When Kids are Special
“As a second grade teacher, I see a lot of parents separate around this time. They’ve had issues and now the kids are a little older and at school more full time. They look at each other and decide that they don’t actually want to be together anymore. It’s even tougher on the parents whose children have special needs.”
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School Aged Stress
My son’s second grade teacher showed no surprise when I casually noticed that quite a number of parents were divorcing or separating in our neighborhood. She said it was very common when kids hit school age and it seems to happen even more when the children have special needs. She said that by the time kids were in grade two more parents had separated than are together still.
The stress level of having children is not to be underestimated. Even more challenging is that we now live in a face-paced environment where both parents work and many do not have any support from families or relatives. On top of that, there is no end to parent-shaming, particularly mothers. Undiagnosed issues are a huge unknown: Is my child different? Or just difficult? How will I know? And if I know, what do I do? Should I medicate them?
My son’s second grade teacher shared this with me one day when we were chatting. I had casually noted that there seemed to be a slew of parents divorcing in our neighborhood and she said that it was very common when kids hit school age. She continued to say that when the kids are little, parents get so busy just trying to get things done, they hardly have time to invest in their relationships. Spouses end up having very little communication other than handing kids off to each other. Then the kids suddenly have their own friends and are at school; at this point in time, parents look at each other and realize that they no long have anything to talk about.
The Stats Aren’t Pretty
I don’t want to get into the statistics of divorce, but studies show that the numbers aren’t pretty (e.g. Divorce Statistics 2019/2020). On top of that, the younger generation seems to be avoiding marriage altogether! Add parenting on top of marriage, and tempers rise. Parenting a special needs child compounds the usual challenges (e.g. Challenges and Issues for Special Needs Children). If you sprinkle CPTSD on top that, you get a whole lot of opportunities to get triggered. Constant triggers without rest and reset time put our bodies in a heightened state of stress, causing chronic physical health issues. Our ability to handle the tough days become compromised as well.
So, what can we do when all we want to do is scream at our useless partners and try not to make things worse with our kids, all the while needing to take care of ourselves?
Remember the Love
Feel the love, but don’t feel like you have to take everyone’s advice. Surely there will be something here and there that you might actually find helpful, but don’t feel pressure to take every piece of advice. No one really knows the specific combination of your challenges quite like you do. Someone may have a PhD in Psychology, but you have a PhD in you! So, accept their love and concern, but just listen and toss aside the suggestions until one of them resonates with you. At the very least, joining a like-minded group dealing with some of the same challenges can help you see that 1) you aren’t the only one dealing with certain challenges and 2) maybe someone else was able to come up with a trick or tactic that you can try.
Manage Your Aspirations
Don’t let averages or societal standards impact your expectations of your kids. No kid is the same and everyone develops differently. One friend did not start speaking until she was 5 — she’s now a prolific speaker and successful English teacher. One child I know, not to mention any names, was having night time enuresis issues until an age that felt a bit old. But the parent, not to mention any names, was told by a friend that the kid would not still be having those issues by the time he walks down the aisle. True enough. But the frustration of dealing with it every single night was enough to send said parent into spirals of anxiety. So the focus became, not so much get them to do what I want at the exact time I want, but more dealing with the anxiety that the situation would never end and I, er, I mean, said parent, would never be able to sleep through the night again. Spoiler alert, both kids got through that stage just fine.
Self-Care May Be Focusing on the One Next Step
When you are overwhelmed, it is easy to listen to those horrible voices telling you that you aren’t getting anything done that you SHOULD get done. Or… from the opposite end of the spectrum ‘Don’t forget to practice self-care!’ Neither are helpful when you aren’t in the right mind frame and both can be a source of triggers that start up the spirals of hopelessness. So… think of self-care at this moment as a way to get yourself to feel safe again. And think of success as being able to take one step in the right direction. Don’t set yourself up for another set of triggers by defining success of self-care as things that you just aren’t going to be able to manage.
Be Aware of Your Emotions
Remember that what goes up, must come down. There will be good days and there will be bad days. If you are having a bad day, don’t keep comparing it to the perfect day you were planning or expecting. Just know that we all have good days and we all have bad ones. If your partner is not being helpful and triggering you, just be aware that you are overwhelmed. Even if they were giving you good advice, you might not take it as such. And if they are being lug heads, remember that you aren’t in a great state of mind to deal with it when you are stressed and tired. If you can’t help but react badly to their lack of effort, useless effort, or sincere effort to help, apologize later. We often are asked to journal. It may feel a bit overwhelming when your brain is in the midst of a lot of chaos, so break it down to the smallest step you can take to help you get to the point of being aware of your emotions. Taking a breath is always a good place to start. Then listening to the voices in your head to hear what they are saying. Are you angry? Hurt? Sad? Confused? Being aware of your emotions will help with the healing process.
Rely on Routines to Get through Tough Moments
Every partnership looks different. If it’s not a partnership, you may have to make other decisions. If it is a partnership (just with different lived experiences and assumptions), it will take communication to get through the tough times. CPTSD makes this harder too. Sometimes things trigger us. Then the explosion happens somewhere else, and it can be difficult to see the connection. This is especially true if triggers are related to long time ago childhood issues. Build simple routines to get used to talking about issues in a non-confrontational way. A regular short family meeting might be a way to address issues. In the heat of the moment, you can say, can we add this to our family meeting on Saturday? I think we can handle this differently.
Create a Narrative that Works FOR You, Not AGAINST You
The important thing is to remember that you will be okay. You may have to make some difficult decisions. You can get help from people who know how to help. And… just as some problems took years to develop, some problems may take some time to get under control. If you can prevent yourself from adding another layer of stress on top of yourself, you have a win for the day!
That is to say, telling yourself ‘Yes, yes, this can be normal — frustrating… but normal, difficult to manage, but normal’ is healthier than grumbling ‘I can’t believe this is happening yet again… I can’t stand this… if this happens again, I’m going to throw myself out the window.’ Or ‘I don’t like this at all and I need to fix this problem, but I don’t have an exact answer right this moment. I will take one little step to get me closer to finding an answer, which may take me longer than is ideal, but I will get there!’ can be more sustainable than ‘I hate this, I hate my life, this has to be fixed now now now, because I just can’t stand it anymore!’