Stress and stress management in families with autistic children
Stress is a normal part of life, something that most people and most families experience.
But families with autistic children can experience more stress than other families. For example, they might feel stressed because they:
- are coming to terms with a diagnosis and what it means for their child
- are finding it hard to manage daily life with an autistic child
- are having trouble managing challenging behaviour in their autistic child
- aren’t sure how to help their autistic child build confidence and a positive self-image
- need a break from caring for their autistic child but don’t know how to get respite
- are having trouble navigating the service system.
Although an autism diagnosis affects the whole family, family members might be stressed by different things about the diagnosis or different aspects of life with an autistic child. They might also respond to and express stress in different ways.
Some stress can be OK, giving you the motivation and focus to face challenges and get things done. But too much stress can be overwhelming, making it difficult to cope with everyday things.
So if you feel your family is having trouble coping, it’s important to do something to manage the stress in your family life.
Stress can affect individual family members, and it can also affect your relationships with each other. Recognising each other’s feelings and looking after your family relationships can help you with family stress management.
Reducing and managing stress for families with autistic children
Although stress is a normal part of family life, too much stress can have a negative effect. There are practical things you can do to manage your family’s stress. Managing stress is good for the emotional and mental health and wellbeing of everyone in your family.
Positive thinking and self-talk
Positive thinking and self-talk increase your positive feelings. And feeling positive increases your ability to cope with stressful situations.
For example, you might have a negative thought like ‘People probably think I’m a bad parent’. You can challenge this thought by asking yourself, ‘How do I know that people will think this?’ You might also use more positive thoughts, like ‘Who cares what other people think?’, ‘I can do this’, or ‘I will stay calm’.
The more you practise positive self-talk, the more automatic it will become in your life. Start practising in one situation that causes you stress, and then move on to another one.
Relaxation and breathing strategies
Practise some breathing exercises and muscle relaxation techniques. If you practise and use relaxation exercises as soon as you feel signs of stress, or when you know you’re going into a situation that makes you stressed, it can calm things down.
You could also set aside a little bit of time each day for relaxation, meditation or mindfulness. Even 10 minutes at the beginning or end of the day could be enough. This might help you sleep better and feel more positive during the day.
Stress is often related to the feeling that things are out of your control. Getting organised is a very effective way to get things – including your stress levels – under control.
For example, if you have a list of things you need to do, you can work through the list, focusing on just one thing at a time. And you’ll feel good as you cross things off the list.
You could also try putting some family routines into action. Routines help your family get through your tasks more efficiently and free up time for more enjoyable things. You can adjust these routines for children with additional needs.
Making time for enjoyable family activities
When you have an autistic child, you might forget to make time for yourself. You can reduce the stress levels in your family by making sure that all family members – including you – have time to do things that make them feel good.
One way to do this is by getting everyone in your family to make a list of things that they enjoy. Then try to make sure that everyone gets to do something from their list every day or every couple of days. The lists should have a mix of activities that vary in cost and time.
Maintaining and modifying family traditions and rituals
Family traditions and rituals can give you a sense of belonging and togetherness. This can strengthen your family relationships, which will help you get through stressful times.
You might have to modify your traditions to suit the needs of your autistic child. For example, it might be less stressful to plan a weekend camping trip a little closer to home so you spend less time in the car.
Support from family and friends
When a child gets an autism diagnosis, family and friends can be a great source of practical support.
It’s good to ask for help if you need it. It could be as simple as asking an extended family member to babysit for a few hours one night, or asking an older niece or nephew to take your children to the park. This could turn into a fun activity for your child and extended family member, as well as giving you some time to yourself or time to get other things done.
Respite care can give you a break from caring for your autistic child and help you manage stress. If you feel worried about leaving your child with someone outside the family, make some time for respite carers to get to know your child before they care for your child.
Getting help with stress
If you or any other family members are feeling very stressed every day, it might help to talk to a health professional. You could start by seeing your GP, who can help you make a plan for managing stress. This might include referring you or other family members to another health professional for some specialist support.
Your family can also get support from the following services:
- Respite care – contact your state or territory autism association, or a Commonwealth Respite and Carelink Centre. You can find your local centre by calling 1800 052 222 during business hours, or on 1800 059 059 for emergency respite support at other times.
- NDIS support – contact the National Disability Insurance Scheme to find out about support to help your child reach their individual goals and live the life they want.
- Support groups – contact local or online groups to connect with other people in similar situations.
- Financial support – contact Centrelink about carer allowance, carer payment and other financial support.
When your stress is under control and you’re feeling well as a parent, you’re better able to navigate the challenges of family life. This helps your children grow, develop and thrive.