This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and the theme this year is positive relationships. It is true that positive relationships are vital to health and happiness but having children with additional needs can often make building and maintaining relationships challenging.

I’m a people person. I need people around me, I need people to talk to, I need people to laugh with and I need people to encourage me and I need people to share life with.

I do realise that not everyone is like me and some people (my husband included) can be quite happy with their own company and their own thoughts. However I’m the opposite – I do my own head in if I have too much time alone.

One of the things I find most challenging with the boys is how they impact friendships and relationships. I remember crying many times when Toby started not coping with people. I felt as if there was no point going to toddler groups or having people round as he just used to scream and I wouldn’t actually get chance to talk to anyone as he demanded all of my time and attention. Although Teddy doesn’t struggle in the same way Toby did, he still finds some social occasions challenging. He hates it if I stop to talk to anyone in the street when he’s in the buggy. He just screams until we start walking away – it doesn’t bother me much these days but it doesn’t make relationships easy.

Tiredness doesn’t help either – physical tiredness, mental tiredness and emotional tiredness. Sometimes it’s all just too much. Sometimes someone asks me how I’m doing and it all just comes out other times I’m too tired to even go there.

It also sometimes feels as if they speak a completely different language to me. I am genuinely pleased that your child has got 100% on their spellings three weeks in a row, is pupil of the week and your biggest challenge is fitting in gymnastics, dance classes and swimming lessons into their busy after school schedule. On the other hand I have 4 different hospital appointments this week, am chasing up various professionals and reports and I still haven’t ordered nappies from the incontinence service. That’s slightly exaggerated but you get the idea!

As well as friendships, additional needs can put a real strain on marriages and relationships. I’ve heard various statistics (not entirely sure which ones are true as some are as high as 80%) about the divorce rates amongst couples who have a child with additional needs.

So as I’ve been thinking about all this over the past week, I’ve come up with three ways that I think help me to feel connected to people despite the challenges of additional needs parenting. I’m not saying that I’ve got all this sorted but these are three things that help me.

  1. Find people who get it. Whether that’s an online community, Facebook group, local support group or people who are walking a similar journey to you. I have great communities of people locally and online who offer invaluable friendship, support and encouragement. I think face to face connections are really important whether that’s a friendly smile from someone who understands or a shoulder to cry on when needed. Find people who get it – those people are usually walking through/have walked through similar experiences.
  2. Find some time to be you. I was away with some ladies from Church last weekend and one of the best things about it was finding some time to be me. Being able to sit and eat a meal with other people, being able to go for a walk when I wanted, being able to actually chat to some people – being able to be me. At home I’m so busy being a parent and a carer; chasing around naked children, dealing with the mess and the meltdowns and in the midst of the chaos I find it hard to be ‘me’. I have to make a real effort to stop and find things that make me me – colouring, journaling, reading, blogging, hanging out with friends, going places (child-free), just generally having a break from being a parent carer. My parents also often offer to have the boys over night which is such a blessing – a good night sleep does me the world of good but it also gives us the opportunity to chat or hang out with friends and just be us.
  3. Find people who will make an effort to make it work for you. We’ve got some great friends who make a real effort to be around our kids and to build relationships with them as well as us. Whether it’s bringing a take-away round for an evening (as they understand that we can’t go out), coming on trips out with us as a family or just building a relationship with the kids so that they are happy for that person to be in our house – it makes a huge difference to us not feeling isolated.

If you haven’t already check out this video about the importance of relationships on Mental Health – maybe there’s someone that you could be a better friend to this week?