Stress Reduction for Parents of Children with ASD

Your well-being as a parent of a child with ASD is critical to your child's functioning. I have listed some simple stress reduction strategies to help improve your emotional well-being as a parent of a child with ASD.

Social Support

Connecting with friends, family and others in the ASD community is a simple stress reduction activity. When you connect with others, it reduces loneliness and helps you feel supported. If you connect with other parents in the ASD community it can allow you to share triumphs as well as discuss challenges with others who have shared experiences. For social support within the ASD community, check out ABA Connect's Facebook page and the Autism Society of Central Texas Calendar. Both of these sites are updated regularly and are full of events just for you!  Also, reference our Resources page to find organizations who design programs for persons with ASD and their families.

Schedule Time To Be "Mindful"

Take some time each day to focus on the present through a practice called mindfulness. Resist the urge to think about your child’s therapies, what’s for dinner, or anything else competing for your attention. Take some time, even if it is 10 minutes, just for you. Sit with your thoughts without judging them and focus on your surroundings, feelings, and any sensations you may feel without trying to change them. Mindfulness can include meditation or it can just be a specific focus on what you are doing in the moment. To learn more about mindfulness and how it promotes well-being and reduces stress, see the University of Berkeley Greater Good Science Center website. 

Delight In Your Child

Parent optimism has been associated with stress reduction, better parenting, and positive well-being. That does not mean parents walk around with rose-colored glasses. But, an increased focus on your child's positive qualities and strengths can increase hope and optimism. Think of a cute thing your child did, a tender touch, or anything your child does that makes your heart melt. Reflect on those moments to boost your mood. If these moments do not readily come to mind, start today by looking out for things that make you smile about your child. One mother did this through an Autism Speaks blog that outlines five of her child’s personal gifts.

Foster Gratitude

Research in positive psychology shows that regular gratitude can improve happiness and life satisfaction. One way to do this is to write down three things that went well during the day before going to bed. You may start by doing this for just a week or you may try practicing it consistently. Once you develop the well-being habit of noticing the small things that go well during your day, it can increase positive feelings and decrease stress.

Ask For Help When Needed

Know if you are experiencing "caregiver fatigue."  Caregiver fatigue can interfere with your ability to enjoy your child and engage in positive interactions.  Respite care for your child or help from family and friends can decrease stress and enhance caregiver well-being. If you feel you need additional help, consider joining a parent group led by someone experienced in children with developmental disabilities or consider individual therapy. HelpGuide.org offers good information about the signs of caregiver burnout and caregiver fatigue.

If you feel you need professional assistance, consider contacting our separate, but affiliated practice, ApaCenter. ApaCenter offers therapy and consultations for individuals, parents, and couples who want to improve their emotional and relational well-being.

What’s the “Right” Amount of Discipline?

As I posted in my previous blog, I'm not a big fan of "disciplining" children. By "discipline," I mean the use of various  rewards & punishments to get our kids to increase or decrease certain behaviors. For most folks, I think that "disciplining" children is focused on punitive measures (e.g., grounding, restrictions, taking away TV, toys, video games). I am not a believer in the use of corporal punishment with children. I know this can be controversial subject, so perhaps I'll reserve that for a separate blog! 🙂

For the purposes of this blog, I'm also focusing "rewards" in terms of different types of incentives (e.g,. stickers, money, candy, toys, and privileges such as video game time). Praise can be a wonderful reinforcer, and we definitely should use praise, attention, recognition, (and verbal corrections) within the context of a strong relationship to help our kids "behave." This blog is about the other types of "discipline" though.

Parenting shouldn't mainly be about dangling (metaphorical) carrots and waving (metaphorical) sticks to get our children to do what we think they should be doing. I believe that if, as I detailed in the aforementioned blog, we invest in building strong relationships with our children, they will naturally be more inclined to listen to us and follow our directions. This, of course, doesn't mean they always will, it just increases the odds. Now for a few caveats:

  1. I'm NOT saying that we don't ever need to use various types of rewards and punishments with our children.
  2. I'm not talking about corporal punishment - I don't advocate its use. Technically, according to principles of operant conditioning, a punishment is the introduction of stimulus or a change in the environment in response to a behavior with the goal of decreasing that particular behavior. The behavior is the target, NOT the child. I just want to ensure that the term punishment is not equated with physical punishment. The term is much more broad than that.
  3. For children on the autism spectrum, a systemic approach to behavior intervention called Applied Behavior Analysis or "ABA" is very effective. The earlier the intervention, the more positive the results are likely to be. However, ABA is a very systematic approach to behavior analysis and modification...or the "shaping" of desired behaviors. It's not the type of discipline I'm talking about in this blog.

A Powerful Tip on How to Discipline
Okay, this might strike you as rather obvious but, in my twenty years of practice, I've seen parents make this mistake so many times that I believe it is worth a blog. I've always liked the expression that don't use a frying pan to kill a fly when you can use a fly swatter. When using various rewards (more technically, these are referred to as reinforcements) and punishments, parents should use the least amount necessary to get the desired result. 

Here's how this principle looks in practice. Let's say that you have two kiddos, and that you've established a rule that they will lose video game time if they are aggressive with one another or peers/friends. Let's say Johnny gets upset with Timmy and pushes him hard to the ground and hurts Timmy. How much video game time should Johnny lose? Well, if taking it away for a day will likely change his behavior, then only take the video games away for one day. Why take it away for a week? What purpose does that serve?

