We often talk about being ‘stressed’ but what does it actually mean? Though the word can signify different things to different people, generally-speaking, it means that someone is dealing with difficult circumstances and a sense of having too much to do in too little time.
Although a certain amount of stress is inevitable and can even help make life stimulating and enjoyable, too much can lead to overwhelm and exhaustion. According to the NHS, this can cause physical symptoms such as headaches or muscle tension, mental difficulties such as anxiety and forgetfulness or behavioural issues such as irritability or a change in appetite.
Looking After Kids With SEN is Challenging
It makes sense, then, to keep an eye on the demands on your time and energy so that you don’t become burned out – which is the message of Stress Awareness Month which has been running every April since 1992.
Duncan Rzysko is Chief of Creativity, Happiness and Innovation with The Stress Management Society, a not-for-profit organisation set up in 2003 to advise businesses and individuals on managing life’s pressures and maintaining optimum wellbeing. He’s also the father of four teenagers who, between them, have autism, sensory processing disorder, ADHD and pathological demand avoidance. As such, he knows only too well how stressful it can be to bring up children with special needs.
He maintains that it’s usually mothers who take most of the strain, dealing with schools, health professionals and local authorities in order to secure the best support. “Mums are the lions, fighting for their children,” he comments. “I’m bowled over by the number of single mums of SEN kids I come across who are doing everything they can to help their kids. Guilt is a big factor. I hear them say, ‘Should I be doing more?’ and I think, ‘Really? Is it even possible to do any more than you’re already doing?’”
Another stumbling block, he says, is the attitude of people who don’t have an understanding of SEN. “You can find yourself explaining your child’s behaviour to other people and not everyone understands. You have to develop the ability to let that go – you’re on ‘Team You’, looking out for your children. Nothing else matters.”
Five Key Areas of Wellbeing
Duncan – who became interested in mental health while working as a documentary maker with the NHS and the Royal College of Psychiatrists – says it’s essential for parents of SEN kids to focus on their own wellbeing so that can comfortably support the rest of the family.
Although everyone will be able to withstand different amounts of pressure, he says, he recommends that people look at how they are functioning in five key areas in their lives – physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual – and make improvements. The Stress Management Society offers a free, online tool to help you do so, along with a booklet with lots of suggestions for small tweaks which can boost health and happiness.
Young people too, with or without special needs, are more anxious these days, Duncan maintains. “There are many causes but I think social media has got a lot to do with it,” he explains. “It means they can never get away from their schoolmates, there’s always someone having a conversation online – which can easily turn into a mob attack where people are judged and blamed. I’ve come across graduates in their early twenties who need a constant hand-hold. They’re terrified of making a mistake.”
Community is Important
The theme for this year’s Stress Awareness Month is ‘Community’. “We’ve all had a strange couple of years with the pandemic,” Duncan carries on. “We’ve been working from home but there are drawbacks and with nowhere to go, many people have felt lonely. Research has shown that loneliness can be hazardous to health.”
He suggests that parents of children with special needs very much need the support of other families facing similar challenges. “Get together with others. There are more of us out there than you know,” he advises. “Institutions are set up against us and you have to learn how to play the system. Parent power groups can put pressure on local authorities to make changes. Taking action contributes to wellbeing.”
Scope, a charity which supports people with disabilities and their families, offers online mentoring for parents of children with disabilities though there is a waiting list.