Managing Stress, Anxiety and Depression: Tips for Parents and Caregivers

There’s no question that being a caregiver to a child with urgent needs can be challenging. If you sometimes find yourself dealing with big emotions, rest assured that you’re not alone. Maybe you frequently experience high levels of stress. Or perhaps you’re suffering from anxiety or depression. Chances are you devote a lot of time and energy to advocating for your child and getting them the supports they need. This is important, but it’s also important to take care of yourself. This means taking steps to manage feelings of stress, anxiety or depression and getting the help you need. By meeting your own needs, you’ll be in a better position to meet the needs of your child. Families experiencing stress, anxiety and depression related to challenging behaviours may also benefit from our Urgent Response Services.

Know how to recognize the signs

You may feel like you’re on autopilot, doing whatever you need to do to support your child and get through the day. This can mean you might not notice signs of a potential mental health issue. Here are some things to look out for that may indicate you (or another parent or caregiver in your household) is experiencing anxiety or depression.

Signs of anxiety:

  • Finding it hard to get out of bed
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Constant feelings of worry
  • Physical symptoms, like headaches or feeling light-headed

Signs of depression:

  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Losing interest in activities you normally enjoy
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • In extreme cases, feeling as though you want to hurt yourself

Tips for maintaining your mental wellness

Ask for help: You may have trouble asking for help or accepting it when offered. Or you may be so busy accessing support for your child that getting support for yourself takes a back seat. It’s important to acknowledge you can’t do this alone. If someone offers help, take them up on it. If you don’t have support, there are services you can access.

Move your body: Getting exercise is good for your body and mind. Try your best to incorporate physical activity into your week and even into each day, if possible. This doesn’t need to be a long workout session at the gym (unless this makes you happy). Even a brief walk can help you keep your stress levels in check.

Talk it out: Talking about your feelings can help you identify and cope with them. Find a trusted friend, family member or a healthcare professional you feel comfortable with. It’s important to avoid keeping your emotions bottled up.

Don’t sweat the small stuff: A long to-do list can be overwhelming at the best of times. If you’re grappling with stress, anxiety or depression, focus on priority tasks that need to get done. Anything that isn’t urgent can be dealt with later.

Eat mood-boosting foods: Healthy foods can have a positive impact on your mood. Some foods have even been linked to helping lower levels of cortisol. This is known as the “stress hormone” because it’s released when you’re feeling stressed. Foods that can help lower cortisol levels include avocados, walnuts, salmon and bananas, among others (see the full list here.)

Prioritize sleep: Manyof us cut corners when it comes to getting enough sleep, even though we know how important it is. If your child has a sleep disturbance, it may not be possible for you to get uninterrupted sleep at night. If this sounds like your household, create a night time routine for yourself and your child. Also consider having a trusted friend or family member support at night, when possible.

Build a support network: Having people you can count on, who understand what you’re going through, can help you feel less alone. If you’re having trouble building a support network, Surrey Place can help you connect with other caregivers or parents. You can also find support groups online, including Facebook groups.

Consider medication if needed: If you’ve tried a variety of strategies and nothing seems to be working, you may want to consider medication. This can be a good short-term solution during a particularly stressful time. Your family doctor should be able to prescribe something that will help.

Self-care versus coping

Different, yet equally important: A self-care habit and a coping strategy aren’t the same things. But both are important when it comes to dealing with stress, anxiety or depression. A coping strategy is something you use in the moment when you feel stress levels rising. Think deep breathing or squeezing a stress ball to calm down.

Incorporate daily wellness rituals: Self-care refers to wellness habits that make you feel good. Think of this as a proactive way to manage stress. Self-care habits will be different for different people. For you, it might be a quiet cup of coffee in the morning. For another person, it might be a long bath in the evening. For someone else, it could be five minutes of meditation before going to bed.

Carve out time for yourself: Think of ways you can sneak in time for daily self-care. Maybe that means waking up a few minutes earlier when your household is quiet. Or maybe it means giving your child some limited screen time (without the guilt) while you take time for yourself.

How Surrey Place can help

If you are a caregiver with a child who exhibits high-risk escalating behaviours that require an urgent response, like violent thinking, aggression, or property destruction, you may be eligible for Surrey Place’s Urgent Response Services. This program can be accessed through the Ontario Autism Program (OAP), which provides funding and services for children and youth under 18 years of age with autism, along with their families and caregivers.

About Urgent Response Services

This resource was written with support from staff in Urgent Response Services. Urgent Response Services are part of the Ontario Autism Program. They were created to support children or youth with an emerging urgent need. Surrey Place leads Urgent Response Services for Toronto Region in partnership with 2-Spirited People of the 1st Nations, Community Living Toronto, Family Service Toronto, Geneva Centre, Holland Bloorview, Kerry’s Place, Lumenus, SAAAC, SMILE Canada and Strides Toronto.


