What does it take to make us realise that our children need us to take good care of ourselves?

I ask myself this question constantly, wondering how else I can urge clients to look after their own health. It’s a hard one – I totally get how difficult it is to think of ‘self’ when needs are big and constant, and sometimes many.

It’s counter-intuitive. We’re hard-wired to attend to the needs of our child first, worry about self later. Only later often doesn’t happen…

I have sung this tune before, more than once… just as I’ve started a few sessions of late with “I’m sorry if I sound like I’m nagging but…”

So – I’m sorry to sound like I’m nagging but…

In the last couple of months I’ve had one client diagnosed with adrenal fatigue, two with thyroid issues, one with high pyroles and zinc deficiency…and a friend (also an autism mum) was rushed away in an ambulance to find out later that she’s critically low in magnesium.

I firmly believe that this is a message I must keep repeating, not just to others but also to myself.

I did not pay attention to the warnings. It took a few days in a hospital bed to make me realise how important it is to look after the person who is my child’s main Carer – me. I had three days at St Vincent’s hospital, and I’m embarrassed to say I really enjoyed my stay – because it was such a good break. I slept as much as I pleased, I watched all kinds of TV, plenty of good reading on the side table, and a nurse popping her head in regularly to see if I needed anything…and I was a little high on drugs.

I was so exhausted that my hospital stay was a treat. Tragic.

So maybe that’s what it takes? Getting sick?

Is there no way to save anyone from going down that track?

These days I time away by myself regularly and it really is a treat; there’s no nurse (or drugs) but it’s a hotel room to myself with room service, movies, and the freedom to do whatever I please for about 48 hours.

Head space… Heart space… Space.

I can’t say it’s easy getting away…the amount of preparation has sometimes made me wonder if it’s even worth it. But of course it is worth it. Every. Single. Time.

A client mentioned to me that she enjoyed some head space recently when she took a day attending to a different chore. It wasn’t really even a real break, but just the fact that she was doing something away from home felt like head space. ‘So how would it be if you did that regularly so you could feel that way more often?’ I asked her. She chuckled and said ‘hard!’

Yes it’s hard. But it’s a bit like exercising…you force yourself and it becomes routine, and then you realise it makes you feel better. Then you realise everything works better when you take care of yourself. And you keep it up because once you’ve slipped back into old habits a couple of times you realise that everything feels better when you make it a habit to take care of yourself. (And when you don’t…it doesn’t!)

It has to become a discipline…you need to force yourself at first.

I will keep nagging my clients regardless of the glazed look that comes over them, because I wish I had met me about 7 years ago. And I will keep finding different ways to write and say “take care of yourselves please, in every little and in any way you can. Your children need you to be well, and it’s one of the best things you can do for them. If you don’t put the mask on yourself first, who will help the children?”

I know I sound like I’m nagging you…but its for you and your child’s good, and that’s my job.

The results of some of the research on families living with autism:

• ASD parents experience greater stress than do parents of children with other disabilities (Roberts & Prior, 2006)

• There is a link between raising children with ASDs and impairment of wellbeing for the parents (Larsson & Smedje, 2006)

• Mothers experience more stress as they tend to be the main caregivers (Dunn, Burbine, Bowers & Tantleff-Dunn, 2001)

• Stress for ASD parents is high due to prolonged dependency, high needs, missed milestones in development, and living with an unpredictable future (Wolf, Noh, Fisman and Speechley, 1989)

• There seems to be a correlation between challenging behaviours and higher stress levels (Lecavalier, Leonie & Wiltz, 2006)

• Challenging behaviours in children, and stress in parents seem to exacerbate one another over time, exacerbate one another over time, so that it becomes a spiral that is hard to break (Lecavalier, Leonie & Wiltz, 2006)

• Avoidance coping styles appear to lead to depression and marital discord (Dunn, Burbine, Bowers & Tantleff-Dunn, 2001)

Strategies for Self-Care:

• Compartmentalise (a very effective CBT technique which can help deal with overwhelm). Try to do this literally as well as emotionally… if you have one of those bulging folders full of reports and information that we all start out with, get yourself a filing box and sort the paperwork. You’ll feel much less overwhelmed. Do the same emotionally; set yourself one or two tasks at a time rather than allowing the big to-do-list-of-everything to weigh your mind each day. Compartmentalising into sensible, daily to-do lists has many benefits.

• Take breaks – small breaks, big breaks, any breaks – as often and as regularly as you can (sometimes just doing the groceries on your own can count as a break)

• Learn to say no when your plate is already full

• Learn to take things off your plate when you can

• Learn to be kind to yourself

• Accept help when it is offered (hard for some of us)

• Try to eat nourishing foods that give you energy

• Try to exercise or stretch when you can

• Try to objectify your situation to gain some perspective

• Share your emotions with someone – and if you are really struggling look for support; some people benefit from support groups, some people prefer one-on-one counselling, and some people get a lot out of meeting other parents informally at special play groups.

Studies on resilience (Allen, 2006) show that when we are faced with adversity, we cope better if we have strong relationships (family, friends or community); the ability to learn from experience; good self-esteem; personal discipline; courage; hope; a sense of humour; a strong faith (or a constructive philosophy that gives life meaning); and of course information – many fears are borne of simply not understanding what we are faced with.

And remember above all else: