The ABCs of Living in Survival Mode

As a single mother of a teenage with Autism, OCD and GAD, I understand what living in survival mode is like. Some days/weeks/months can feel like a constant struggle to get through the never-ending challenges of parenting a child with special needs. From sleepless nights to meltdowns to medication changes, it can be overwhelming to say the least. But, there are ways you can bring some ease to survive survival mode and take care of yourself in the process. 

Here are the ABCs of surviving survival mode:

Allow it to be messy. 

When I am living in survival mode, the first thing to go is my living space.  The laundry piles up, the dishes are stacked to the ceiling, and the cats are feeding themselves out of their bag of food in the closet.  It’s fine.  

Give yourself permission to let it be messy without judging yourself for it.  Maybe your kitchen looks like a war zone, maybe you forgot your best friend’s birthday, maybe your dog is taking herself for walks — it is ok.  Remind yourself that it is more important for you to lessen you load than to live up to some perfectionist fantasy about what your life (or house) should look like.

Basics only.

When you’re in survival mode, it’s important to prioritize the basics. That means if something can wait, let it. Unless it’s medically necessary, anything that can be cancelled, rescheduled, or delegated should be. Instead, focus on getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, and eating healthy foods. Taking care of your basic needs will help you better manage your stress and increase your capacity to support yourself and your child.

Commit to your essentials. 

Self-care is usually the first thing to go (if it was even there in the first place), when we are in survival mode. 

Ask me how I know!  During my son’s inpatient hospitalization, I looked and acted like a complete zombie.  I did not eat well, I did not sleep and I spent my days and nights in fight/flight mode field by caffeine, sugary snacks and worry.  

In fact, as special needs parents, is it really easy to dismiss self-care because so many of us believe that we don’t really matter.  We believe that our kids matter, their needs matter, and we can wait.

Well, that is not the case.  First, we do matter.  Crazy, right?  Second (even if you are not buying that you do matter), our wellness is critical to our children’s wellness. Whether you do it because you believe you matter or because you want to maximize your ability to care for your child, make time for yourself while you are in survival mode. 

Pick 3 things: You can do this by picking three things that you will make time for every day, no matter what. These are your essentials. Maybe it’s taking a hot shower, going for a walk, or practicing mindfulness. Whatever it is, make it a priority and commit to doing it every day.


Survival mode is a challenging place to be, but it’s not impossible to navigate. Remember to allow things to be messy, prioritize the basics, commit to your essentials, and give yourself grace. Above all, remember that you are doing the best you can and your best is always good enough. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, commit to having your own back. Being a mom of a child with autism can be incredibly challenging, and it’s easy to second-guess yourself or feel like you’re not doing enough. But, it’s important to give yourself grace and remember that you’re doing the best you can with the resources you have.