A Mental Health Guide for Parents of Kids With Disabilities This Holiday Season


This time of the year can be hard for many. For some, winter brings on seasonal depression, anxiety and mental heath challenges. It is also the holiday season, which can be particularly stressful for kids with disabilities and their parents alike. There are so many expectations and activities that affect routines, sensory input and more, so rather than being the most wonderful time of the year, it can turn out to be the most dreaded time of the year. And when our kids are stressed out or struggling in some way, often we are too.

Jen Franklin Kearns wrote a vulnerable post sharing the struggles of taking care of our mental health as parents:

I’ve become used to running at a high stress-level, all the time. I can usually keep up with it, but every now and then it becomes apparent that by dealing with all of the added stress of parenting a child with a disability, my own mental health takes a beating.

Four years ago, one of my kids was not doing well. We adopted her from Ukraine, so she has significant PTSD that stems from neglect and abuse. Shortly after Thanksgiving, the time of cheer quickly became a time of dread. This lasted for four months, and it affected me, too. Looking back, I wonder if the best thing we could have done was skip the holidays and try to keep as much of her routine as possible.

Now that my kids are older, they look forward to the holidays. I do, too, but it doesn’t make it less stressful. It also doesn’t take away the heightened anxiety I experience during the long winter months.

I asked my husband, Andrew Stumbo, who is a professional counselor, what parents like me can do to manage their mental health during the holidays. We talk about these things all the time, but I found it really helpful to have him give me a list and talk through each point.

1. Seek counseling.

If you really struggling this time of the year, see a counselor. Counseling is not only for when things are “really bad” but what you can do so things do not get to that point. Counseling does not mean you are a bad parent — it means you care for your family so much you know when it is time to care of yourself, too. Andrew said, “There’s lots of stigma about mental health, but seeking counseling does not mean you are ‘going crazy.'”

A few months ago, we asked parents in our community what signs let them know it was time to focus on their own mental health. Many expressed they got angry more easily, felt overwhelmed, or more quickly lost their patience.

“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.

I have seen a counselor (not my husband) a few times. The truth is, I have only seen a counselor when I am in the middle of a crisis, but it has been incredibly helpful. I have even done counseling with my daughter who has PTSD, and it was eye-opening to understand how to better parent her due to her background and her disability.

As a side note, I want to point out counselors do not prescribe medication. If you wonder if you need medication to help you get through these months, talk to your primary care doctor and/or a psychiatrist.

2. Reevaluate your expectations.

Look closely at your expectations. Some may not be realistic for where you are at or where your kids are at. If you despise the kitchen and baking with your kids makes you want to scream, then baking and decorating Christmas cookies is probably not a good choice. “It is OK to let go of expectations that will stretch you and make life harder for where you are at,” Andrew said.

I love holiday cards. I love getting them, and I love sending them, but after two years of ordering cards that are still somewhere in a box because they were never mailed, I decided that was not going to happen. It created more stress, and it was an expectation I had to let go of. I hope someday I get back to sending cards, but right now is not the time. Oh, and I don’t bake cookies either, thank you very much! And that “Elf on the Shelf” is an unnecessary daily commitment I cannot make.

3. “Say No” list.

Santa is making a list and checking it twice, and you can, too — not a “to do” list but rather a “say no” list. What will you say no to this season? This list can be a reminder to not have the pressure to meet certain expectations. Just because Santa can do it all does not mean you have to.

4. Consider Vitamin D or a light therapy lamp.

Several years ago, my anxiety was becoming unmanageable. I visited my doctor so we could discuss new medication. She suggested blood work to check my vitamin D levels. When the results came in, she put me on a vitamin D regime. While my anxiety will never go away, I now know it is important for me to take this supplement during winter months. Consult your doctor before starting a supplement, but you may want to ask about this.

Andrew worked at a college counseling center where they had a “phototherapy room” so students with seasonal affective disorder could go in and sit for a while.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health explains there is not enough evidence to support that light therapy or a vitamin D supplement are effective at treating seasonal affective disorder, so make sure to check with your health professional and discuss if these are options you could try for a period of time and see if they help you.

5. Let someone know.

Open up and share with a friend. Let them know you are struggling. Having someone else know can help you feel less alone. Be honest, and let people know you need help. Perhaps your child with a disability cannot attend his sister’s choir concert, but you may have a friend who is willing to sit with your child at home so you can enjoy the performance.

