Your Child is a Sunset: Strategies for Managing Stress as a Special Needs Parent

Stress is a normal and unavoidable part of life, but families with children with autism can experience more stress than other families. Many families feel immense pressure to “parent perfectly”, following all of the recommendations and strategies provided by their BCBAs, SLPs, and other providers 100% of the time. This approach, however, as a “fixer” of our child’s challenges, often leaves us feeling like we are falling in quicksand. The more we try to fix, the faster we fall in. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy offers a different approach, focusing on strategies to move through inevitably difficult and stressful situations. Here are just a few strategies derived from the ACT:

Your Life is a Movie:

Think back to a time in your life when you felt stressed. Maybe your child was having a meltdown in the grocery store, and all the tips and tricks you usually implement aren’t working. Imagine yourself as a bystander in the situation. What’s something kind you would say in this moment? Maybe you’d say something such like, “I’ve been there!”, or “You got this”. Practicing self-compassion will not only help you move through stressful situations in the moment, but also model these skills for your child. 

Milk, milk, milk:

Have you ever noticed that if you keep saying the same word over and over, it starts to sound strange or loses its meaning? Try saying the word “milk” over and over for 45 seconds straight. Eventually the word loses all of its associations, and becomes a series of meaningless sounds. We can use this same strategy to move through uncomfortable or anxious thoughts. 

Your Child as a Sunset:

ABA Therapy can be immensely helpful in identifying interventions to support our children’s independence. It is also important, however, to sometimes resist the urge to problem solve, and appreciate our children as sunsets. This means we enjoy their beauty and unique qualities without focusing on how long the moment will last, or how we could improve it. 

For more information on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, see a list of resources below:

The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT by Russ Harris

Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life: The New Acceptance & Commitment Therapy by Steven C. Hayes

Additional References:

Hahs, A.D., Dixon, M.R., & Paliliunas, D. (in press). Randomized controlled trial of a brief acceptance and commitment training for parents of individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science

Paary-Cruwys, R. (Producer). (2019, February 13). Acceptance and commitment training with Dr. Adam Hahs [Audio podcast].

Harris, R. (2006). Embracing your demons: an Overview of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Psychotherapy in Australia, 12, 2-8.