21 Signs Parents of Kids With Disabilities Need to Focus on Their Mental Health


Several years ago, one of my daughter’s therapists had the courage to call me and say, “Ellen, I see many signs of PTSD in you. I think you should consider neurofeedback or seeing a therapist.” Her suggestion didn’t upset me. Instead, I broke down crying because I felt someone was seeing me and everything I was feeling was justified and affirmed to the point others were seeing it, too. I needed to focus on my own mental health.

A study done in 2014 found that:

Cross-sectional analyses indicated that parents of a child with special care needs reported poorer self-rated mental health, greater depressive symptoms, and more restrictions in instrumental activities of daily living (IADL). Parents of a child with special health care needs had greater increases in depressive symptoms over time and greater declines in instrumental activities of daily living than parents of typically developing children. Perceived control was a robust predictor of all health outcomes over time.

My anxiety was so high, I was calling my daughter’s doctors and therapists several times a week. I wasn’t getting much sleep, and I was angry — all the time — fighting with my husband and having a short temper with my kids. At some point, I fantasized about getting away for an extended period of time.

That call allowed me to pick up the phone and get help — for me.

I know I am not the only parent who has felt this way and has needed to focus on taking care of my own mental health. We reached out to our parent community and asked them to share a sign that let them know it was time to focus on their own mental health.

These were their responses:

1. “I am able to hold it together 24/7 for my daughter, who has spina bifida, but I become short or annoyed with my son. It’s almost like I want to take out my frustrations with spina bifida on him, and that’s when I have to give myself a break!” — Kylie M.

2. “I get overwhelmed easier, and my fuse is a little shorter. I start doubting myself and my capabilities as a parent. I start thinking that I am not the right mother for my children. Once I begin feeling those dark thoughts, I know I need to take a step back and recharge. My ‘me time’ is going to eat at The Tomato Head (by myself) and visiting McKay Books (a local used bookstore).” — Rebecca B.

3. “My biggest indicator is my patience. If I feel short-tempered, I know it’s time to take a breath for myself. I’m usually very patient with my daughter and her needs, but if I’m not taking care of myself, too, I can’t take care of her the way she needs and deserves.” — Nikki G.

4. “I become angry about things that are out of my child’s control, or I start feeling like my child would be better off without me and with a different parent instead.” — Megan G.

5. “I’m a parent of a child with [a disability] as well as a licensed therapist. I entered this field because many therapists don’t quite understand what our ‘signs’ are and why we even feel them. Finding an advocate we can trust is hard because our thoughts aren’t always wholesome and if told to the wrong person, could cause undue duress and legal actions. But to answer the question, my signs are my frustrations with my other ‘typical’ children. When their minor infractions make me completely frustrated and I shout, I know it’s time for me to regroup and reevaluate.” — Kwe B.

6. “I know I need a break when I keep losing my temper and getting frustrated over the smallest things. I’m not really able to go and do things on my own (without kids), so I’ve started taking ‘me time’ every night at home. I take a bath while watching a show I want to watch and just enjoy being alone.” — Sara S.

7. “I try to justify every decision I’m making to people when no one has said anything. I convince myself that everyone thinks I’m doing a bad job at parenting. That is when I know I am overwhelmed and needing a break to find peace.” — Lesley B.

8. “I have many signs, though I don’t always see them until later. I was diagnosed with anxiety/panic disorder 10 years ago. I also have reoccurring depression. I agree, angry outbursts and constantly feeling overwhelmed. I catch myself shallow breathing a lot and noticing that all the muscles in my body are clenched, and I need to consciously relax them. I’m trying to practice mindfulness and when I finally get my bathroom renovated, I will have a luxurious tub to relax in.” — Gina S.

9. “I can’t figure out a simple answer like, ‘What should I make for dinner tonight?’ When I lose my sense of humor and creativity at work and have no desire to create anything beautiful at home — this includes meals and Christmas traditions (plus I don’t have the time). When I’m posting answers to questions about how I know I’m stressed at 4 a.m. in the morning… because a problem about my son woke me up at 3.” — Sami P.

10. “When I can’t control my temper I know I need to just back off and rest. My husband is so good to let me go close myself in the bedroom and watch TV or sleep or read. This year I’ve also been doing some things you suggested, like reading two books a month. I love it! And I’m keeping my toenails painted and I’m making an effort to do my hair and makeup when we go out. Those little things help me keep my brain engaged and my spirit happy.” — Bonnie P.

11. I know it’s time that I take care of me when we ‘go into the trenches’ with our son, who has behavioral issues, and the day in and day out struggles just shut me down to the point I can’t get out of the bed, answer the phone or even to speak to anyone.” — Sharon B.

12. “I get snippy, really emotional, and get overwhelmed more easily than usual. Also, if I wait too long to address my mental health, I find that when someone has a meltdown, I feel this odd emotional numbness. It’s like I can’t feel anymore.” — Heather G.

13. “Extreme tiredness at 7 p.m. and 5 a.m. Feeling overwhelmed isn’t always obvious. It’s when I worry I can’t meet a deadline, or stress about [silly] things, more than I should, I know burnout is coming.” — Melissa B.

14. “[I cry], then really let the floodgates open over inconsequential annoying things. I usually am calm during very stressful moments. After a while, everything builds up, and I lose it over small things.” — Karen Z.

15. “I can usually manage many things at a time and remember all of them and what I need to do. So when I forget things like water bottles in the book bag or to give medicine or forgetting very regular and essential things, I know I need a mental break.” — Ann R.

16. “I don’t feel joy in the things I love. Things I love feels more like another ‘to do list.’ I’ve burned out and am too tired to ‘feel anything’ but tired.” — Debbie T.

17. “Crying more than two days in a row over little things. When things I normally look forward to feel like too much work. Canceling plans. Then I know I’m exhausted.” — Marlana G.

18. “I’m crabby for no reason. When I feel so overwhelmed that I can’t function. When I can’t remember anything, even the big stuff.” — Staci B.

19. “Telling sign old as time… pimples. When I start breaking out due to stressing over everything. My face definitely lets me know when it’s time for a break.” — Cruz Z.

20. “I have difficulty with eating healthy, and crave junk food!” — Stacy LF.

21. “I miss an appointment or event. Once one of the balls in the air starts to fall, I know I’m juggling too much and need a break!” — Elena B.

So, friend, pick up the phone and make an appointment to see a counselor. I’ve been there, and seeing a therapist, even if only a few times, does a lot to my heart. And especially if you feel like you do not have close friends that are willing or able to walk this journey with you, get a counselor! It is so important to have someone to talk to.

Pick up the phone and make an appointment with your doctor. Get on meds if necessary. There is no shame in battling your own mental health issues, and it is so important to have a clear head as you parent your kids.

Talk to friends and family about needing help. Sometimes help comes from the most unexpected places.

Make time for you. Do not feel guilty about a girl’s night out. Do not feel guilty if you enjoy time away from your kids. It is OK. Go, have fun.

And don’t forget that taking care of us is the best thing we can do for our kids.

Getty image by bruniewska


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