Mighty contributor Amanda Wroten wrote in a post:

When someone enters your circle of trust, the care you take for another individual becomes important. Although you may or may not speak to your close friends everyday, we all want the best for those individuals. So, when the daily conversation becomes the reality of how you live, the pain is shared and absorbed by your support network. Sometimes that needs to happen. If you’re having a particularly rough day, a medical procedure, or dealing with a crisis, you need to get that information out, and unload.

6. Keep to routines as much as possible.

It is easier said than done, especially because we cannot control what happens at school. However, we can keep routines at home as close to normal as possible. This is especially helpful for children who thrive in routine and who need them to stay regulated. Kids who thrive in routine may not need the “bells and whistles” of the holidays, and they are not missing out. They may be happy when things are predictable and “the same.” For them, this normalcy can be what brings them joy — keep that in mind.

Mighty contributor Kathy Hooven wrote about how she makes the holidays “friendly” for her son who is on the autism spectrum, but this is relatable for anyone who has kids who thrive on routine:

For many of us, the excitement and joy of the holidays may feel like the most wonderful time of the year, but for individuals with autism who struggle with change, sensory sensitivities, and social situations, the holiday season feels anything but wonderful. Individuals with autism can feel overwhelmed, anxious and withdrawn. So, how can you help someone you love with autism make the holiday season a little more friendly?

7. Don’t let finances dictate every decision.

You can still do fun things with your kids that don’t have to involve extra expenses. For example, a visit with Santa. There are places that offer sensory-friendly visits with Santa, and buying a photo is always optional. Even if you visit Santa at a mall, buying a picture is optional. If there are activities your kids want to participate in, look at what options are available for your child and what is the best fit.

On the other side, sometimes it is OK to give yourself permission to splurge (within limits).

PopSugar put together a list of 45 things you can do for free to get the feel of the holidays. Some of these may be great options for your family.

8. Know your limits.

When it comes to holidays, there is only so much you can do. Having limits helps you know how much you can do. Is going to Aunt Susie’s party too much for your child? Skip it. If church needs an extra volunteer for the kid’s program and they ask you to help, it is OK to say no because it means one more thing added to your plate.

It’s worth repeating: it is always OK to say no.

Pastor Peter Scazzero often teaches what he calls “the gift of limits.” Regardless of your religious or personal beliefs, his general idea is something I believe we can all learn from. He says our personalities, our seasons in life, our life situations, our emotional, physical and intellectual capacities and our scars and wounds from our family of origin or life experiences all contribute to our limits, and it is OK to embrace them.

We are all individual, so my limits may not be your limits. And just because your neighbor or sister-in-law seems to do it all, it does not mean you have to do it.

9. Enjoy one of your hobbies.

When things feel a little out of control, it may be a good time to take on one of your hobbies or an activity you enjoy. This can become self-care.

For me, it is doing a puzzle while listening to a book on tape. It has become a tradition, but it feels like “bliss,” as I don’t think about time or “to do lists” or responsibilities. What hobby or activity helps you be in the moment and enjoy time to yourself?

Alissa Lastres, a certified counselor, wrote on Lifehack that she saw three mental health benefits from pursuing a hobby: regaining a sense of control, feeling accomplished and finding purpose and meaning.

Furthermore, Jaime L. Kurtz Ph.D. wrote on Psychology Today:

If you’ve ever lost yourself in a sport, art project, or other challenging, absorbing activity, you’ve experienced flow. Time flies, self-consciousness disappears, and you are fully immersed in the activity at hand. Hobbies, especially those that stretch our skills, foster this desirable and increasingly elusive state… Imagine that after work you head out to your soccer league or pottery class. These activities are more than merely distracting. They remind you that that are many facets to your self-concept. Employee, yes, but also athlete or artist. As such, a blow to one aspect of your identity is less damaging. Simply put, your eggs aren’t all in one basket.

10. Consider yoga, breathing exercises or mindfulness.

These activities can help regulate anxiety and handle stress better. The “Calm” app is great and has a variety of activities you can do for free. Training the body to be calm can be especially helpful during a season when our bodies feel the opposite of calm.

My Fitbit has a “relax” mode with guided breathing. My husband encouraged me to try it, and I thought it was silly, but I have used it several times, and I do find it helpful.

According to the American Phsycological Association, yoga has positive benefits on mental health, making it an important practice tool of psychotherapy. Yoga also increases body awareness, relieves stress, reduces muscle tension, strain and inflammation, sharpens attention and concentration, and calms and centers the nervous system.

What about you? What helps your mental health during the holiday season?

Getty image by barbaramarin


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