The Journey Toward Our Values as Parents
Over the years, we have written several articles on tips and tricks for supporting our children’s needs. We’ve written about elopement, grief, self-care skills, and visual supports. In these articles, we generally discuss mapping out our child’s goals and then give some tips for how to achieve those goals. However, not all of these topics are important for everyone. In addition, we’ve had a lot of focus on what parents can do to support our children. But what can parents do for themselves? We have all heard the phrase, “put your oxygen mask on first” when it comes to supporting others. And for those parents with special needs children, this is a daunting task.
Research shows that parents of families with special needs experience increased levels of stress (Fuller & Fitter, 2020). This makes sense. There will likely be extra doctor appointments, extra people in our home interrupting our daily lives, and extra worries for our children down the road. We are humans though, and some of the things we do may not be in line with who we want to be. Let’s use an example.
Marianne is a single mother of two children, Suzanne (10) and Jesus (8). Suzanne has Cerebral Palsy and Autism. Marianne works two jobs: a teacher during the day and tutor in the late afternoon. Both of her children attend an after school program that provides transportation, and Marianne arrives home just before her children do on a daily basis. When the kids get home, they generally have snacks and downtime. Suzanne has after school therapy. Jesus plays in his room by himself mostly because he is a target of Suzanne’s aggression. Marianne wants to be a good mom and give an equal amount of attention to both of her kids, but she finds that she is more focused on Suzanne, especially on the days the therapy providers are in the home. She feels guilty because of this on a daily basis. One day Marianne gets frustrated with Suzy and yells at her, “Can’t you just do it on your own?!” Suzy then cries and Marianne thinks to herself, “I’m a terrible mother.”
How many of us have been in a similar situation? How many of us have felt guilt or shame as a result of this, and it affected our parenting? Many of us feel guilt for several reasons, and it compounds. As parents, we might be so focused on our children’s needs that we ignore our own. Marianne did something that didn’t align with her value of “being a good mother.”
This is the power of values. When we act with our values in mind, we may find that we can be more fulfilled and less stressed. Let’s talk more about what these are. Values are like directions of a compass for us. They help us in our daily lives by pointing us in a direction of who we want to be. For instance, if I want to be a compassionate mother and my child is upset, I will try to take perspective of how they are feeling. If consistency and honesty in parenting are values for me, I will try to make sure I always follow through in what I say.
When we discuss values, there are two important things we need to keep in mind. One is that they are not goals. A goal is an end post. A value is an arrow that doesn’t end and may change direction. That leads us to the second important thing about values. They are flexible and can change.
“What was important yesterday may no longer have any meaning for you today.” Our day-to-day routine changes, and even hour-by-hour, we might see our value going from being compassionate to being “just.” In the example with Marianne, she may not have felt she was being just or fair to her other child, which led to extra stress for her.
So, we have discussed what values are and why they might be important to us. But how do we know what our values are? Well, I was doing some reading and happened to find a good exercise for us to try.
Rich & Meaningful Life Exercise by Russ Harris (2009):
Values: What matters to you in the “big picture”? What do you want to stand for? What personal qualities and strengths do you want to develop? How do you want to enrich or improve your relationships? How would you like to “grow” or develop through addressing your issue(s) or problem(s)?
Goals & Actions: What are you currently doing that improves your life in the long run? What do you want to start or do more of? What life-enriching goals do you want to achieve? What life-enhancing actions do you want to take? What life-improving skills would you like to develop?
One easy way is to set values in four life domains: 1) work or education, 2) relationships, 3) personal growth or health, and 4) leisure. When you engage in these activities, who do you want to be?
Here are some examples of specific values we can use (in the Happiness Trap by Russ Harris, 2010). This list is not exclusive but hopefully will give us a good head start.
- Assertiveness: to respectfully stand up for my rights and request what I want.
- Compassion: to act with kindness towards those who are suffering.
- Courage: to be courageous or brave; to persist in the face of fear, threat, or difficulty.
- Fitness: to maintain or improve my fitness; to look after my physical and mental health and wellbeing.
- Honesty: to be honest, truthful, and sincere with myself and others.
- Humor: to see and appreciate the humorous side of life.
- Love: to act lovingly or affectionately towards myself or others.
- Order: to be orderly and organized.
- Respect: to be respectful towards myself or others; to be polite, considerate and show positive regard.
- Self-awareness: to be aware of my own thoughts, feelings, and actions.
- Self-care: to look after my health and well-being, and get my needs met.
- Spirituality: to connect with things bigger than myself.
Remember, our values are the directions of a compass that point us to where we want to go, or who we want to be. For example, when Marianne feels guilt, she might want to consider if she has been acting within her values. Had she given a close to equal amount of attention to both of her kids that day?
Values help us navigate our days and how to act toward ourselves and others. We challenge you to pick one value that is important to you this week and carry it with you in your daily activities!