Other Considerations When Using Reinforcement and Punishment

  1. If we take a privilege away for an extended period, then we can't use the withdrawal of that privilege until the punishment period ends. Taking away video games or, for teens, cell phones, for a period of time can be a powerful motivator for behavior change. But if we take away the cell phone from a teen for a month, then we can't take it away as a consequence again for any other type of behavior problem for that an entire month!
  2. If we give a very big reward to reinforce a desired behavior (e.g., a big slumber/pizza party with friends for good grades), then this sets the bar very high. So, such big rewards can backfire in that trying to reward other behaviors might pale in comparison to the previously obtained reward: "I don't want stickers! Let's go to Chuck E. Cheese like last time!"
  3. If reward behaviors that are already intrinsically motivating, then the child might lose motivation to engage in the behavior on their own. For instance, if you pay your child to practice piano, it is likely that she will enjoy it less than she used to and is less likely to practice/play on her own without the incentive of money as a reward being offered.

Reinforcements in the form of tangible rewards and punishments have their place in parenting but, overall, it is best to focus on the relationship. A strong relationship with our children is the real key to successful parenting. It is through this relationship that we can use praise and redirection to help encourage desired behavior and discourage undesired behavior. But when we do need to use more tangible rewards and punishments, keep in mind the principle that we should use the least amount necessary to get the desired result.

You might be interested in Dr. Brooks' second post on this topic: A Powerful Strategy to Improve Behavior Problems.

Investing in Our Relationships With Our Children

Being a parent can be so rewarding. At times, we can achieve transcendence. Remember those first smiles, those first words? That big hug to greet you when you get home from work after a long day? Building a sandcastle at the beach? Ah, life doesn't get any better than these moments! And then...there are those other times. You know, when they are whining about everything (or so it seems), they won't do their homework, the siblings are fighting incessantly...and so on. Such times can be so frustrating that, if we aren't careful, we can lose our marbles.

As parents, we want to guide our children to grow to be happy, productive, and, if you are like most people, financially independent of us! Now, there are a lot of different ideas out there (and countless books) on parenting, raising "successful" children, etc. What's the "right" way to do this?

Now, I do want to qualify this suggestion by first stating that, if your child is on the autism spectrum, this advice is not likely to work very effectively because of the very nature of autism. You will see what I mean as you read below. We will have plenty of other posts in the future regarding help for parents whose children are on the autism spectrum, I promise.

The "Infrastructure" to Successful Parenting
The suggestion that I have for successful parenting that comes from Dr. William Glasser's work, particularly For Parents and Teenagers, as well as many other readings, my training as a psychologist, my work with hundreds of clients over the years, as well as my own personal experiences as a father of 3 boys.

The parenting suggestion that I have doesn't have anything do with meticulously crafting the perfect sticker chart or reinforcement contingency for your kids. Nor does it have to do with the best way to punish misbehavior. I'm not a big fan of using rewards and punishments with kids and teens, although there is a place for them. Importantly, with what I'm suggesting, rewards and punishments won't be needed near as frequently...and will likely be more effective when you do use them.

The key to successful parenting, in my opinion, is the relationship. As humans, we are inherently social creatures. Most of our happiness in life comes through and from our social relationships (by some estimates, around 70%). We can reflect on our own lives to see the truth of how important relationships are to our happiness. When have your best times in life been? Most likely, these have been when you were doing something fun and engaging with close friends, family, or your significant other. How about the worst times? Those usually have to do with conflict in relationships, loss of a relationship, or when we are feeling alienated, isolated, or ostracized.

Importantly, because on some level we all realize that our own happiness is nested within our relationships, we have a natural tendency to try to preserve need-satisfying relationships.

We all want to influence our children - for them to listen to our guidance, respect the limits that we set, and comply with our requests. However, if our relationship with our kids merely consists of trying to get them to comply with our requests and follow our rules, well, we don't have much of a relationship.

Our Leverage of Influence
In essence, when a parent-child relationship is conflictual (or detached), then children don't stand to "lose out" on the positives of a close relationship should they be oppositional or give push-back. Yes, coercive tactics might temporarily get a child to do what we want - but at what cost? And, perhaps more importantly, how will the child behave without the looming threat of punishment present? How do children learn to make healthy, judicious choices in life if we never give them those choices to begin with - that they are effectively coerced into doing what we think is "best" for them? I've watched what happens when some of these kids finally move out of the house and go off to college - not a pretty sight!

Investing in the Relationship
Again, rewards and punishments do have their place in parenting. But we should use them sparingly and only when needed. What I'm proposing is that as parents, we mindfully invest in the relationship with our children. This is actually the fun part of being a parent! This isn't a form of trickery or manipulation. Remember, our own happiness as well as the happiness of our children resides within the relationship. So, we should be sure engage in fun, connecting activities with our children on a regular basis. Such as:

  • Going on hikes
  • Going fishing
  • Flying kites
  • Throwing the football
  • Seeing plays/musicals
  • Camping
  • Playing board/video games together
  • Building Lego sets
  • Eating dinner together as a family

I realize this can be challenging and kids sometimes say "no" to our offers (especially teens!), but at least they see we are trying. We can only open the door, they have to walk through it. When we are spending quality time with our kids, it is a good time to keep that time "sacred." We shouldn't use it as an opportunity to remind them about homework, how they can do better in school, what chores they still need to do, etc. If we start doing that, our kids will start avoiding the "quality" time because they won't view it as that!

So, we always need to be investing in our relationships with our children. Then we can have more of the type of influence that we want to have on them. And, when we do need to correct their behavior, they are more likely to listen and comply because they truly care and want to keep the positive connection with us in good standing. There are no guarantees in life (except for death & taxes, right?), but I think we can't really go wrong for trying to actively strengthen our relationships with our kids. Because our happiness is connected with theirs, it's a win-win.