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How Mindfulness Can Help Caregivers

Parents of children with special needs find these techniques reduce stress and anxiety

Writer: Juliann Garey

Clinical Experts: Wendy Blumenthal, PhD , Elisha Goldstein, PhD

en Español

One of the biggest challenges of raising a child with intense needs is managing the emotional fallout. We want the best for our children, and with kids whose problems aren’t easily solved, it can feel as if you can never do enough.

Parents of special-needs kids often feel guilty if they are not spending every moment either with their kids or seeking out the best services for their child, for instance. That can cause, or contribute, to caregiver burnout, which is destructive to both parent and child.

Parents need to learn to accept that being “good enough” and not aiming for perfection is okay, says Wendy Blumenthal, PhD, an Atlanta-based psychologist.

Dr. Blumenthal urges parents to recognize that making choices that take the whole family into consideration and that will preserve their own mental health is ultimately the best thing for their challenged child. That might mean “taking your child for intensive dyslexia tutoring twice a week versus enrolling him in the best school in the city for $40,000 a year,” she adds. “It’s about making ‘good enough’ choices.”

It took Mona Latham nearly two decades to come to the realization that she couldn’t be all things to her children. Latham’s 24 year-old-son suffered a traumatic brain injury as a child and the fallout from that has included OCD, executive functioning problems and mild ADHD. Her daughter, now 19, has been diagnosed with OCD, anxiety, ADHD and, most recently, acute depression. “It’s just been one thing after another,” she says.

Over time, Latham has learned how to give herself permission to enjoy her life and her children. “I’ve definitely gotten more resilient over the years,” she says, and “part of it is learning to appreciate what is and not try to make them into something they’re not.” She’s taken a step back from perfection and found something more manageable. “I don’t try to fix every issue that comes up every day.”

How mindfulness helps

Latham’s attitude of acceptance reflects a “mindfulness” approach, or a focus on the reality of the here and now. A Vanderbilt University study published in Pediatrics found that six weeks of mindfulness training in parents of kids with various diagnoses led to significant reductions in stress, depression and anxiety as well as improved sleep and life satisfaction.

At the start of the study, 85 percent of the participants reported significantly elevated stress; 48 percent said they were clinically depressed, and 41 percent reported anxiety disorders.

People who practice mindfulness learn to pay specific attention to what is happening in the moment — and that includes moments that are stressful or chaotic. It is easy to get overtaken by stress or negativity, but mindfulness teaches people to find distance from their negative thoughts by learning to acknowledge them and label them when they happen.

Elisha Goldstein, PhD, author of mindfulness book The Now Effect: How This Moment Can Change the Rest of Your Life, explains it this way: “If you can just say to yourself in that moment, ‘This is chaos,’ not in an anxious or fearful way, but just name it, research shows us we turn the volume down on the amygdala, which is the fear circuit of the brain, and bring more activity to the pre-frontal cortex, so we can be more aware of what’s happening right now.”

Becoming more thoughtful and less emotional helps parents feel more in control. Dr. Goldstein says your calm response helps kids calm down, too. “They say, ‘Okay, I can trust my parent to be in control, this is a safe environment.’ And they feel more secure and they thrive.”

Mindfulness strategies

Practicing mindfulness meditation during less stressful moments can also help parents feel calmer and more regulated. Robbie Pinter used an increasing array of mindfulness meditation techniques to deal with daily parenting stresses since before her son Nicholas, now 22, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 5 and later with autism.

“Very early on I had a practice I called ‘taking quiet time,’ and then it became more meditation and I also now do something called a ‘centering prayer.’” All those things, she says, are forms of mindfulness. She participated in the study for parents of special-needs kids. “It was just wonderful,” she says. “It was both mindfulness training — the here’s how you do the meditation part — and learning this self-talk where you learn to say to yourself ‘what is real is the moment you are in, not what’s coming next and not what came before.’ ”

It’s not a perfect system. “Taking Nicholas to work this morning, I have to say none of that worked,” Pinter laughs. “But if you can always come back to it and say, ‘Okay, that was what it was for that moment,’ and then move on from that. I think that’s what the meditation does for me.”

Giving yourself a break

Pinter’s daily mindfulness practice includes:

  • Meditation: Taking “quiet time”— at least 20 minutes at the start of the day.
  • Reading something relaxing “that takes you away from the ‘To Do’ list, whether it’s religious, spiritual or simply some poetry that strikes a chord
  • A walk in the woods
  • Remembering mantras to encourage mindfulness, like “no hurry, no rush.”
  • Positive self-talk that grounds the present moment

Without these practices, Pinter says her life would be completely different and not in a positive way. It’s helped both Pinter and her husband — who also practices mindfulness and was one of the few fathers to take part in the study — stay sane and avoid caretaker burnout.

Raising a child with a developmental or psychiatric diagnosis is never going to be easy or stress-free. But burnout is not inevitable either. Learning to look at the bigger picture and give yourself permission to not get caught up trying to fix everything can be a big relief. And it will make you a better parent.

This article was last reviewed or updated on October 30, 2023.