how things should be. We all want a perfect family, and we all worry about how our children will turn out. But, wanting “the ideal family” can get in the way of enjoying the one you have. 

6. If you don’t already belong to a group for parents of HFA and AS kids, you’re missing out on great social and emotional support. But, also remember that you had interests before you became a harried mom. Whether it’s decorating or reading murder mysteries, we all need some sort of pleasant diversion, and friendly folks to share it with. If you’re able to join a local support group and club, great! But if not, there is a plethora of online discussion groups about just about any interest you can imagine.

7. If you feel guilty about the idea of trying to plan time and activities apart from your youngster– don’t! How can we teach our "special needs" children that socialization is important, healthy, and worthwhile, if we hardly ever take time for it ourselves? So pick up the phone and plan time for some fun with a friend. If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for your youngster.

8. If you're feeling pressured, tense or drawn out at the end of a busy day, say so. Tell your kids calmly that you will be happy to give them some attention soon but first you need a short "quiet time" so that you can relax.

9. Keep in mind that your child experiences stress, too – at any age. So when you work on methods to reduce your own stress, try to incorporate stress relieving techniques that both you and your youngster can use to reduce stress. Of course, the stress relieving activities that you choose for you and your child to share will depend on your child’s age.

10. Learn some ways of unwinding to manage the tension. Simple daily stretching exercises help relieve muscle tension. Vigorous walking, aerobics or sports are excellent ways for some people to unwind and work off tension; others find deep-breathing exercises are a fast, easy and effective way to control physical and mental tension.

11. Look for community programs for moms and dads and kids. They offer activities that are fun, other moms and dads to talk with, and some even have babysitting.

12. Look for parenting courses in your community. 

13. Make a play date. The great thing about play dates for moms is that you don’t have to referee them – you just have to find time for them! Sit down with your calendar, get on the phone, and schedule time to spend with friends, at least every couple of weeks. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate. Go together for manicures or a trip to Target, followed by latt├ęs, while Dad watches the kids. But make sure you schedule in play dates with Dad occasionally, too. If you can’t find a sitter, trade off watching the kids with another couple who has a youngster on the spectrum – most, I’ve found, are happy to make such a deal.

14. Make quality time for yourself, and reserve time each week for your own activities.

15. Most of us live hectic lives, and working through lunch can easily become habit. Make a commitment to yourself that at least three days a week you’re going to operate as a social human being. Go over to the food court with your coworkers, or brown bag it and catch up on the gossip in the lunchroom. You need interaction with grown-ups who are interested in topics that you are interested in. So after the dishwasher is loaded, put everybody down to nap or stick in a DVD for 20 minutes, and pick up the phone and call your best friend or sister, and give yourself a dose a grown-up time.

16. Practice time management. Set aside time to spend with the kids, time for yourself, and time for your spouse and/or friends. Learn to say "no" to requests that interfere with these important times. Cut down on outside activities that cause the family to feel rushed.

17. Take a break from looking after the kids. Help keep stress from building up. Ask for help from friends or relatives to take care of the kids for a while. Exchange babysitting services with a neighbor, or hire a teenager, even for a short time once a week to get some time for yourself.

18. Take care of your health with a good diet and regular exercise. Moms and dads need a lot of energy to look after kids.

19. Talk to someone. Sharing your worries is a great stress reducer!

20. We all have reactions to life's events which are based on our own personal histories. For the most part, we never completely understand the deep-down causes of all our feelings. What we must realize is that our feelings of stress come from inside ourselves and that we can learn to keep our stress reactions under control.

If you are considering getting some additional support or information to help you cope with the stress of parenting, there are many different resources available, including books and video tapes on stress management, parenting courses and workshops, professional counseling and self-help groups.

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