When you have a child with a disability or special health care needs, you might have times when the word “stressful” isn’t enough to describe your life. You advocate for your child. You take care of them. You try to find a diagnosis. And then, when you think you have things mostly under control, there’s some new and unexpected issue that comes up.
In the middle of all this, it might be hard to know what to feel. You might feel sad, mad, frustrated, proud, and happy all at the same time. You might be going through a cycle of feelings as you’re grieving and adapting to life. And when you’re busy taking care of your child and your family, it’s hard to have time to breathe, let alone sort through your feelings.
But self-care is important, including your mental health. Over time, your feelings and worries about your child can get very heavy if you are carrying the full weight of them by yourself. You might have less energy left to do things like talk with your child’s teacher, make an important doctor’s appointment, or just be patient with your child.
That’s where counseling can help. It’s a way to let go of some of that emotional weight.
Sometimes counseling happens in informal ways like:
You might also want to see a professional counselor or therapist. Here are some of the people you might see for professional counseling:
All of these professionals have general counseling training to help people, and some might have special training too. A therapist or counselor with a background in health psychology might be an especially good fit for you. Health psychology looks at the way health concerns or conditions, thoughts, feelings, and life situations all affect each other. So a health psychologist is someone trained to help you understand how you feel about your child’s disability and help you take better care of yourself. The American Psychological Association has a web page on health psychology where you can read more.
Some people think there is a stigma attached to getting counseling. A stigma is the belief that other people might think badly of you because you need or want counseling. Maybe you’re worried that getting counseling says that you are broken or weak and need to be fixed. But counseling is really a way to get stronger.
Think about some of the therapies that your child might get, like physical, occupational, or speech therapy. They’re not about “fixing” your child. They’re about helping them build skills in areas where they’re not developing them on their own.
Counseling does the same thing for your mind and feelings. It helps you build skills to be emotionally stronger.
There are times when you might want to talk to a counselor for a simple emotional tune-up. Other times you might want to deal with a more specific issue. Here are some life events when you, as a parent of a child with a disability or special health care needs, might get counseling:
And there are times when it’s even more important that you get some help. Here are some signs:
Some counselors work for clinics or programs; others work for themselves or in small counseling offices. Here are some ways to find and pay for a professional counselor:
When looking for a counselor, it’s important to find someone who you like, trust, and just click with. Here are some questions you can ask a counselor to see if they’re the right fit for you:
The most important question is one you ask yourself: Am I comfortable with this counselor? In order for counseling to work, you need to feel safe opening up and sharing your thoughts. You need to like and trust the person. Before you commit to working with someone, ask if you can have a free meeting or short phone conversation. As you interview them, listen to their answers, see if you think they understand you and your situation, and decide if you want to work with them more. If they don’t feel like a good fit for you, don’t be afraid to look for someone else.
It might be hard to reach out for counseling at first. But just taking that step to get support might give you the boost you need to stick with it. Just think about how good it will feel to have more strength and energy for yourself and your child—and lighten up your life.