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Self-Care for Parents of Children with Autism: A Q&A with Dr. Kristin Pleines

Marina Sarris

Date Revised: July 29, 2020

Kristin Pleines, a doctor of social work, specializes in therapy for families of young children, and also children, teenagers, and young adults who have autism. She is a licensed clinical social worker at Manhattan Play Therapy in New York City. She also teaches new social workers as an adjunct lecturer at New York University. She spoke with SPARK about self-care for parents.

Q: What does self-care mean?

A: Self-care is a phrase that’s been used a lot over the last few years. You see it everywhere on social media, and therapists use this phrase. Really all it means is finding time to do things that recharge you, things that make you feel healthy, things that make you feel well.

Q: Can you provide some examples of self-care for parents and caregivers of children who have autism?

A: Examples of self-care vary quite a bit depending on the person and the time they have available. The pandemic and quarantine have also changed what kinds of self-care are accessible to us.

When I talk about self-care with my clients, we think about those moments when they can focus on themselves. This can mean something as simple as taking five minutes to meditate or take deep breaths. This can also be doing things like checking out for a few minutes and going for a walk or reading a book. If you’re into bubble baths, this can mean taking a bath. Or talking to somebody on the phone that you know will give you good advice, or will just listen. Self-care will be different for every person, but a key part of it is that it means doing something that makes you feel more like you.

Q: Do parents and caregivers of children who have autism face more stress than other parents and caregivers?

A: When I talk to my clients, I tell them it doesn’t really matter if other people have more stress. Many people are really hard on themselves and tend to think, “I have this [issue] going on, but there are people who don’t have anything to eat. I can’t complain. My life is not so hard.” I say to them that everyone has stress, and everyone deserves to take care of themselves.

So that being said, parents and caregivers of children with autism do face a specific type of stress. And while I’m careful about not comparing people’s stress levels — I think everyone has a battle that they’re fighting — when you’re taking care of someone, you do need to find time for yourself.

Q: Why is self-care so important? How can the family as a whole be affected if a parent takes time out for self-care?

A: Self-care is important because if we’re not healthy, we’ve got nothing left to give. It’s like the idea that when you’re on an airplane, [and the oxygen masks come down] you have to put on your mask before you help the person next to you. If you’re not well, you can’t care for others.

So finding little snippets of time to fill your cup means you have more to give to the people you care about.

When we let ourselves get to a point where we’re exhausted – and every single one of us does this — we might be a little bit snippy, we might miss important cues, we miss a little more sleep, and the next day we feel a bit worse. It can become a pretty tough pattern to break.

When we parents and caregivers are rested and feeling good, we are more in touch with the people around us, and we can respond better to them. That enhances our bond with them. And when we feel connected to the people around us, it has huge benefits for our emotional and mental health.

Q: How much time per day or week should a parent spend in self-care?

A: In my experience, this differs from family to family and even from week to week. You may have a day where, try as hard as you can, there’s just not a moment to yourself. I understand the realities of that, and I never want to set people up for lofty self-care goals that will not come to fruition. For a lot of people, if they set a goal and they don’t meet it, they kind of beat themselves up and feel like this is an impossible thing to do.

So start small and try to find some manageable moments. This could mean that there are days when you find only five minutes for self-care, but if you look further out, you can find a couple of hours a couple of weeks from now, when you know you can step away.

I encourage people to try to find a moment every day to focus on themselves. This can be something small like getting a cup of coffee from your favorite coffee shop that you drink in peace. In a perfect world, all parents would have a couple of hours to themselves every day, but I understand that can’t always happen. After kids go to bed, there are dishes to do and work to finish.

Q: How do you respond to parents who say that taking time out of their busy schedules for self-care seems too stressful?

A: The best advice I would give anybody who’s feeling that way is “you deserve to take a little time for yourself.” Let’s find someone — if it’s not a therapist, then somebody in your life — who can help you problem-solve. You may need to start super small. Maybe your only five minutes to yourself are in the shower. You could take time to do a mindfulness exercise in the shower: you could take an extra minute or two, and do a guided exercise in which you are feeling the water, noticing the temperature, and focusing on your breathing.

Take a minute to step outside of the situation, really look at your day, and look at your calendar. With some creativity, usually we can look further out and find some longer-term solutions.