The Spoon Theory for Parents of Children with Special Needs

Alethea Mshar
Special needs mom and Blogger
02/08/17  10:49 AM PST
special needs parents

Parents of children with special needs may seem superhuman, but we wake up each day with a limited amount of precious resources. Let me explain, using the Spoon Theory.

You might have heard of the Spoon Theory. Essentially, the Spoon Theory is that people with chronic illness wake up each day with a limited number of “spoons,” which represent the energy it takes to do any given task. A normal task like showering or eating takes up a spoon. In the theory, a person with chronic illness has only about a dozen spoons a day. If you use up a spoon doing something like talking on the phone or running to get the door, you don’t have the energy for something necessary, like eating dinner, or changing your clothes. It’s an explanation that helps people with healthy bodies understand what it’s like to live with a limited amount of energy.

special needs parents

I’m going to use the theory as a jumping off place, and apply it to parents caring for kids with chronic illness or developmental special needs.

For me, I wake up with a good allotment of spoons each day, say 50 or more. My spoons are plenty to get through each normal day, but this is where the story changes. My spoons have to accommodate both myself and my children with cognitive impairments and complex medical issues. Whereas 50 spoons is plenty to get through a day as a typical adult, I often find myself running low, here’s why:

During the night Ben often awakens and needs to be put back to bed, which takes a spoon or two a day. He’s up in the morning between 4:30 and 5:30 am, another spoon on the days that start before 5.  In the morning the first thing I need to do is get his glasses, and get him settled, before I even pee; another spoon. Next I prepare and give him his meds, yet another spoon.

In the first 15 minutes of my day, Ben has already required several spoons. Then we need to catheterize him for urine, do his bowel flush, and help him get dressed, which is another several spoons. Often, he gets anxiety attacks before he leaves the house for school, which takes a spoon or two, and he needs help getting on coat, shoes and I take him to his bus stop. That means that by the time Ben leaves for school I have used well over 10 spoons just for him, and that’s not counting what “normal” parents do, which I also do for my other kids, and this is on a day that he goes to school, with no doctor appointments, which he has at least weekly. Often, during the school day, I indulge in serious self-care in order to replenish my spoons for the rest of the day.

special needs parents

This is why, when a friend wants to talk on the phone, I sometimes let it go to voicemail. This is why, when you ask me to go out for a drink, I decline. This is why, I sometime just veg and play Candy Crush or surf Facebook for too long. This is why I pause when you ask me how I’m doing.

Please understand, I am incredibly grateful for my son, and parenting him is a gift.  He is a treasure, and I consider myself the guardian and caretaker of my treasured child. I simply want you to understand why I often look and act tired, why going out is exhausting for me, why I might not have as much to give of myself on a daily basis. I’m saving my spoons for my family, my children. They get first dibs on all 50 spoons, and when I happen to have a few left over here and there, I would love to chat on the phone or go out. And when you get some of my spoons, it means that I really treasure you as well!

inclusion on the playground

Alethea Mshar is a Special Needs Mom and Blogger.

Read her blog, Ben’s Writing, Running Mom.

Follow her on Facebook.

For more articles on self-care, please see below:

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  1. Very beautiful soul and spirit. God bless you and your family, and may him give you the energy and health to accomplish your mission.

  2. Wow I just read your spoons story… was looking up special need spoons for my 10 year old grandson who won’t can’t use spoons. I hAve him for the week parents and siblings on a much needed vacation. Your story brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing. God Bless you.

  3. Thank you for sharing this. I’m a single mom to a disabled 10 month old and this explains it completely. Thank you for letting me know I’m not alone! Helps me earn back a spoon or two. God bless strong momma

  4. It’s 2020 and I am reading this during month 5 of quarantine and closed school buildings, with my 2 children – one of which has significant special needs. This is very accurate. Unfortunately when I had a bit if a reprieve with school and therapists, I don’t now. At all. So my spoons run out by about 6pm nightly. But reading this, makes me feel less alone.

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