Relationship Connection: My special needs grandchildren are burning me out

Question

My marriage is over after 17 years, but I am raising three grandchildren so thought you might be able to help me with my relationships with them. They have lots of issues, are on the autism spectrum and suffered a lot of trauma. I find it hard to be calm with them when they are constantly triggering each other. I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder which makes it really hard for me to stay calm also. I have good intentions, but they are not patient and don’t listen to me.

Answer

I don’t know your full circumstances, but what you are doing is so incredibly selfless and compassionate. Even though you are overwhelmed and likely feel like you’re failing these children, they are fortunate to have your support and care. The fact that you’re aware of your limits and are willing to ask for help is a good indicator of the kind of care and support you want to offer these children. Let’s talk about what you can do to improve your very difficult situation.

This may be an obvious question, but do you have any outside help with these kids? I don’t know what resources are available to you in your area, but you can’t do this alone. I used to work at a community mental health agency where there were afterschool and summer programs available to children with special needs. We also provided regular respite, case management and counseling services to help exhausted caregivers get the support they needed.

Start calling the state-funded mental health agency in your area to see what they have available. If your grandchildren have already been diagnosed with an autistic-spectrum disorder and trauma, then speak with the provider who diagnosed them and is giving them treatment. In many cases, there are support resources available for caregivers like you.

Even though these kids need lots of support, your trauma treatment is priority number one. Without the proper trauma treatment for yourself, your body will respond like it’s in a war zone and will have difficulty coming out of fight/flight mode. Trauma triggers are about feeling powerless and you can easily feel this way with all of the variables you’re facing in your home. I hope you’ll find the help you need so you can be better reinforced to care for these children.

While you’re trying to figure out professional resources for yourself and your grandchildren, it’s important to reach out for help in your extended family, with friends and in your neighborhood. You may worry about burdening others by asking for help with these overwhelmed children, but you’d be surprised how many people are willing to help.

Outlining expectations is critical so no one gets burned out. For example, you may ask for an hour or two of respite a few times a week so you can get things done without interruptions (or just rest and take a nap!). You might ask for help occasional meals to be brought to your home. There might be people willing to help with homework after school. If someone knows they have a specific job for a limited amount of time, they’re more likely to help out. It’s less of a burden for others if they know exactly what they’re getting into.

There are also some practical things you can do to help decrease the agitation in your home. Again, perhaps you’ve thought of some of these, but they’re worth mentioning. Please don’t take this list as a checklist but as suggestions to consider. It’s wise to make time to explore these further:

  • Diet. The kinds of food they eat will have a huge impact on their moods. It’s normal to opt for quick and convenient foods, but these may not nourish your grandchildren and create spikes and drops in blood sugar. You want to make sure they’re getting the right fuel for their brains and bodies, which will greatly affect their moods for the better.
  • Limit screen time. When you’ve got kids with special needs and you’re depleted, it’s tempting to let them zone out in front of screens (TV, internet, games, etc). Try to limit their screen time so their brains can be calm and their attention spans can improve. Withdrawals from screens can also create mood problems. Screens are appropriate, but can create more problems than they solve.
  • Make sure they’re getting lots of physical activity. If your health permits, taking them on walks, going to a park and finding other physical activities will help them regulate their emotions better. It will also help break up the routine in your home.
  • Have strict bedtimes for the children. That way, you can count on alone time each night. Again, this is where you might bring in some reinforcements to help put the kids to bed at night so you can count on some rest and renewal at the end of each day.
  • Join Facebook or other online groups. Find people who are caring for special needs children or grandchildren. The internet allows us to connect with people all over the world who are dealing with similar struggles. You’ll likely find support and ideas that remind you you’re not alone.

I hope there might be some ideas and support in this response that can help lift some of the burden you’re carrying. As you know, this is a long-term play, so please don’t aim for perfection, just progress. Hopefully you can find an arrangement that eases the heavy burden you’re carrying.

Stay connected!

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Have a relationship question for Geoff to answer? Submit to:

Email: geoff@lovingmarriage.com

Twitter: @geoffsteurer

Instagram: @geoffsteurer  

Facebook: facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.