How to breathe deep and take a break so you can be the best parent you can to your child with special needs.

Different Dream welcomes Sarah Broady today as she talks about her discovery on the difficulty of being able to let go and take a break from the role of “special needs mom.” She shares her own story and offers ideas for ways to take breaks, how to breathe deep, and how to be successful in doing so.

My husband gave me a wonderful Mother’s Day gift this year. I have a friend who has a retreat center, called Cloudland, with her husband on their property in Ohio. She also happens to be a client of mine, for whom I am redesigning her website. We had not yet had the opportunity to meet in person, and I needed some more photos of the property for the website project and she graciously hosted me in her home the weekend of Mother’s Day so we could spend time together and so we could work on the website together. I drove the three and a half hours to her home in Ohio on Thursday afternoon and came back Saturday evening. I had a wonderful time meeting and spending time with Kathy, and I can certainly say that her retreat center provided the getaway I was in need of. The grounds were so lovely, it was quiet and peaceful, and I enjoyed exploring the small quaint town of Oxford. There was just one problem: I had a little trouble breathing. And it wasn’t allergies or asthma.

You know that “deep, cleansing breath” you’re supposed to take during the cool-down after exercise? After you get your heart pumping hard for 20 minutes straight trying to keep up with the Zumba-esque moves your instructor seems to execute so flawlessly, you finally get to slow down and attempt to return your breathing to normal. Eventually, you take in one last big breath, and heave it out, ridding yourself of all the tension built up in your muscles. I could take in a big breath, and I could heave it all out. But the tension was still there. So I would take another deep breath, and try breathing out slowly, pushing it all out as much as possible. Somehow though, I felt like I needed to keep pushing out air, except I had already forced out as much as I could and had no more air left to push. More than lacking the peaceful feeling that kind of breathing out gives, it was as if there was something in my bones that just wouldn’t let go. Like squeezing all the air out of an air mattress, but no matter how hard you push down and roll it up, pockets of air still taunt you, refusing escape.

Trying to Breathe

I met with Kathy in the prayer room on the property and we talked through Scripture together. We spent time in contemplative prayer on our own. I walked outside through the gardens and found a spot under a tree to sit and journal a little. The sun felt warm on my skin, and its light produced a ballet of nature as it shone down on the ground from around the leaves above my head dancing in the breeze. I closed my eyes and deeply breathed in the air, infused by the fragrant garden flowers. The blue sky was decorated with cotton ball clouds and the gentle wind sang a song of peace through the trees and grass.

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I almost felt it. I almost felt the complete letting go of it all. And I really wanted to. I really wanted to breathe deep, let it out, and be satisfied and calm. But the quiver in my bones wasn’t going easily. I tried prying its grip. I filled the soaking tub with lavender bubble bath and took a long hot bath before bed on my last night and turned Pandora on to some favorite music while the heat seeped in. I could feel a loosening in my chest, and I could breathe a little easier. But it never fully released. Even still, I slept very well, had a very enjoyable morning and headed home in the afternoon feeling refreshed.

I couldn’t help but wonder why my spirit felt so anxious. I’ve been away from home without my husband or children before. And I don’t worry about any of them when I’m gone. I’ve been on overnight retreats with a friend for ministry wives, and I’ve spent nights at my parent’s house by myself. It’s not that I don’t miss my family, but I don’t worry about them. I have a son, Sam, with autism, but I have never once been concerned for his well-being or had any reservations about the capabilities of my husband to care for him. As Sam’s mom, I am mainly the one who is with him during the day, or helping him as needed as church. But Kyle is an amazing father. He takes Sam to therapy and talks about his strategies with the therapist too. He deals with meltdowns or discipline as needed as well as being a part of the fun and games. He has followed through on the behavioral plan when Sam struggled so I could have a break. And he was the one who suggested I stay for an extra day for an extended getaway. So, if I had nothing to worry about, and had no reservations or anxieties over leaving Sam and his brothers in my husband’s fully capable, loving hands, what was the deal?

I realized that I was feeling on edge because that’s what I was used to. Only it wasn’t something I was always fully cognitively aware of.

I have a program on my computer that protects against viruses and malware. We installed the program when we got the computer, and it runs silently in the background as I browse through Facebook, or my email, or Google. I don’t think about it until it shows me an alert. But the program itself is always on the lookout, always examining all the information I’m accessing online to make sure it is safe. Sometimes it makes decisions for me and shows me a warning about a website before letting me continue. Those warnings are crucial for me to pay attention to so I don’t do anything to damage my computer by allowing viruses to infect the hard drive.

In a way, I am constantly running my own protection program in my mind at all times. It runs silently in the background as I go through my day, but it is constantly analyzing every bit of information my brain processes to check for possible “viruses” or problems. But because of this “protection program”, I am always on guard. I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’m always holding my breath, waiting to exhale. I’m always considering every possible outcome of every scenario every moment of the day. And when you’re on constant guard for eight years (since his diagnosis), your body gets used to that state of being. It becomes increasingly difficult to allow yourself not to be on guard – to take a break. It’s hard to do something you enjoy, and truly enjoy it – without wondering how it might affect your child or family now or later. And when a potential problem is detected, it throws up red flags to the front of my mind and this little voice forces me to consider the possible threat, and how to proceed from there.

So how can parents take a break? How do we breathe deeply and truly relax? The answer isn’t easy: we have to train our brains. Or rather, re-train the brain. Our lives as special needs parents have already trained our brains to function the way they do now – always on guard, always preparing ahead of time, always five steps ahead of our kids and everyone else around us, and sleeping with one ear tuned to our kids and one eye opened. But we don’t really have years of relaxing ahead of us to re-train our brain not to be that way anymore. Yet, in order to get a much needed break, we need to do something for the short interim to allow us space to breathe and regroup.

