8 Self-Care Ideas for Parents of Autistic Children During the Holidays

self care for parents of children with autismIf you’re a parent, whether that be of a neurotypical child or not, you know that the job isn’t always easy. Fighting the good fight each day can leave you feeling exhausted, over-worked, under-appreciated, and numb. But of course, parenting is also absolutely amazing, wonderful, and something you would never go back in time and un-do. So when you come across those challenging days or weeks…or even months, you must know how to take care of yourself so that you can be the parent you can be. 

Read on to gain helpful tips and ideas so that you can create a self-care toolbox of your own. 

1. Get some physical help

ask for help when you need self careAs a parent, you might think that you must go, go, go, and do, do, do. This is especially true if you have a child who has autism or another type of disability. But parents don’t have to always give everything of themselves to their family. From time to time, even every single day if needed, it is alright to ask for help! 

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No matter what you might think or how you might feel, you must know when to ask for and get help. Parents don’t always need help taking care of their kids, but they may need help with simple tasks around the house. This can include hiring a lawn service to mow the grass and water outdoor plants or asking friends to make a few meals for them. The more help you can get as a parent with a special needs child, the more time you’ll have for your children and yourself. 

2. Learn to manage stress effectively 

Learn to manage stress effectively Children with autism can act out in different ways, including throwing tantrums in the middle of the night, causing chaos at the grocery store, or having such a fit at school that you have to intervene. Oftentimes, these behaviors seem uncontrollable. You might find yourself looking in the mirror from time to time to check for gray hairs.

Every parent will experience stress at work and home at some point, which can cause tension between loved ones and lead to feeling physically and emotionally worn out. If you have a child or children with autism, then you certainly understand that the struggle is real. 

It is time that you learn effective stress management techniques. These might include knowing when to take a break, talking to someone, going outside for a big scream, using essential oils, taking a calming bubble bath, or practicing yoga. 

3. Join a support group

Join a support groupThere is quite literally a support group for anything. And there are most certainly many support groups for parents who have children with autism and other developmental disabilities. 

Support groups are typically available from several different nonprofit organizations, but you can also find them via social media, by asking the school counselor, or by going on sites like Meetup. 

Many groups are convenient and take place in the evening (or even now on Zoom!) and allow parents to simply sit around and talk about the experiences they have had in the last week. This is a great spot to discuss any techniques you have used at home that work, share what doesn’t work, and get advice from others who have been in the same place. 

After joining a support group, you might even find yourself and your child with a new set of friends. 

4. Spend some much-needed time alone

Spend some much-needed time aloneWe all need some alone time, and depending on your personality, you may thrive on those calm magical moments. 

One of the best ways for parents to take care of themselves is with some alone time. Though many parents think they can’t take time for themselves, you only need to set aside 10 to 20 minutes each day. This can be while your child sleeps or is in therapy and when older children are in school. You might find it helpful to do things that you usually can’t during the typical day, including taking a relaxing bath, reading a few chapters in a book, or watching a short episode of a TV show.

Some parents simply want to take a quick drive around the block and to their favorite coffee shop, and that’s all they need to sustain themselves. 

Just find whatever makes you happy and do it! 

5. Add journaling to a routine

Add journaling to a routineErin Leyba, a clinical licensed social worker and psychology doctorate holder who writes for Psychology Today, recommends that parents with children with autism should try writing in a journal. Leyba suggests sitting down and writing for 20 minutes about anything and everything a parent has on his or her mind. She says that this can bring up issues and concerns that the parent has, including those he or she never thought about or considered before.

Overall, journaling/expressive writing has been found to:

  • Boost your mood/affect;
  • Enhance your sense of well-being;
  • Reduce symptoms of depression before an important event (like an exam);
  • Reduce intrusion and avoidance symptoms post-trauma;

Improve your working memory (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005).

An article in Positive Psychology shares a tremendous amount of ways that journaling can impact your mood and mental health. 

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A few of these include the fact that it offers you a daily opportunity to recover from the daily stressors and leave the unimportant stuff behind; it gives you a chance to get all of your emotions out on paper, reducing your stress and releasing tension; it promotes and enhances your creativity in a way that once-in-a-while journaling simply can’t match; it boosts your overall sense of gratitude and your sensitivity to all that you have to be grateful for.

How can you not try out journaling with these benefits? 

6. Learn mindfulness and meditation practices 

Learn mindfulness and meditation practices There is an extreme amount of research that regularly practicing both or either meditation and mindfulness produces significant health and mental health benefits. To start a routine, you don’t need more than 10 minutes. Set aside time in the morning before the kids wake up, on the drive to work (by listening to something), or before you go to bed. As you get more comfortable with it, you can increase the minutes you can complete. Conveniently, there are a variety of free apps, such as the Calm app (although you can upgrade to a paid version), that individuals can download and start their new meditation/mindfulness practice no matter where they are. 

According to an article in the Harvard Gazette about this topic, “there are a handful of key areas — including depression, chronic pain, and anxiety — in which well-designed, well-run studies have shown benefits for patients engaging in a mindfulness meditation program, with effects similar to other existing treatments.”

These are amazing practices that parents with children should get into! Start de-stressing by breathing, letting go, and focusing on the here and now. 

7. Seek out therapeutic support 

Seek out therapeutic support Everyone, not just parents with children with autism, needs to remember that it is okay to ask for help, even if that means professional help. There is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking out therapeutic support, whether that be individual counseling, professional mentorship, support groups, or counseling support via an app, Zoom, or phone number. There is help out there for anyone who seeks it. Right now…literally, right now, type in these keywords into your browser: “counseling support for parents with a child with autism.” Browse what you find. You might just be surprised at the outcome.

Counseling can benefit parents by helping them adjust to a new diagnosis, teaching new parenting skills or ways of thinking about situations, adding stress-management techniques to your toolbox, and embracing creative ways to stay connected to your partner and life outside of your child. 

8. Get out in nature and exercise 

Get out in nature and exercise This should go without saying, but the health and mental health benefits that both exercise and being in nature bring are amazing. Even getting outside for fresh air and a little sun in your backyard for 20 minutes a day is fine. 

An article published in Yale 360, focused on a study of ecopsychology and found the following to be true: 

In a study of 20,000 people, a team led by Mathew White of the European Centre for Environment & Human Health at the University of Exeter found that people who spent two hours a week in green spaces––local parks or other natural environments, either all at once or spaced over several visits––were substantially more likely to report good health and psychological well-being than those who don’t.

Grab a neighbor or a friend and go for a walk around the block, go hiking with your dog, take a break from the kids swim in the pool by yourself, or simply have a picnic outside at your favorite park. 

Just get outside and reap the benefits of the sun’s rays and fresh air. 

Self-Care Ideas for Parents of Autistic Children During the Holidays: Conclusion

Parenting a child with autism can be difficult and physically and mentally draining, as you surely are aware of. You need to arm yourself with your individualized self-care toolbox at home and on the go. By being proactive and knowing your go-to self-care measures is important, especially when you are having a challenging day or week. You are in no way a selfish person to want and need some alone time, a moment to recharge, or extra support. By focusing on yourself, you will be a much more effective parent for your child. 

Brittany Cerny

Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University

Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University

Updated October 2021