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

Recognizing Depression in Parents of Children with Special Needs:

Some Typical Signs & Symptoms of Depression

Recognizing Depression in parents of children with special needs is important for professionals and parents, themselves. Parents often express feelings of loneliness, exhaustion, and increased stress. Moreover, everyone goes through periods of sadness or adjustment, but these emotions during difficult times don’t necessarily indicate clinical or situational depression. In fact, clinical depression is biologically based, unrelated to circumstances or life satisfaction. On the other hand, situational depression develops as a reaction to prolonged exposure to chronic stress, physical, emotional, or environmental factors, significant life changes, or losses. Moreover, it can be challenging for individuals to handle such challenges.

Parents of children with special needs face ongoing challenges such as societal isolation, financial strain, resource scarcity, exhaustion, confusion, or burnout. If left unaddressed, these circumstances can trigger cognitive and, sometimes, biological changes.

Brain chemicals like Serotonin and Dopamine regulate responses to pleasure and pain, shaping our emotional perceptions. Consequently, with chronic negative emotions or situations, these chemicals decrease. Prolonged exposure to emotional turmoil, stress, and isolation may permanently alter the brain’s chemical production. As a result, it becomes harder to bounce back and function normally. Moreover, coping abilities decline with prolonged exposure to stress and negative emotions.

What might have started as occasional reactions to overwhelming circumstances becomes a daily struggle to function. Thus, depression symptoms may not lead to a diagnosis but serve as a red flag. In order to help parents of children with special needs deal with depression, it is crucial to start by recognizing signs and identifying their own symptoms. The next step involves changing behaviors and thought processes that perpetuate symptoms and may lead to actual depression. Therefore, this article primarily focuses on understanding general signs and symptoms of depression.

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 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Note: This article should not be used for self-categorization or as a diagnostic tool. It provides general information without specific criteria for diagnosing depression. It assumes the absence of mood-altering substances, including alcohol. Additional articles will cover thought processes and depression, grief/loss, and managing depressive symptoms.

Please find parent resources here Autism Training, ABA Training & Education Products – Special Learning (special-learning.com)

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Parent Waitlist Program


November 02, 2023 | 12pm-1pm PDT

Journey to Independence

Community-based program designed to support families on waitlist

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

Mother Child
Special Learning’s Free Hotline

This is an independent SL Hotline that is part of our VCAT service. This hotline has no connection with any other association or membership group.

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