Flight attendants tell us: “In case of emergency, oxygen masks will drop from the overhead bin. For those traveling with small children, be sure to fasten your own mask before assisting your child.”

For parents raising children who struggle in school, there are times when the daunting task of juggling day-to-day family responsibilities, work, and the special needs of kids with learning difficulties can feel totally overwhelming. Those are times when you need to take care of yourself first if you expect to be able to help your child.

Taking care of yourself

Learn to ask others (spouse, family members, teachers, etc.) for support. Be specific about what you need, firm in your method of asking, and appreciative for what others do to help. This was one of the hardest things for one mom to do because she felt she needed to be “Super Mom.” Don’t feel guilty. No one can do it all!

  • Change your standards for nonessential tasks such as perfect housekeeping. As one mom told us, “My mother still reminds me, ‘Housework done properly can kill you.'” Decide where you can tolerate a mess. You may have to lower your standards, at least temporarily, but this can free up some time for you to take care of yourself.
  • Find a healthy physical outlet. Discover a sport or exercise you really enjoy, and do it regularly — either by yourself or with an exercise buddy. It may be walking, swimming, dancing, or even gardening. You’ll find the benefits are reduced stress, more energy, and better health.
  • Get enough rest and eat healthy foods. As a parent, you make sure your kids get plenty of sleep and nutritious food, but do you take good care of yourself too? Try to avoid eating binges and self-medication when you’re feeling down.
  • Take pleasure from music, movies, magazines, museums, and even favorite television programs. It’s OK to take time for yourself to escape every once in a while. Many of the activities that help you recharge are free or at least affordable.
  • Give yourself permission to say no. You may have to decline requests to help family or friends, or tell your child you can’t play with him right now. You may even have to inform the school, scout leader, or religious group that you can’t volunteer for a current project, but you can suggest they ask again in the future. Remember “Super Parent” can’t be all things to all people at all times.
  • Find someone you trust — relatives, friends, sitters — to take care of your child so you can get away. One dad, who has four active kids, hires two babysitters at a time so he and his wife can have an evening out together. Both parents agreed it was well worth the expense to relax and be free of worry.

Dealing with your child

  • Learn to identify when your child’s behavior is due to his learning difficulty and when he’s being manipulative. One mom told us when she couldn’t decide what was causing her son’s behavior, she took a time-out for herself. Tell your child you’ll get back to him in 15 minutes to give yourself time to evaluate the behavior and think through how you should handle it. This also allows your child time to reevaluate his actions.
  • Recognize that as issues change and your child grows older, household rules may have to change. One mom told us that when her three daughters with ADHD grew beyond the need for afternoon naps, they still needed a rest. So she instituted quiet time. The timer was set for one hour. Each of them went to her room, closed the door, and rested, looked at books, or played quietly during that time.
  • Be human; acknowledge and express your own feelings. Instead of misdirecting your anger at your child through yelling, calmly remind him you have feelings too. Let him know what causes you to feel the way you do, for example, “I get angry when you interrupt me and don’t let me finish what I’m saying.”
  • Think back to when you were young, especially if you have some of the same difficulties as your child. How did you feel and behave with your parents? Put your child’s behavior in perspective; let him know you’re there to help him.

Looking ahead

  • Find someone you trust to talk to. It may be a friend, family member, counselor, or support group. Connecting with others can help you feel less vulnerable and increase your feelings of control. Together, gather accurate information and develop a plan of action.
  • Remember that sometimes the advice you read in parents’ magazines or hear from the experts doesn’t work with your child with learning difficulties. If that’s the case, don’t feel guilty. Believe in your own judgment and keep searching for and inventing new techniques. One mom laughingly remembered telling her mother “Desperation is the mother of invention.”
  • Cultivate a sense of humor. One parent recalled his mother always telling him “Your worst day will become your funniest story.” He says he didn’t believe it at the time. But now when he looks back at some of the hardships of raising his kids, he’s able to laugh at the absurdities with fond memories.

Take a deep breath

Sometimes you have to slow down before you can gain momentum. You’re not being selfish if you find ways to take care of yourself. You’re just getting that extra whiff of oxygen so you can move ahead with renewed energy and commitment.