Put On Your Oxygen Mask First

      Which way is your compass pointing?
Which way is your compass pointing?

“I have to admit that I’m suffering from a severe case of battle fatigue . . . If you work with families, please try to minimize the soul shattering disappointments you hand out . . . At least let me believe you’re trying to figure it out.”

That was the final blog post of Kelli Stapleton, who on September 3 attempted to kill herself and her autistic teenage daughter by filling their van with carbon monoxide.

Kelli Stapleton called her blog “The Status Woe,” and in it she described the despondency, frustration, and sense of hopelessness she and her husband experienced raising their daughter, who was frequently violent.

Most of us, thankfully, will never be in Kelli Stapleton’s situation, no matter how difficult the challenge of raising our kids. However, the relentless day in-day out demands of raising atypical children can be devastating to many parents’ lives.

Until recently, the emotional health of Moms or Dads has rarely been noticed, much less explored as a critical factor that affects the child’s well being. Both inside and outside of families, the attention is typically focused on the needs of the child. That’s understandable, but it is also a big mistake.

THE STRESS OF CARING FOR YOUR ATYPICAL CHILD ADDS UP

Parents tend to forget to take care of themselves; that is a fact of parenthood – but they may not notice that they are not the only ones who suffer when their emotional needs are ignored. Their children suffer too.

When parents first discover that their child is atypical, either receiving a diagnosis or a realization that their kid is ‘beyond quirky’ and will need more interventions, their instinct is to buy books about the disorder and search the Internet for everything they can find on the topic, be it ADHD, a behavior disorder, autism spectrum or a learning difference.  It doesn’t immediately occur to parents that they also need to take care of themselves and reflect on how this new information is going to affect their well being, equilibrium, outlook on life or emotional resources.  A parent’s sustained focus on the child’s well being is hardwired. We are pre-programmed to nurture and protect our offspring. The sense of self-sacrifice is built into our DNA. It is the normal, anticipated reaction, but this nurture instinct is also taken for granted.  Until parents start to burn out. And let’s face it, raising atypical children is often exhausting, discouraging and isolating.

Doctors, pediatricians, teachers, and all types of therapists all depend on parents to be the primary managers of their children’s treatment.  Like the parents themselves, these professionals seldom wonder how is the parent doing.  Often, the parent is handed a laundry list of therapies, interventions, medications or schools to try.  It’s overwhelming.

6 QUESTIONS YOU PROBABLY WON’T HEAR FROM YOUR CHILD’S  DOCTORS:
How are you doing?
How is your family holding up?
Do you need more respite care?
What resources do you have when things get too tough?
Who do you call upon for help?
How can I be of more help to you?

THE BIG IDEAS THAT NOT ENOUGH PEOPLE ARE THINKING ABOUT:

“How is this parent coping? What are the emotional ramifications of having this atypical child? Is this parent receiving enough respite care? Can I depend on this parent, or is he or she cracking under the strain? How can I help support this parent?”

Since these are the questions you probably will not hear,  parents, you must ask them yourself, and you must find the support for yourselves. It sounds like yet another job but it’s critically important.

IS IT SELFISH TO WORRY ABOUT YOUR OWN WELL BEING?

It isn’t selfish, narcissistic, or a waste of time. Your child needs to see a model of happy, competent, and optimistic parents. If they don’t see this attitude at home, where will they learn it?  It takes an enormous amount of mental resiliance to see your children through their day; it’s important to get your own needs taken care of, too!

YOUR CHILD DEPENDS ON HAVING A WELL FUNCTIONING PARENT AT THE HELM

It is entirely possible for your child to succeed in this world with ADHD, or a learning disability, or high-functioning autism, or a myriad of other disabilities!!
It is much less possible for your child to succeed with an outlook that is sad, defeated, and hopeless. We owe it to our children to work on our own mental health not only so we can be stronger people but also so we can be better parents. As they say on airplanes, “If the oxygen masks drop, put on your mask first, then help your child.” That is how you both survive.

YOUR NEW SELF CARE MENU

I believe that all parents of atypical kids need to examine their lives and start creating a self-care menu. This will be your oxygen mask, guaranteeing that you get enough air to breathe and to think clearly. Ask yourself right now, What are a few things that could make me feel more in control or make my life more tolerable? Am I making time for these things?

  • Is it the comfort of friends?
  • Is it having a night out with your girlfriends?
  • Is it getting a weekly massage?
  • Is it Saturday date night with your partner, where neither of you talk about your child?
  • Is it taking a class that has nothing to do with your child’s condition?
  • Is it talking to a sympathetic therapist or counselor on a weekly basis?
  • Is it hiring the housecleaner more often?
  • Is it a refreshing walk in nature?

Your self-care menu should include appetizers (a ten-minute walk around the block) and main courses (like the list above). These are not treats, they are sustenance!

One thing you will instantly realize is that in order to get your soul nourished on a regular basis, you will need to expand your circle of support. Seek the help of your friends, extended family, a faith-based group, or a group of parents like you. It does take a village to raise a child. In the case of atypical kids, it takes an army.

On Kelli Stapleton’s website, her friends have taken over the blog while Kelli is being held in jail without bond. (Kelli’s daughter is recovering at home with her father.) The “Friends of Kelli Stapleton” write:

We do believe Kelli deserves a fair chance to share her story—which most of [you] know has been difficult and faced with adversity from so many different angles. We hope that by bringing attention to this difficult issue, we will help those families who are in similar situations.”

Kelli Stapleton’s actions were horrific—but they were not unimaginable. The most loving and devoted parents in the world are only human. And humans need air.

Positively Atypical! is dedicated to helping parents stay positive and loving toward their children, themselves and those around them. Please forward this to any parents who might benefit.

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3 thoughts on “Put On Your Oxygen Mask First

  1. Great blog post, thanks. One way for parents of atypical kids to get “oxygen” is through a support group where theycan share experiences with others in their situations. Our audience at 2e: Twice-Exceptional Newsletter includes parents of high-ability kids who have the types of learning challenges you see in your practice — and in some places around the country these parents have support groups available. One propagator of those groups is the organization Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG. http://www.sengifted.org). SENG provides training for facilitators of such groups.

  2. I agree completely with this blog. Even parents of ANY child needs to remember to take care to their own needs, or to “fill their tank”, so they have something left to give to those who depend on them so much. Nurturing ourselves allows us to give back and be so much more capable of dealing with the pressures of caring for others. Gifted children, and special needs children can be especially demanding.

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