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Pure Friendship for Individuals with Special Needs
Russ Ewell

5 Ways to Beat Caregiver Burnout

It is a mistake to look too far ahead.  Only one link of the chain of destiny can be handled at a time. -Winston Churchill

Throughout this journey we call life each of us will be touched by the ordinary, tragic, and amazing.  Taken together these events can be overwhelming.  Winston Churchill helps us see them separately, as individual links in the chain of our destiny. This perspective is essential for special needs families.  We can look too far ahead, feel the weight of responsibility, and become overwhelmed.  This is why we are in constant danger of burning out. There may be no more dangerous threat to the life of the special needs parent than burnout.   The moment we learn our child has a disability life changes.   We enjoy the new addition to our family, but hanging over our head is the bittersweet reality of work ahead. This does not mean life for special needs parents is miserable, but it isn’t  for the faint of heart.  Those who embrace this life successfully must be or become mentally tough, emotionally secure, and capable of finding purpose in pain or difficulty. “5 Ways to Beat Burnout” is about making a paradigm shift.  Living a life of discovery rather than focusing on difficulty.   Let’s begin!

1. Reinvent Yourself:

Unfulfilled Expectations

Unfulfilled expectations are one of the first emotional hurdles we must clear.  What we expected from our child and life has failed to come true.

The Grief  

Unfulfilled expectations can send us into a downward spiral of disappointment, despair, and even anger.

The Decision

Either live with the pain of remaining the same, or embrace the pain of change.

The Change

Embracing the pain of change is the best way to avoid burnout.  Rather than wasting endurance battling the stagnating pain of misery, we can pursue hope.


Hope comes alive when we focus on open rather than closed doors.  What doors have opened because of this change in your life?  How would walking through them allow you to reinvent your life and your family?

2. Redefine Priorities:


Albus Dumbledore said, ‘It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be”.  The purpose of reinventing ourselves and redesigning our lives is to become who we are meant to be.  This begins with redefining our priorities.


We must understand three truths to redefine our priorities.  1) Decision making is stressful.  2) Parents of children with special needs make intense and consequential decisions. 3) Simplifying decision-making reduces stress and limits the possibility of burnout.


Simplifying decision making begins with the understanding that all decisions are not equal.  Some are unimportant, others urgent, but only a few really matter.   We must focus on the few or important decisions.


Legendary CEO Steve Jobs had this to say about decision making.  “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.  You have to pick carefully.  I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things I have done.  Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”  Managing stress effectively is essential to beat burnout, so we too must learn to say no.


John Maeda, author of “The Laws of Simplicity” wrote, “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful.”   Start subtracting things from your life.  Keep only those things which allow you to discover the new you.

3. Restore Balance


The well defined life is simple.  Simplicity restores balance to our lives.

Balanced Marriage

stress and the resulting emotional exhaustion are the great dividers in marriages of parents with special needs kids.  Since it is unlikely we will completely remove the effects of disability from our lives, we must remove less important stressors.  Whatever and whoever they might be.

Balanced Kids

stress is bad for kids, especially those with disabilities.    When we do too much too fast we increase the stress and anxiety in our homes.   Two simple things restore peace when our kids are experiencing chaos.  1) Ruthlessly rule out activities that fail to benefit our families 2) Involve others in our families who can give us a break while making our kids happy.

Balanced Happiness

every parent makes sacrifices for their children.  Parents with special needs children make more.  In the midst of our sacrifice, we must make certain to keep a tight hold on things that create happiness for us and our families.

4. Build Relationships

I am amazed by the number of people who find purpose in helping special needs children and adults.  This is why we must avoid emotional isolation, and include as many people as possible in our lives.  There are amazing individuals and groups waiting to provide both support and inspiration.  Here are a few of my favorites.
  • E-Soccer - my own experience of being helped by friends
  • Elizabeth Stringer Keefe - this Lesley University professor trains teachers who change the lives of special needs kids.
  • Laura Shumaker - her life is proof you can do it!
  • Heath White -  the power of one dad’s acceptance
  • Jason McElwain - how coaches and students helped a dream come true
  • I Want To Say - a story of hope where family and friends work to help children find their voice

5. Pick Up a Movie

The goal of my writing is to help anyone struggling with the challenge of being a parent of special needs children.  If you find my thoughts lacking then pick one of these movies instead.  They are sure to do the trick!
  1. Mrs. Doubtfire- reinvent yourself
  2. Extraordinary Measures- redefine your priorities
  3. Horse Whisperer - restore balance
  4. It’s A Wonderful Life - build relationships

WRITTEN ON November 08, 2013 BY:

Russ Ewell