5 Signs You’d Benefit From Therapy As A Parent To A Child With Special Needs

Therapy was something I used to tell other people to go to, but never went to myself.  Then I had my son — a beautiful, happy, intelligent boy who just happened to be diagnosed with autism. He opened up my world with joy and fear, throwing everything I had ever known into chaos. There were early signs that I'd benefit from therapy, but I resisted. I suffered from “superwoman complex,” feeling like I had to do everything perfectly, raise my son with autism, keep a clean house, and be there for my family and friends in every way never asking for anything in return. I was also looking for a part-time job, and felt discouraged when I couldn’t pursue my passions around my son’s schedule.  I would give up time for my fiction, pass up the chance to workout, and skip my writers’ meetings when my husband or son would complain, never seeing if there was a way we could compromise. There probably would have been, but I played at being a martyr, being scared to advocate for myself, though I’d gotten amazing at doing it for my son.

Then, several years after my son’s autism diagnosis, I transitioned back to work while simultaneously handling the housework and childcare. Within several months, I was burnt out physically, emotionally, and spiritually. When that happened, I finally decided it was time to go to see someone. It wasn’t an easy decision, but friends gently told me I'd done such a good job of early intervention with my little guy, that it was time to take care of me. It ended up being the best thing that could’ve happened to me. Therapy saved my life and transformed my way of seeing the world.

Thanks to therapy, as my son enters a very difficult emotional period in his life, one where he will need additional psychotherapy to help cope with anxiety and challenging behaviors, I know I am strong enough to handle that. If you are in the position of trying to cope with too much as a parent, it is important you seek help, for you, your child, and your family’s sake. Here are some signs that you may be in need of therapy yourself. What lots of people don’t realize about therapy is that taking care of yourself not only helps you, it helps your child. (But really, the fact that it helps you is reason enough to go.)

1. You Lose Patience Over Small Things

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Obviously ever parent loses her or his patience sometimes, and with special needs children there are lots of little extra challenges. But if you are reacting to every stim, oppositional behavior, or confrontation with yelling, anger or physical aggression, you need a break. My son used to love recreating his school day with figurines. It was a fun game, but as my energy waned, I would often snap at him to hurry up if I was feeling tired. This of course, made things worse for both of us. My son would hit me and himself or try and break something, and then my husband would come in upset that we were fighting again. Therapy offers a safe space where you can vent your frustrations without judgment or without it affecting your child.

2. You Feel Frustrated No Matter How May Tools You Have To Help Your Child

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Even with the best schools, therapists, and friends, you’re bound to be stressed. Going to a therapist allows you time to focus on yourself. As Good Therapy reports, a study found that one in six parents will experience a mental health concern, with single parents being twice as likely to have some sort of mental health issue.

When I had that venue to talk about my feeling of frustration and anger at myself, my husband and my son, it was empowering. It helped me see that reasonable or unreasonable, I was entitled like everyone else in my family to getting angry, upset and tired. I didn’t own up to those feelings before, and would let them boil up inside me. Then, like a volcano, when the pressure of my life got too much, I would blow by yelling, throwing things or leaving the house. Not good. When parents are able to address and treat their mental health issues affecting their health, they will be better prepared to face the varied challenges of raising a child.

3. You Turn To Food Or Alcohol To Cope 


A 2010 study found that mothers of children with autism showed significantly higher levels of cortisol, a key stress hormone, than mothers of children without special needs. This may causes parents to turn to potentially harmful methods of coping, and could be a sign that you’d benefit from therapy.

Gina Gallagher, speaker and co-author of Shut Up About Your Perfect Kid, talks about how special needs parenting causes parents to have different thoughts than parents of neuro typical children:

“Are there times we think about drinking a box of wine at 9:00 a.m.? You betcha. Are there days when we think we can't stand another moment of watching our kids' struggle to be accepted? Plenty. But there are also days when we experience joys that other parents never understand.”

For me, alcohol became my way to self-medicate on some of the tougher nights with my son and husband when they couldn’t cope with each other, and I couldn’t cope with them. The worries I’d have over other areas in my life were quickly obliterated when I found this temporary way to quiet the demons. Of course, it would be a temporary measure. The anger and sadness would come back stronger than ever the next day.

4. You Disconnect From Family And Friends


According to marriage and family therapist Kristin Reinsberg it’s important for parents of children with special needs to accept support from those around them, rather than shy away from them.

“Parents may be worried that expressing their feelings of anger, depression or fear may not be welcomed or tolerated by those around them,” she wrote for Ability Path. “It is important for families to understand and talk about these feelings, and to know that what they are feeling is natural.”  

When you push away from people due to mounting stress is when you most need socializing with friends, family, or even going out to your favorite store and browsing or buying a coffee. I have seen this first-hand with myself. And unless I am physically sick or so tired I can’t see straight, I make sure to go to my monthly support group with my special needs mom friends, have regular outings with my old school friends, and go out to my writer’s meeting without fail. This is how I stay strong and get out of the funk of my stress as a constant caregiver to my son with autism.

5. You Feel Burnt Out

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Clinical psychologist Robin F. Goodman, told Healthline that it's often trying so hard to be a good parent that can set a parent up for burnout. “Setting a high standard for the kind of parent you want to be and not being able to meet that standard adds pressure.” It’s important to know what you’re capable of when it comes to caring for your child, and when to ask for help. Because if you’re tired and stressed, it will only make parenting that much more challenging.”

It’s sometimes hard to hold onto this, but the happiest families aren’t the families with no challenges (no such thing). They’re the families with the strongest coping mechanisms, which mean they know when to seek help. You do yourself and your children the greatest favor when you do.

I used to think I was being strong by keeping all my frustrations inside and away from my family and mom friends. After all, many of them have more than one child and a lot have more than one child with autism or other challenges. Who am I to complain? But after hitting rock bottom with depression/burnout two years ago, I saw what I needed to change. What I do now is check in daily and weekly with myself on how I am feeling. If anything is amiss, I talk to trusted loved ones right away, and am gentle and forgiving with myself reminding myself that I am doing the best that I can. When you do this as a parent and caregiver, it makes all the difference in the world.