How I Stay Sane While Parenting Three Children, Including One With Special Needs


I don’t know about you, but I hear that sentence so often, I don’t even respond to it anymore. I mean, of course it’s not fair. Nothing is fair, ever, because — as my parents used to say — life isn’t fair.


I have three kids, all very different little people with varying personalities, needs, and requirements, but one child has a particularly demanding situation that sets him apart from the others. We don’t set out to give him special treatment, or give the others special treatment during one of his meltdowns, but when you have a child with special needs then sometimes they get special treatment. That’s just how it is.

As an adult, I view this as a reasonable trade off; I mean, most unusual children would happily trade whatever special privileges they may or may not get for the ability to think and function like “normal” kids. It is our job as parents to juggle the moving parts, tricky emotions, and somehow guide our children to adulthood without landing ourselves in the psych ward. People who have never walked this path in life will never understand the emotional strength that it takes, and there aren’t many practical guides out there on this topic — probably because everyone who is living it is too busy surviving to tell other parents how to do it. It’s pure survival, man.

Here are few things that work in my house to keep us all sane. They may or may not work in your house, because as our child psychologist once said, “The thing about parenting a child with special needs is that there is no rule book for it.” So here is what works for us.

1. Give and accept a helluva lot of grace. We are all fu*ked up and we just need love and acceptance. Period.

2. Accept your life (and the people in it). Acceptance is a virtue that I don’t come by naturally. Meeting other people where they are is a struggle for me, because I can’t even meet myself where I am today without feeling disappointed. I have a tendency to be very hard on myself and my expectations of my kids were, at one point, extremely high. But what is more important? Having a child who shouts, “What is this sh*t?!” at dinnertime because he’s trying to be funny, or having a child who is too afraid to utter a word at the dinner table because his mother might send him to his room? I’d rather have a loud, inappropriate family who eats together. Practice acceptance. It’s important.

3. Throw out your old rules. Our therapist once said that whatever works is the right thing. Um, okay — that opens up a very wide range of possibilities. So maybe I need to learn to be okay with certain behaviors as long as they are confined only to this crazy household. Maybe I need to adjust my expectations. After all, rules aren’t set in stone, they can be changed if needed. Be open to that.

4. Embrace a routine. It will be your salvation. When personalities are unpredictable, it’s good to know that at least one thing at home always stays the same. Parents need that as much as the kids do. I can’t even tell you how many evenings I’ve soldiered through fueled by the knowledge that bedtime is at precisely 7:30 p.m. If I didn’t have these concrete things to cling to, I wouldn’t make it.

5. Make forgiveness a priority. Your other children will learn empathy, the entire family will learn patience, and you, the parent, will become a better person every day because of this one simple thing. Learning to forgive my spouse, my children, and most of all myself has been vital to my personal health and happiness.

6. Laugh. If you don’t … you’re doomed.

7. Know that pharmaceuticals can make some situations better. Now, I’m not a pill pusher, but antidepressants have pretty much saved my life. Also, my child’s life has improved tremendously through the magic of medicine. I realize that it’s not always appropriate to medicate and some people are staunchly against it — I know, because I used to be one of those people — but OMG, MEDICATION HAS SERIOUSLY CHANGED MY LIFE. Just something to consider.

8. Take care of you. People talk a lot about “self-care,” but when your child can’t be left alone for a minute, lest he ingest a glass Christmas ornament or set fire to the kitchen, self-care has to take a backseat. When a parent is running on fumes, how can this possibly work in the long-term? Speaking from experience, even though it seems impossible, you have to make yourself a priority. And it’s hard. And sometimes you won’t. But trust me, if you don’t take care of yourself first, the rest of your family will suffer.

9. Make a gratitude list when you start feeling sorry for yourself. Kids getting on your nerves? Make a gratitude list. Feeling hopeless? Make a gratitude list. Want to snatch someone’s head off? MAKE A GRATITUDE LIST.

10. Chocolate. No explanation needed.

Photo: Getty