  • If you’re looking to connect with other parents, Surrey Place’s Foundational Family Services can help. At Surrey Place we also offer Caregiver Connect, a weekly support group that connects caregivers of children with autism spectrum disorder with other caregivers. Check Foundation Family Services for our next registration dates.
  • If you are experiencing anxiety or depression, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) offers services that may be able to help you. Please note you must have a referral form completed by a physician or nurse practitioner for most mental health services at CAMH.

For support for a child with autism spectrum disorder whose needs are not urgent, please visit Surrey Place’s Autism Services page

By 2 months

Has your baby had their hearing screened? YES NO

By 6 months

Does the child?

Startle in response to loud noises? YES NO
Turn to where a sound is coming from? YES NO
Make different cries for different needs (hungry, tired)? YES NO
Watch your face as you talk? YES NO
Smile/laugh in response to your smiles and laughs? YES NO
Imitate coughs or other sounds such as ah, eh, buh YES NO

By 9 months

Does the child?

Respond to their name? YES NO
Respond to the telephone ringing or a knock at the door? YES NO
Understand being told no? YES NO
Get what they want through using gestures (reaching to be picked up)? YES NO
Play social games with you (Peek-a-Boo)? YES NO
Enjoy being around people? YES NO
Babble and repeat sounds such as babababa or duhduhduh? YES NO

By 12 months

Does the child?

Follow simple one-step directions (sit down)? YES NO
Look across the room to a toy when adult points at it? YES NO
Consistently use three to five words? YES NO
Use gestures to communicate (waves hi/bye, shakes head for no)? YES NO
Get your attention using sounds, gestures and pointing while looking at your eyes? YES NO
Bring you toys to show you? YES NO
Perform for social attention and praise? YES NO
Combine lots of sounds together as though talking (abada baduh abee)? YES NO
Show an interest in simple picture books? YES NO

By 18 months

Does the child?

Understand the meaning of in and out, off and on? YES NO
Point to more than 2 body parts when asked? YES NO
Use at least 20 words consistently? YES NO
Respond with words or gestures to simple questions (Where's teddy? What's that?)? YES NO
Demonstrate some pretend play with toys (gives teddy bear a drink, pretends a bowl is a hat)? YES NO
Make at least four different consonant sounds (p ,b, m, n, d, g, w, h)? YES NO
Enjoy being read to and sharing simple books with you? YES NO
Point to pictures using one finger? YES NO

By 2 years

Does the child?

Follow two-step directions (Go find your teddy bear and show it to Grandma.)? YES NO
Use 100 to 150 words? YES NO
Use at least two pronouns (you, me, mine)? YES NO
Consistently combine two to four words in short phrases (Daddy hat. Truck go down.)? YES NO
Enjoy being around other children? YES NO
Begin to offer toys to other children and imitate other children's actions and words? YES NO
Use words that are understood by others 50 to 60 per cent of the time? YES NO
Form words or sounds easily and without effort? YES NO
Hold books the right way up and turn the pages? YES NO
Read to stuffed animals or toys? YES NO
Scribble with crayons? YES NO

By 30 months

Does the child?

Understand the concepts of size (big/little) and quantity (a little/a lot, more)? YES NO
Use some adult grammar (two cookies, bird flying, I jumped)? YES NO
Use over 350 words? YES NO
Use action words such as run, spill, fall? YES NO
Participate in some turn-taking activities with peers, using both words and toys? YES NO
Demonstrate concern when another child is hurt or sad? YES NO
Combine several actions in play (puts blocks in the train and drives the train, drops the blocks off.)? YES NO
Put sounds at the beginning of most words? YES NO
Use words with two or more syllables or beats (ba-na-na, com-pu-ter, a-pple)? YES NO
Recognize familiar logos and signs involving print (Stop sign)? YES NO
Remember and understand familiar stories? YES NO

By 3 years

Does the child?

Understand who, what, where and why questions? YES NO
Create long sentences using five to eight words? YES NO
Talk about past events (trip to grandparents house, day at child care)? YES NO
Tell simple stories? YES NO
Show affection for favourite playmates? YES NO
Engage in multi-step pretend play (pretending to cook a meal, repair a car)? YES NO
Talk in a way that most people outside of the family understand what she/he is saying most of the time? YES NO
Have an understanding of the function of print (menus, lists, signs)? YES NO
Show interest in, and awareness of, rhyming words? YES NO
Read to stuffed animals or toys? YES NO
Scribble with crayons? YES NO

By 4 years

Does the child?

Follow directions involving three or more steps (First get some paper, then draw a picture and give it to Mommy)? YES NO
Use adult type grammar? YES NO
Tell stories with a beginning, middle and end? YES NO
Talk to try and solve problems with adults and with other children? YES NO
Show increasingly complex imaginary play? YES NO
Talk in a way that is understood by strangers almost all the time? YES NO
Generate simple rhymes (cat-bat)? YES NO
Match some letters with their sounds (letter b says buh, letter t says tuh)? YES NO