Parents with chronic stress
Our hearts ache and are filled with worry when your child gets sick. Our stress levels increase and may even shoot through the roof. If we have a child who has significant medical needs, our stress levels may stay elevated for weeks, months and years.
Instead of stress levels returning to normal levels parents of children with complex physical and emotional needs may live with chronic stress. In one study researchers found that mothers of adolescents and adults with autism experience chronic stress. Their stress was similar to the stress of parents of children with cancer, individuals living with PTSD and combat soldiers. Caring for a child with health challenges is as both physically and psychologically one of the hardest things you can be asked to do.
The chronic stress levels of parents whose children need far more care than an average child can’t be addressed with an hour of self-care time here and there. The quality of life of both the child and the parents needs careful attention and ongoing assessment.
Relationship under pressure
If your child has complex medical needs not only do you experience heightened stress but so does your partner. Hence, there is a danger that the two of you will both start taking out your stress on each other. You may find yourself bickering and fighting over little and big things.
When you are looking after a child who needs extra attention and whose health problems make your heart ache, it is vital that you and your partner work as a team. You can acknowledge that there is a considerable amount of stress in your lives but this stress doesn’t have to enter your relationship.
It’s very easy for external stress to become relationship stress. This can happen even if the source of stress is joyful, such as planning a wedding. When the source of stress is your worst nightmare come true, it’s more than likely that it will impact your relationship.
Protect your friendship
You can protect your relationship by remembering that you are each other’s best friends. Talk to each not just as co-parents and partners but as you speak to a dear friend. Talk about your worries and fears but also about funny and happy experiences and memories. It’s more than ok to joke and laugh even when life’s tough.
Be gracious with each other. If one of you is having a tough day, they are not struggling because of you or because they are unhappy in the relationship. They are having a lousy day because they have a sick child. Be forgiving.
Understand the underlying emotions
It’s hard to be understanding and supportive if your partner displaying some difficult emotions. They might be frustrated, impatient, angry, anxious, or numb. Even though it’s hard, see if you can really get to the bottom of the core emotion. What’s really going on for them?
For example, your partner is annoyed and frustrated that you didn’t manage the daily blood draw at the hospital the way you had discussed in advance. They criticize you. They tell you off for not demanding the pediatric anesthesiologist to take the blood. The core issue is, of course, not the blood draw. That’s on the surface. Deep down, your partner feels powerless and terrified.
What do they need from you in times of distress? They most certainly don’t need you to bite their head off because they don’t realize that the blood was drawn by the hospital’s best phlebotomist who did not waste a single vein. Instead, they may need your help in being able to see your child in pain. They may need you to reassure that it’s not always going to be this hard.
This applies to you as well, of course. Next time you are in a foul mood moaning about something quite unimportant, slow down. What are you feeling deep down? What do you need from your partner? Can you ask for what you need?
Life is not just for surviving
In order for you and your relationship to withstand the stresses and pressure of caring for a child with complex needs, your needs must be met. When you and your partner can ask what you need from each other and your needs are met with love and affection, you are able to counteract the daily stresses. You are also strengthening that loving bond between the two of you.
You’ll get through this–together.
Matleena Vanhanen is a licensed Counselling Psychologist with over 20 years of experience working in Europe and the Middle East. She has a practice of couples and individual therapy at the MapleTree Center in Dubai.