How to look after your mental health if you're caring for a disabled child

18th February 2020
Dan White and Natasha Devon and Louisa Mclachlin

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Caring for a child with a disability can often feel overwhelming for parent-carers, but what is the impact on their own mental health? And how can they look after their emotional and psychological wellbeing? To debate this question, Pod-ability host Dan White, himself a parent to disabled daughter Emily, is joined by Natasha Devon, MBE, a mental health campaigner and author of A beginner’s guide to being mental: An A to Z, and Louise Mcloughlin, whose daughter Megan has spina bifida. 

Our closed Facebook group offers a safe, private, supportive and understanding space to share issues raised by this episode with like-minded parents and families of children with special educational needs and disabilites.

Dan White Natasha Devon and Louisa Mclachlin Variety Podability

  • Key recommendations for parents from this episode's discussion 

  • If you’re feeling overwhelmed, break things down into bite-size chunks. If you still can’t manage them, make the chunks even smaller.
  • Try this anxiety-relieving to-do list exercise: first, get three pieces of coloured paper – one green, one orange, and one red. On the green piece of paper, write down the problems you have direct control over, on the orange piece of paper, list the problems that have a solution but need someone else’s help with, and on the red piece of paper, list the things that you can’t control at all. Then tear up the red piece of paper and stamp on it – or even burn it. What you’ll have left is a to-do list broken down into manageable chunks. 
  • Alternatively, you can divide your problems up between four quadrants on a piece of paper: urgent, non-urgent, easy and difficult. Then do the thing that is easy and urgent straight away and you’ll feel like you’ve achieved something.
  • Having the right equipment for your child can make a huge difference – whether that’s the right wheelchair, a good hoist or a sensory room.
  • Recognise within yourself when you’re starting to struggle with your mental health and be prepared to admit to yourself when you’re not ‘alright’. 
  • Also, be honest with your children when you’re starting to struggle. Children tend to bring everything back to themselves, so they need to be reassured that your mental health problem is not about them, but rather to do with something completely outside of them. 
  • Give your loved ones a task they can do for you, to make them feel as though they are being helpful even if they can’t fix your mental health problem.
  • It’s healthy to give a window to your anger, but don’t let it spill over into your whole life. Have a designated spot – or even just one special chair – where you can go to rant and vent when you’re wound up about something. Then, when you walk away from that spot, you may find you're able to leave your anger behind you. 
  • Not everyone is particularly verbal, and language can be limited when it comes to expressing emotions. Try to find physical ways to express your feelings that go beyond the limitations of language such as punching a pillow or going for a walk. Anything creative, like painting or drawing, can also be hugely helpful.
  • Rebalancing yourself and de-stressing doesn’t necessarily require a large amount of time. If you don’t have a whole day to yourself, an hour can still be hugely helpful, and if you don’t have a whole hour to yourself, you can still use the small chunks of time you do have available to relax and recharge yourself.
  • If you have a mental health condition, a diagnostic label can be helpful in that it gives you access to a community of people who have a similar label and who will be able to give you tips and provide support. In addition, you can’t fight an opponent if you don’t know what your opponent is. Just don’t let your label define you.
  • Giving your mental health issue a pet name (preferably a silly one) can be a way for you to introduce humour and so create some emotional distance from it, which is part of the recovery process.
  • Get into the habit of evaluating and articulating your emotions every day. Have some set questions that you and your partner ask each other every day (like rating your day from one to seven). You can do that on a parent-to-child and child-to-parent basis too.
  • The charity Young Minds has a parent helpline, where you’ll find somebody not only available to listen, but also to give you some helpful advice.
  • Practice being kinder and more forgiving to yourself – we all have faults and frailties.
  • Enjoy quality time with your child. It’s far too easy to get caught up in the challenges of parenting a disabled child and not appreciate what you have.
  • Try to take every day as it comes. 
The Pod-Ability signature music track is by Sonic Boom Six. Many thanks for their kind generosity.