Parental anxiety is no joke. I know this firsthand. I’m not just talking about parental worries—every parent has those. I’m talking about full-on, sweaty, heart-pounding fear. A little over a year ago, I had a bout of anxiety that sent me to the ER. What caused it? This thought: I can’t die. Not, “I don’t want to die,” or “I’m afraid to die.” Both my parents died young; I can’t. The thing is, my son is autistic, and I’m the person he’s most comfortable with on the whole planet. I “get” him more than anyone else. What would his life be like without me? I can’t die! It’s a thought that plagues just about any parent who is raising someone with special needs.
There are a lot of items on the “things that give me parental anxiety” list for those of us who are raising kids who have various disabilities and special needs.
- We fear we’re not equal to the task of raising our unusual, complex kids.
- We fear our child’s disability or differences are somehow our fault.
- We fear the way the world will overlook them, take advantage of them, or abuse them.
- We fear they’ll never make friends.
- We fear they’ll die alone.
- We fear their siblings don’t get treated fairly or receive enough from us.
- We fear we’re not doing enough to help.
- We fear we’re doing too much to help.
I mean, honestly, these are just a few things that I quickly typed out. There are many more fears that all combine together to create the monster of parental anxiety that chokes out parental joys.
Here’s the thing. I’ve learned a lot of lessons on anxiety in my life. Not to brag, but I’m kind of an overachiever when it comes to worrying, catastrophizing, and sensing doom. I wish parental anxiety weren’t something any of us (much less those of us in the special needs community) had to wrestle with. But, since it is, I’d love to share with you some lessons I’ve learned along the way.
And also because I really need to remember these lessons. Writing this post is great medicine for me, and I surely hope it will be for you, too!
- Let go. Just because you’re not in control doesn’t mean you’re out of control. Right? You might not be in the driver’s seat, but it doesn’t mean you’re careening toward destruction. If you’ve asked God to lead and direct your life, your driver is a good one. He’s a good Father, and He never experiences parental anxiety. He knows the beginning from the end. He’s not surprised or perplexed by your needs or your child’s needs. Let go. Let Him lead. Give Him your worries and cares—He really does care about you. 1 Peter 5:7, Psalm 62:8
- Focus on what’s going right. Once I went to one of those trained bird shows at a theme park. The brilliantly colored creatures flew over our heads and dazzled us with feats they performed. The trainer said something to the crowd that stuck with me. It was something along the lines of, “You know how we train these birds to do all these tricks? It’s nothing but positive reinforcement. We never punish the birds if they don’t get the trick right. We just give them a treat whenever they do.” I mean, wow. I don’t want to focus on my fears, rewarding my neural pathways with too many trips down fear-laden circuits. Every time I fix my thoughts on things that are true, good, and right, I’m not only following God’s advice, I’m training my mind to look for light instead of shadows. Philippians 4:8
- You’re not enough—and that’s okay! Did that sentence hurt? I hope not! Focus on the “and that’s okay” part for a moment. What if you’re not meant to do this alone? What if you need support? What if your friends, family, neighbors, and church community are all in your life for a reason? You + More You = Still Just You. But You + God = Enough! Stop running your brain and efforts in circles trying to think of everything and do everything. Reach out! Find a counselor for yourself. Find a doctor you can talk to. Let your spouse in. Let your friends in. This is how we fulfill the law of Christ! Galatians 6:2
- Stop parenting tomorrow. Parent today’s troubles. Just because your child is displaying behavior X today does not mean they’ll display behavior Y tomorrow. What if are two of the most dangerous words for a parent of a child with special needs to think about. There are too many unknowns. There is too much ahead that might not work out into the happy ending you wanted. It’s pointless to waste today’s joys on the thought of tomorrow’s sorrow. Besides, what if things go right? What if breakthroughs happen? Then you’ll regret the time you spent pre-grieving things that never happened! Matthew 6:34
- Find something fun. Oh man. I’m sorry I buried this one in point 5. It’s probably my favorite one. Find. Your. Smile. Is your child in the middle of a defiant phase? Try lightening up their “NO!” with a little smile and a “Well, tell me how you really feel!” Your therapist had to cancel when you were already on your way? Stop at your favorite indoor play place and have an impromptu party with your kiddo! Hospital stays again? Bring music, your child’s favorite blanket, their favorite movie, a yummy smelling oil to diffuse, a Sharpie to draw faces on the hospital masks—anything that can lighten the mood and provoke a life-giving smile. It’s such good medicine. Proverbs 17:22
- Take care of yourself. I don’t have to give the flight attendant speech, do I? “If we’re about to head into the Atlantic, put your own oxygen mask on before you attend to your child.” You can’t help your child if you’re not well. I work on taking care of my mental and physical health so I can squash my fears of dying young and so I can be here for my family. And I definitely have to balance my mental and physical health with spiritual health. If I’m honest, attending church and worshiping together with my community has often been a sacrifice. But every time I make that sacrifice, God builds my faith, strengthens my spirit, and gives me the joy I need to make it through the next week! Mark 6:31-32
- Pro tip: Are you worried about bringing your child to church with you? Our family was blessed with a LifeKids Buddy when my son needed extra support. Reach out to your church and see if support like that is available for you, too.
- Seek wisdom like oxygen. There are days when we special-needs parents just don’t know what to do next. Things aren’t working out. Well-researched therapies aren’t available. Someone emailed you about a “miracle cure.” What next? Seek wisdom. Put down your Google searches for a minute. Call a real human. Talk with a pastor, a counselor, a school official, a doctor, or another parent and ask for their wisdom. But most of all, ask God for it. He’s basically the wisest being in all of space and time. James 1:5
- Both you and your child are wonderfully made. You know what anxiety loves to say? “You’re not okay.” Isn’t it the best? Ugh. You know what anxiety loves to say even more? “Your child’s not okay.” But you know what’s a great comeback? “Both my child and I are made in the image of God.” If you want to know something amazing and wonderful about a person with special needs, ask their parent! They can see the rare gifts their child possesses. Our Creator and heavenly Father carefully designed each and every human. He knows the unique way He crafted you to be the parent for your child. And He knows the unique life your child will lead, too. That’s a wonderful thing! Psalm 139:14
- Thank God like it’s your job. Okay, I saved the best for last. Do you know what’s being discovered as one of the greatest ways to treat and defeat anxiety? Gratitude! For real. It’s the death nail. Journal one thing you’re thankful for every day. Just one thing. Add a sentence about why you’re thankful for that one thing, and you’re doing even better. I find it impossible to be anxious and journaling about gratitude at the same time. It’s another way of training your mind to focus on and feel what’s right. It trains your heart to look for what else you have to be thankful for each day. You start walking around thinking, “Yup. I’m gonna write that one down tonight.” Some days might look like: “I’m thankful for a warm bed because I’m tired.” That’s great! Anytime you’re not sure what to write, you can journal, “Today, I’m thankful God gave me the ability to choose to be thankful. Because He is good, He loves me, and I can trust He’s working all things together for good.” Philippians 4:6-7
One last thing. If your parental anxiety is getting bigger, is blurring into other forms of anxiety, isn’t responding to prayer, is causing you to lose sleep, or is disrupting your everyday life, it’s time to seek more help. Find a doctor, a professional counselor, and a pastor to talk to today. Don’t click the next article to read. Do it now. Call for help. Make sure your body, mind, and spirit are getting the help they need. Need motivation? Look at your child. They need you.