Stress and the Special Ed Parent

Joyce Cattani, NYS PTA Special Education Specialist

It’s the beginning of another school year and for most, it represents a fresh start, a new beginning, new teacher, new school, etc.

For special ed parents, it becomes much more. You become a case manager, nurse, therapist, teacher and, most importantly, an advocate. You work with special education teachers and providers. You need to understand the special education system and your rights under the law. All of this leads to stress.

Everybody deals with stress but for special ed parents it can go to a new level.

Stress begins when you learn that your child has difficulties or a diagnosed disability. You get anxious around other people, including family and close friends. You feel ashamed of the label.

Relationships can suffer. Even siblings can have issues. You worry about everything from whether you are doing enough or have you made the right decisions for your child to plans for your child’s future. Then comes the guilt. You feel guilty about not being able to protect your child to the loss of attention toward other family members. You may even become jealous or resentful of those other parents with “normal” (typically developing) children. You miss out on family activities and are afraid of being criticized or judged by those around you. You feel scrutinized when you are out on public with your child. Now add the grief that occurs because of lost hopes and dreams that you had for your child. When these feelings occur you might push away family and friends when their support is most needed. There are many issues that can cause stress. Recognizing these stressors can help your learn to deal with them and then not only reduce your own stress but your family’s stress as well. You may feel the need for constant vigilance for your child and never feel safe enough to relax.

Special education families often have greater financial need. Your family may lose an income to provide your child with needed care. Then there is the big scary future. Special Needs children grow up and become special needs adults. You may constantly worry. This all leads to stress and it can manifest itself in different ways.

You might experience symptoms that can look almost like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Symptoms might include fatigue or irritability, changes in sleep patterns, appetite and/or weight. You might experience social withdrawal or loss of interest in favorite activities. You might develop an uncaring, negative attitude or heightened sensitivity. You feel alone with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Some people take to self-treating symptoms with alcohol and/or medication.

Stress factors can be categorized either caused by internal or external factors.

Internal stress factors come from within the individual and include attitudes, perceptions, assumptions and expectations. Unclear or unrealistic expectations of parents about their child are often the basis of this stress.

Statements such as “The success or failure of my children depends entirely on me” or “I should feel guilty if I need a break or want some attention for myself” can only add to an overwhelmed parent’s stress levels.

External stress factors come from the outside. These include statements from neighbors, friends and relatives who don’t understand or “just don’t get it” or schools and service providers who appear uncaring. Couple that with the perceptions these external factors cause and it is a recipe for disaster.

So what can you do? You are not alone. First and foremost, you need to get sufficient rest, eat well balanced meals, and get some exercise. Remember you cannot care for others unless you also find ways to take care of ourselves.Carving out time to relax, read, talk to friends, or do whatever else that helps you to nourish yourself cannot be overstated.

Knowing your limits and being realistic about what you can accomplish will help you cope more effectively. Learning to say “NO” to unreasonable demands is very effective. Allow yourself to be jealous, angry and frustrated in small amounts whenever necessary. You should identify their own self-defeating assumptions and think of alternative positive messages. Most important, you need a support system where you can share honestly feelings of frustration, anger, and concern.

A few final thoughts. You can’t be a super-parent 24 hours a day. Nobody can. Stop and smell the roses. Take one day at a time, and take that day positively. Enjoy the good moments. Savor every smile, every hug and every moment of every triumph. You have gained a special appreciation for the little miracles in life that others take for granted. Recognizing that you are not alone in the world leads to acceptance which equals relief. Keep and use a sense of humor.


If I can be of any assistance, please reach out to me at with either your challenges or triumphs. We can get through this together.