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Sunday, January 16, 2022
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These words, commonly quoted within the Jewish world, and, I hope, throughout the general population, carry great meaning. As a Self-Esteem Facilitator and psychotherapist, it is my goal to help people understand that caring for oneself is a mandate and that, like the instructions given by flight attendants on airplanes, you must care for yourself first if you are going to do your best in caring for others.

Anyone who is a parent experiences—along with the joys and pleasures, the delights and fun— some frustration, disappointment, anger, feelings of incompetence and even exasperation. And we all know that tension and crankiness can creep in. These are what happens when we are parenting the “average” child with “average” needs. What is going on with the parents of a “special needs” child or children and when, frequently, this child or children are part of a larger family with parents trying to meet all of their needs? Needless to say, it can be overwhelming, leaving one feeling drained, depleted and maybe, sometimes, even defeated.

So, how can these parents “be” for themselves—maintaining a feeling of self-worth and self- renewal—while fulfilling what they believe to be their responsibilities to their children?

I’d like to share a story offered by a woman participating in a process group I was facilitating for a group of special needs parents. The theme of the group was “why aren’t I getting what I want out of life?” This woman said she had been at a desperate point. She told her husband she didn’t think she could go on. It wasn’t just dealing with all the children and their needs and demands, there were additional issues in life pulling at her as well and she was just too overwhelmed. Her husband asked, “If you could do one thing, whatever you want, what would it be?” She said what she wanted was impossible—they lived in Chicago, it was the middle of the winter, and she had no time to do it. “Well, what is it?” he asked. “I’d like to learn how to scuba dive.”

For their anniversary, which was not long after that, during a celebratory dinner out, he presented her with an envelope. Inside was a gift certificate for scuba diving lessons given by an instructor in Chicago. Included was his promise to be at home with the children when she took her lessons. Not only did she learn to scuba dive, she became so expert that she eventually passed an advanced certification awarded to only very few people.

There are several key factors at play here. But the first and most salient one is knowing what you WANT. And, in fact, in my psychotherapy practice, one of the first concepts I try to introduce to the people I work with in terms of making decisions is to ask themselves, “What do I want?” It is amazing that this idea of regarding what one wants is so infrequently considered. It is so instilled in us to do what someone else wants us to do or needs us to do or demands of us to do. So, if you are a parent feeling somewhat overwhelmed and needing some way to get some relief, first think about what it is you want. What it is you’d like to do that would help you feel you’re getting away and nourishing your own soul. It doesn’t have to be as exotic as scuba diving. I knew someone who would always feel replenished by taking a long, quiet bath, with the requirement that everyone basically forget she was even in the house. Or it could be taking a walk, perusing a mall, having a cappuccino with a friend or by yourself. The main feature should be a sense of self : “This is for me.... and I deserve it. I’m worth it.”

Another piece that could prove to be very important is finding a therapy or support group. It could be a group specifically formed for people with a common situation (i.e., “Parents of Autistic Children”, “Parents of Developmentally Disabled Children”, etc.) which is the best idea if you are looking for concrete suggestions and advice. Or, if you just want a place where you can express yourself freely and with the guarantee of confidentiality, then a general ongoing group would work as well.

Why is this such a good idea? Nobody is quite sure why, but being in a group, developing the relationships, feeling safe and connected, has a way of helping people evolve, become more creative, acquire the ability to set boundaries, and achieve their goals. And, while, eventually, all of these changes in yourself should have a positive impact on the others in your life, the time spent not only at the group, but traveling back and forth is your time—time to express yourself and to be with your thoughts and feelings. Keeping the cell phone off for as long as possible (especially during group), adds to the richness of the experience.

So, who’s going to watch the kids while you’re doing this? Well, if a spouse is not available, think hard—perhaps another family member or a neighbor. Of course, there is the option of paying for a babysitter/caretaker, but, if that is not a possibility, often high school students are seeking chesed or community service hours. Organizations might offer respite services. Or, perhaps you could “swap” time with another person who is also looking for some time off.

There are things to do while at home as well. Music is a great spirit-lifter and tension reliever. Think about what kind of music is most pleasing and/or elevating for you. Make sure to have some tapes or CD’s available and, if things are feeling really difficult, play them. Affirmations and visualizations are very powerful tools to help people cope with and even change not only their mood, but their attitude and approach and even the situation itself.

Also, affirmations are very strong, positive statements that should always be made in the present tense, as if what you want to be happening is already happening. These would be statements like: “I am always calm and in control”; “I am capable and am easily handling all situations that arise.” Develop 5 to 10 such statements and just say them to yourself at whatever opportune time may arise—usually showering or preparing dinner work well. Whenever there’s a time you can do what you’re doing and it doesn’t require absolute focus, times where your mind would usually be engaged in a “stream of consciousness” activity. A good way to start, a kind of a “base,” are the following four generic affirmations (which I actually picked up from an article on self-esteem through which I first learned about this technique):

I am competent

I am creative

I deserve respect

I own this day

Visualizations are an intentional effort to create a scenario in your mind for a specific purpose. The purpose in this case might be to help yourself calm down. If so, think about situations in which you feel relaxed and peaceful. It could be that luxurious bath, being at the beach, walking in a green field of wild flowers. It doesn’t matter what, as long as it has meaning for you. Just close your eyes, even for a minute or two, and picture yourself engaged in that activity—or lack of activity! Make the visualization as specific as possible, including as many details as you can. And, with it, of course, recognize how relaxed you are and how good you feel. This can be done any place you can be alone for a few minutes, even, if necessary, in the bathroom. These little two minute vacations can really help restore a sense of peace and the ability to go on. You can also use these to prepare for a situation. Again, make them as specific as possible and see yourself being as exactly as you wish to be. Each time you do this, it’s a rehearsal and preparation for the actual event.

I recently just read of a new study on stress reduction which I’d like to share with you: According to David Katz, M.D., one of the best and easiest ways to manage stress is deep breathing. Not only does deep breathing reduce muscle and emotional tension, it can also temporarily lower blood pressure and heart rate and deliver a quick rush of additional oxygen to cells. There’s even some evidence that a brief but regular deep-breathing session can reduce food cravings, improve sleep quality and boost energy levels. Just sit in a comfortable chair, feet flat on the floor, close your eyes and breathe deeply, letting all the air out on expiration. It’s best to do this for 3 to 5 minutes twice a day.

The bottom line is, that caretakers have to accept and believe that they are worthy and are not only entitled, but obligated to take care of themselves by doing whatever is necessary to feel appreciated and renewed, thus allowing themselves to go on and do what needs to be done. You also must accept that any and all feelings you have are legitimate and acceptable, including anger, resentment, fear, etc. They are all part of the human condition and involved in being a whole person. In accepting that fact, you accept yourself and come to recognize and believe you, as you are right now, are exactly enough.

Nancy is a Certified School Psychologist, motivational speaker, and psychotherapist with an office in Paramus, anticipating publication of her first children’s book. http://www.thepsychspeaks.com/

By Nancy Silberman Zwiebach

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