Supporting Children with Mental Health, Chronic Illness, and Neurodevelopmental Challenges

Raising a child with a neurodevelopmental disorder, mental illness, or chronic illness is unimaginably hard. Each day comes with new challenges that may seem insurmountable, and the experience of caring for a child with unique needs can be profoundly isolating. It can feel like you are the only one facing this. Adding to this loneliness, is the stigma and shame associated with these diagnoses. Parents may find it difficult to open up about their child’s condition because of what other people may think about their child or how they might be perceived as parents. It is common for parents to internalize stigma and blame themselves for their child’s diagnosis, leading to a cycle of guilt and shame.

Parents of children facing unique needs frequently report heightened levels of parental stress, anxiety, and depression. This strain not only impacts their mental wellbeing but often takes a toll on their physical health. Furthermore, heightened parental stress can contribute to marital conflict and reduced relationship satisfaction. As a significant portion of time and energy goes into caring for their child, there is less bandwidth to nurture one’s partnership.

Major stressors of caring for a child with distinctive challenges include the financial burden of treatment, missing work, and the constant worry about finding the best possible care. Additionally, children with unique needs may face exclusion at school, a situation that is devastating for parents/ Witnessing your child struggle socially and the impact of this on them, is a particular type of heartbreak. Parents may also grieve the loss of the life they expected their child to have that is now very different due to their condition. Parents may unintentionally compare their children to other children, which can lead to ruminating about why this has happened to their child and family. These types of thoughts are valid and contribute to further distress.

Amidst the overwhelming focus on caring for their child, parents may neglect their own wellbeing. It is crucial to recognize that your mental health matters, and taking care of yourself is essential to being there for your child. You can’t give from an empty well. Here are some strategies to manage your mental health amidst the daily challenges:

  • Acknowledge that you are human. You may make mistakes. All you can do is your best. Forgive yourself for mistakes you’ve made and stop beating yourself up for not doing enough. Remember that you are doing your best for your child. It’s all about progress, not perfection.
  • Open up to others. Guilt and shame thrive in the dark. Bring these feelings into the light by opening up to trusted family and friends. Find support groups and online communities to connect with other parents who are going through similar experiences.
  • Allow yourself to feel. Acknowledge and process your emotions, whether it’s grieving the life you expected for your child or dealing with sadness and difficult situations. What you’re going through is extremely difficult and your feelings are valid. You don’t have to feel guilty if you are struggling. Parenting is hard in the best of circumstances, nevermind situations that require additional needs.
  • Embrace moments of joy. Find happiness in small moments, whether it’s laughter with a friend, cherishing family time, going for a walk, or enjoying your favorite song. You are allowed to and should feel joy despite everything else you’re facing.
  • Practice mindfulness. Incorporate breathing exercises, meditation, visualization, and stretching to reduce stress and improve mood and sleep. Exercising your mind so it’s optimally healthy will help you in getting through tough times.
  • Reframe your thoughts. Shift from thinking “why is this happening to me” to “what can I do about it”. Move from helplessness to being solution-oriented and proactive. This can look like finding support groups, seeking professional support for your child, finding a supportive school, and more. While you absolutely should make space to validate and empathize with difficult emotions, how you choose to react to those emotions is what matters.
  • Avoid comparison to other children. Focus on your child’s unique needs and what you can do to support them in this moment. Everyone is on their own journey. Comparison is the thief of joy.
  • Prioritize your relationship. Find moments of time to spend with your partner where you don’t talk about your children. Engage in activities you enjoy together and allow you to connect.
  • Seek professional help. Reach out to mental health professionals who can offer strategies and provide a safe space for you to discuss your experiences. It is common to find parenting and caregiving difficult, a lot of us need extra support at times in our lives.

Navigating the path of raising a child with a neurodevelopmental disorder, mental illness, or chronic illness is an incredibly challenging journey, marked by daily obstacles and profound isolation. Remember, you are not alone, and your efforts to care for your child deserve acknowledgment. By prioritizing your own mental health, you empower yourself to be the supportive and resilient parent your child needs.

Written By:

Dr. Amber Cohen of The Cohen Clinic.

Follow Dr. Cohen on Instagram & Facebook.


Berthold, J. (2022, August 26). Half of Moms of Kids with Autism Have High Depressive Symptoms. University of California San Francisco.

Fēi Li, Yun Tang, Fei Li, Shuanfeng Fang, Xin Liu, Minyi Tao, Danping Wu, Liping Jiang, Psychological distress in parents of children with autism spectrum disorder: A cross-sectional study based on 683 mother-father dyads, Journal of Pediatric Nursing, Volume 65, 2022, Pages e49-e55, ISSN 0882-5963,

Johnson, K. (2022, April 15). How Parents and Caregivers of Kids with Autism Cope with Stress. Learn Behavioural.

Marquis SM, McGrail K, Hayes M Mental health of parents of children with a developmental disability in British Columbia, Canada J Epidemiol Community Health 2020;74:173-178.

Sick Children Affect Parents’ Mental Health (2009, July 17). Medical Press.

SickKids-led review finds parents of chronically ill children experience poorer health outcomes (2020, January 6). SickKids.,than%20pare