Depression In Parents Of Children With Special Needs: How To Recognize The Symptoms And Signs

Depression in Parents of Children with Special Needs: How to Recognize the Symptoms and Signs

Note: This article should not be used to categorize oneself or to be viewed as a diagnostic tool.  This article provides only general information and does not offer specifics on the criteria for diagnosing depression.  This is written with the assumption that the person is not using any mood-altering substance, including alcohol. Additional articles will focus on thought processes and depression, dealing with grief/loss, and managing depressive symptoms.

Many parents express times of loneliness, exhaustion, and increased stress. It is not uncommon for all individuals to go through periods of sadness, adjustment, or other difficulties. Periods of experiencing these types of emotions, especially during difficult times, do not necessarily signify clinical or even situational depression.  Clinical depression is defined more as biologically based where symptoms would be present regardless of an individual’s circumstances or satisfaction with life. Situational depression tends to develop as a reaction to prolonged exposure to chronic stress, physical, emotional, and/or environmental or significant life changes/losses, and a person’s difficulty adjusting or handling life’s challenges…etc.

Parents of children with special needs tend to be faced with a continuous barrage of challenges from societal isolation, financial strain, difficulty finding resources to outright exhaustion, or feelings of confusion or burnout. Over time, if these circumstances are not addressed and relief is not found a cognitive and, sometimes, biological change may start to take place.

Chemicals in the brain such as Serotonin and Dopamine regulate our responses to pleasure, hurt and help us navigate our emotions/perceptions of the world around us begin to decrease as we chronically experience negative emotions and/or situations. It’s also important to note that after a prolonged decrease in these chemicals due to exposure to chronic emotional turmoil, stress, and isolation, the brain may begin to permanently alter and actually begin to produce less and less of these chemicals. This means it will become harder and harder for an individual to bounce back or return to “normal functioning”. The longer we’re exposed to stress or negative emotions and thinking, the less able we become at coping with those feelings.

What may have started out as merely occasional, typical reactions to overwhelming circumstances becomes a day-to-day struggle to function and handle life as it comes?  Symptoms of depression may not necessarily signify a diagnosis of depression, but it definitely should be a red flag. The most challenging step of helping parents of children with special needs deal with depression is first helping them recognize the signs of depression and identify their own symptoms. The second most challenging step is helping parents begin to change their behaviors and thought processes that are perpetuating the symptoms and may lead to actual depression. This article will focus mainly on understanding the general signs/symptoms of depression.

Part I

Parents of children with special needs often present with the following generalized symptoms and life situations:


  • Insomnia (not sleeping) or hypersomnia (sleeping too much)
  • Parents of children with special needs often have their sleep interrupted when/if their children are unable to sleep.
  • Parents of children with special needs may begin to sleep more during times when their children are not present or as a means to escape their feelings and stress
  • Fatigue or low energy
  • The day-to-day obstacles and/or routines of parents with special needs children can be exhausting and the constant anxiety can begin to wear on parents emotionally and physically.
  • Low self-esteem
  • Parents of children with special needs often feel inadequate as parents, frustrated because they are unable to handle their children’s behaviors or meet their needs on their own.
  • Parents sometimes feel responsible for their children’s diagnosis.
  • Parents tend to feel shame over their feelings and needs around their children’s disabilities
  • Poor concentration or difficulty making decisions
  • Constant stress and overload may begin to cause distractibility, mild memory issues, and poor concentration
  • Information overload or insignificant information may cause a parent to become uncertain and lead to the inability to make sound choices
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Parents typically have to deal with various systems when attempting to find services for their children. Often parents are pulled in many directions and meet with many dead ends.
  • Sometimes feelings of grief include dealing with the loss of what one imagined parenthood to be, which can lead to dissatisfaction or difficulty coping with reality
  • Struggling with certain issues or behaviors for a very long time can result in parents doubting if the change is possible for their children
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities and motivation…etc
  • Parents of children with special needs tend to focus all their attention on their children’s needs. They lose touch with themselves as individuals and do not or cannot take the time for themselves and their interests.
  • Parents sometimes feel guilty for pursuing interests outside of focusing on their children’s needs or taking time for themselves.
  • Poor appetite or Increased appetite
  • Stress affects people differently. Some people are unable to eat while others turn to food for comfort.
  • A parent of a child with significant needs and/or behaviors may have increased anxiety, worry, or preoccupations that may affect his/her appetite or need to self-soothe by using food or other substances.

Life Situations/Lifestyles

  • Social Isolation
  • Parents of children with special needs sometimes feel isolated from other parents, supports, family, and/or the community
  • At times parents may feel some embarrassment surrounding their children’s behaviors or their inability to handle those behaviors in public so they keep themselves and their children secluded from the public
  • Parents sometimes have no interaction with adults outside of the home and/or immediate family.
  • Grief/Loss symptoms
  • Any time there is a change in life’s circumstances and/or an individual’s expectations of their life, there is a grieving process on some scale.
  • Parents may feel the anger, denial, hurt…etc of grief, but may not acknowledge those feelings and, therefore, never move through those feelings in a healthy way.
  • Inability to process and deal with the different stages of grief may lead to discontent, lack of acceptance, frustration, and unrealistic or even no expectations.
  • Financial Strain
  • There is no way around it- it can be quite expensive to raise a child with special needs. Between the cost of treatments, services, therapies, and medical expenses, many families accrue a great deal of deal.
  • Many families won’t qualify for assistance with the cost of care due to their income which is sometimes only barely above federal income guidelines.
  • Financial stress is already one of the main causes of marital discourse and can lead to feelings of hopelessness.
  • Lack of Support
  • Some parents have a sufficient support system while others do not. Some parents are raising their children solely on their own. Some do not have family or community support.
  • Lack of support can further the feelings of isolation and allow the parent to continue in his/her negative or unproductive thinking and behaviors.
  • Lack of Resources/Help
  • Parents aren’t always aware of the services that their children are entitled to and, therefore, struggle to meet their children’s needs.
  • Parents don’t always qualify for assistance with some resources due to income requirements, but those parents aren’t always able to obtain those services on their own.
  • Inability to access resources or lack of knowledge that there is help available can lead to increased worry, frustration, hopelessness, stress, and sometimes desperation and impulsivity.

It is important to understand how these circumstances and responses can affect you and lead to further complications. It is important to seek help and support to help you work through these feelings and change dangerous behaviors. Often the shame and the symptoms themselves prevent parents from seeking the help they need. Remember, children are only as healthy as their parents.

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Being an RBT for me was extremely fun because where were you going to find a place where you can be completely silly without having to worry what people thought about you? This was the only job that made me feel like I could make a dramatic difference while being myself.

I also liked to be surrounded by people that had the same goals of wanting to help kids and the teamwork made the job much easier and more enjoyable.

Change and progress was the ultimate goal for our kiddos. The early intervention program was seriously only a miracle because I saw changes in the kiddos that from day one, you wouldn’t even recognize who they were.

Changes from being able to utter 3-4 words where they can only make a syllable from when they started, the behavior decreases in which kiddo that used to engage in 30-40 0 self-harm to only half, learning how to wait during games, table work where they use to swipe and drop to the floor if they had to.

My favorite was when the parents would tell us what amazing progress they were making at home. I used to tear up and felt for these parents so much because it was already difficult for them and now, they can trust and rely on ABA and the therapists knowing their goal was ours.

By Emma Rogers, BA, RBT

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