First, here are just a few ways to take a break (though I write with moms specifically in mind, the principles for dads are the same):

  1. ~ Take a nap (Don’t laugh just yet!)
  2. ~ Spend an evening out of the house with friends
  3. ~ Get away for one or more nights
  4. ~ Take a half or whole day to yourself- go shopping, take a nature hike, go somewhere you enjoy and read a book or journal (coffeeshops are great for this!)

For any of these ideas, take these steps to better help you “escape”:

  1. ~ Talk to your husband or other caregiver for your child(ren) and let them know what you want to do. Their support is crucial to your peace of mind. They need to be able and willing to take care of your child with special needs without needing to call you for help throughout your time away.
  2. ~ Prepare your child with special needs. Use social stories, pictures, or regular conversation to explain to them what you will be doing. You might not need to go to this length to take a nap, but do it if it will help your child understand better. Their peace of mind is yours too. Use specific times if you can plan that far ahead. If you plan to go away on Friday and return on Saturday, start talking about it on Monday. Let them ask questions. Remind them of who will be with them, Dad, Grandma, Uncle, close family friend – someone they know and trust. If it helps them, give them one of your shirts or something they can use to remind them of you (especially if you typically wear a perfume that they like to smell).
  3. ~ Wherever you go, and for however long you are away, try not to call home just to check in. (Not counting calling to say good night.) If your husband or other caregiver is with them, and they are fully supportive of you and won’t call you so you can take a break, then take advantage of the opportunity and stay off the phone. If something is really wrong, or if there’s truly an issue you need to be aware of, they will contact you. No news is good news. I hesitate to write this, but you simply cannot be at your child’s side for their entire life at all times. There may be times when you won’t be there, for whatever reason. These short breaks are wonderful teaching times to slowly and gently prepare them for those times when you won’t always be there. For that reason alone, there is great purpose in you getting away for a time for a break.
  4. ~ Practice deep breathing exercises. Breathe in deeply through your nose as you silently count to four, hold it and count to six, then breathe it out slowly for eight counts. Do this a few times over. This slows your heart rate down, helps your brain to stop racing, and calms your body.
  5. ~ If you struggle with anxious thoughts that start with the words, “What if…?” or you begin imagining what might be happening at home, take your thoughts captive and hold them up in the light of truth. Just like bankers examine large bills by holding them up to the light to examine the watermarks printed in the money, you can do the same thing with your thoughts. Take the “what if” or anxious thought and ask yourself if that “what if” is true – is it true, right now, at this very moment? If it isn’t, (here’s a hint: what if’s are never true, because you can’t know if it exists or not), tell yourself that it’s not true. Don’t call home and ask if it’s happening. If there’s a problem that home needs your help with, they will call you. Otherwise, assume all is well. Tell yourself that those thoughts are only there to distract you and steal your joy. Then say what you know to be true out loud. “(Husband/Caregiver’s name) is with (child with special needs.) They are fine. They are having fun today doing (fill in the blank). I do not need to worry about them.” Then pray, and ask God to help you relax and focus on Him, your surroundings, and enjoy what you are doing.
  6. ~ Keep trying even if it’s hard. If you’re with friends or other family, give them your phone to hold onto for you so you’re not constantly looking for incoming texts. Let your friend have that responsibility for you. Your phone is on and will make a noise if something comes through. You don’t need to keep making sure it’s on or loud enough. Amazing things happen when you leave your phone behind and go out for a walk, or out wherever else. Nothing bad is going to happen just because your phone is not attached to your hand. And the saying, “out of sight, out of mind” is truer than you think. When I left my phone in my room for my meeting time with Kathy and my quiet time with the Lord, I was actually able to breathe easier because I removed the source of stress and pressure I felt, always wondering what text or email might be coming in any minute.

The first time you do get away, whether it’s for an hour, a day, a night, or more, it may not be perfect. Do not be discouraged because you couldn’t let go and really breathe. It takes time to train your brain to let go and be able to take a break without constant worrying. Maybe start small – start with just a nap! Take a nap at a friend’s house, or have your husband take the kids out somewhere for a couple of hours (don’t forget about properly preparing them for it!) so you can relax in a comfortable, familiar environment. DO NOT CLEAN OR TAKE CARE OF ANY WORK DURING THIS TIME!!! This is not the time to catch up on laundry or dishes. This time is extremely important to your well-being, and that means settling in for your favorite movie or good with a bag of double chocolate Milanos and a plethora of Reese’s peanut butter cups, and soaking in the quiet. Rest and sleep in peace, if only for a short time. You’d be amazed at how rested you can feel after even 20 minutes!

Your child with special needs likely thrives on routine. Maybe you can work in “Mom’s time” to the schedule every month – or every week? Talk to your husband and/or other caregivers for your child and discuss how everyone can work together for the betterment of your mental health. A rested and relaxed mom is a happier mom! I have found after periods of time away from the home, that not only am I feeling happier, but I am ready to get back to my kids and jump back in the pool. I also have found it to be easier to let go when I’m with a friend than when I’m alone. But I thrive on being around people. You might operate in the opposite way. That’s okay. Whatever works for you, do it!

Just like you are always doing what is best for your child with special needs, filling his needs for him as much as possible to keep meltdowns or frustrations to a minimum, you are doing yourself a disservice if you don’t treat yourself in the same way. Allow yourself room to breathe. If you don’t, you won’t have enough oxygen to get through your job as a special needs parent. Don’t suffocate yourself and make it more difficult to do what you need to do for your child and family. Find ways to breathe.

Breathe.

And breathe deep.