Respite: Take a Break to Recharge
Respite: Take a Break to Recharge
Most parents I know, both special needs and “typical” ones, have a great deal of difficulty making time for priorities other than work and their children. Most parents may SAY it is important to take a break, but they BEHAVE as if they do not believe that there are priorities beyond work and their children. In this over-scheduled society of ours, we are in constant motion and constantly running to do the next thing on our “to-do” list. To top it off, these are stressful times with the dramatic increase in job losses coupled with a dramatic decrease in people’s bank accounts. It is more important than ever to make time for yourself, to fill up your energy reserves in order to be the best parent, spouse, family member and friend you can be.
The pastor at my church, Monsignor Larry Carroll, gave me a wonderful image about taking a break, a respite or a pause in your life to recharge. He described a way that dealing with the stressors of life is much like a stoplight. Most of the time we are at ‘green’ with the go, go, go of work, therapists and doctors appointments, grocery stores, hardware stores, PPT meetings, etc. You are full steam ahead… until the ‘yellow’ light turns on. What does the ‘yellow’ light mean? Proceed with caution. Look, listen and assess if you need to take a respite from your child and the daily grind of life. The ‘red’ light, of course, is when you actually stop and take a break to recharge. Figuring out the signs of when your yellow light is critical to having a far more harmonious, satisfying and joyous life.
Stress can get to everyone
Let’s start with the most obvious and severe examples that your light is yellow. “Many parents, especially mothers, put everyone and everything ahead of themselves,” claims Jennifer Wider, MD, a physician, radio and television personality. “Stress can get to everyone but here a few signs it may be leading to something more serious like anxiety and/or depression:
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Feelings overwhelmed or anxious
- Changes in eating habits.
- Anger or mood swings
- Relationship problems (spouse or other family members)
If the symptoms are getting in the way of your daily functioning, it’s time to get help! Don’t suffer in silence– sometimes just talking out how you are feeling can make a big difference.” Family and friends can help you by allowing you to vent; but often when these symptoms occur, you may need the help of a trained therapist to get you back on track.
Tune in to see if you need a break
Those are more extreme examples that you have neglected yourself for too long. Most of the time, symptoms will be less extreme and you will need to tune in to see when a break is needed. A sure sign for me is when my normally long fuse becomes very short and I lose my patience with my children, my husband and my life in general far too easily. Leila becomes a cleaning fanatic (a problem my husband wishes I had) and cleans her house to control “something” in her life. For Bob, he knows he is past due for a break when he begins to dread going home from work several days in a row. Tom goes to the gym and works out like a maniac because he HAS to do it. Martha seeks comfort in junk food, “Chocolate covered pretzels make me feel better, but only for about 5 minutes, so I keep eating them.” She says. You need to take a moment and inventory what your ‘yellow’ light signs are. It is best not to try to identify what those signs are while you are under stress. Choose a time that you are relatively calm and look back and see if you can point out some of the warning signs that you needed a break with a bit of perspective. Having that list in a place you see daily (think bathroom mirror or refrigerator) can help remind you to take a break when needed.
Do you think it is selfish to take a break when you have a special needs child? If so, here is a bit of advice…. get over it. Not only will YOU benefit, but those around you, including your children, will enjoy the benefits of a relaxed and happy person. This was crystallized for me at least a year before I knew any of my children had autism. We were enjoying a wonderful vacation on September 11, 2001. I only had two children at the time; Katie was 23 months and Megan was 5 months old. On that fateful day, we just finished a fabulous picnic in the countryside only to return to the house we rented to find out about the tragedies of New York and elsewhere. We used to live in Manhattan and still had very dear friends who did. At that very moment, we did not know if we lost any of our friends and I was completely stressed out — I wasn’t crying and carrying on, but clearly upset. Guess what? My two very young children absolutely freaked out and acted up in reaction to my stress. My very level-headed husband told me to go upstairs and collect myself and come down when I was calmer because it was affecting our children. That day taught me an invaluable lesson. It taught me that my stress levels affected my children’s behavior and mood. Even at the “ripe ‘ol age” of 23 and 5 months, my girls were able to teach me the lesson of the adage “happy parent, happy kids; unhappy parent, unhappy kids.”
I am certainly not unique. Lydia tells a story about how after a brutal day at work she came home to a house that was an absolute mess, “I was at my wit’s end and just wanted to crawl into my bed and cry. I didn’t yell and scream, but my son Ethan, who has Down syndrome, certainly knew that I was upset. My normally happy-go-lucky son had a full out tantrum. I think he was just responding to my stress levels.” Lydia may have hit the nail on the head. “When children see parents completely stressed out, it can be a frightening experience for them and they may act out, especially children with limited verbal abilities, who cannot ask you what is wrong” claims Melissa VanBuren, Ed.D., a developmental specialist and co-founder of 3,4 Academy in Westport, Ct. “You do not need to protect your children from all stress that you have, but if you aren’t using good coping skills, you might not only be making yourself miserable – your child could be stressed as a result.”
Once you’ve mastered the signs that you need a break, it is critical that you apply the brakes, not hit the accelerator and try to gun through the yellow light. Obviously there will be times you cannot give yourself a time out due to an emergency situation. In most cases, you can, at least, give yourself a bit of a breather, even if it is for a minute or two. You need to discover what gives you the most bang for your break buck. Come up with a list of quick, emergency fixes when you just need a moment rather than a true break away from it all. Calling a friend, turning on a short video for your kids, or taking a moment to splash some water on your face are all examples of tools you can use for a brief respite.
Before you can go off and take a longer recharge, you need to focus upon who will be taking care of your children. Who you use depends a lot on the needs of your child. Most states have agencies which provide respite workers. These are people who are trained to care for special needs children. Usually, respite workers will only help with the children you have with special needs, not any of your “typical” children. Others have found great success with babysitting or swapping with other special needs parents. If you live near a university which offers degrees in special education, those students often are looking for real life experiences with special needs children and can be highly motivated caregivers. Nursing students are also great resources for respite. Friends of mine use high school students that attend their church, in essence, as mother’s helpers, so parents can take a break in the home, but still a respite from their child. Family members that live locally are also a wonderful resource, especially if your child is comfortable with them. Bottom line, figure out several people who you feel comfortable caring for your children while you are taking a break. Knowing that your children are well cared and happy will make your break that much sweeter and relaxing.
Initially, many parents find it difficult to know what to do when they allow themselves to break at the red light. They are at loose ends. Like any new skill, it takes some practice. Do not expect the first couple times to be completely regenerative. In fact, you might end up more stressed at first. Take it easy and give it some time and I promise you that it will give you great joy, rest and rejuvenation. Trina from Fairfield, CT., just had the most wonderful morning. On her birthday she treated herself to a facial, “my friends all remarked that they had never seen me so rested and peaceful after that beauty treatment”. I see a therapist each week to discuss my sadness regarding my daughter’s health conditions. I felt so much better after the facial than I ever have after seeing the therapist. It was so wonderfully self-indulgent. During these tough economic times, facials are an expense most aren’t able to afford. But you don’t have to spend a fortune to “chill out”. Here are a couple of low-cost ways to take your time out:
- Long bath or shower before bed. Do this after your children are asleep, or better yet, have your spouse or significant other put them to bed for you.
- Take a day off from work, when your children are in school, and take a nap, read the paper in peace, catch up on fun reading or hang out with a friend or your spouse.
- Go to a friend’s house, without your children, and grab a glass of wine and watch some cheesy reality show.
- Take a walk on a beautiful day or engage in some exercise you enjoy.
- Go out with the guys and watch a sporting event at a local bar or restaurant
- Hire a caregiver and grab a burger or quick dinner with your spouse or friend. Have them call you after your kids are put to bed AND your kids are asleep. Then go home and enjoy your quiet home together.
As a final thought, I’d like to suggest that you schedule in some of these breaks, both long and quick ones, so you can plan on them just as you would any recurring activity for your child. You need to remember that taking a break for yourself is as important as any therapy for your child. How often really depends on you and your stress levels. No matter what, knowing that you have a break around the corner can be a great way to help calm yourself when you are stressed out. It always helps you stay centered when you are able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
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This Article is adapted from PSN Magazine; 11/2009 and appeared on our November/December 2015 Magazine