Taking Care of Your Children Means Taking Care of Yourself, by Rachel Stockton, LCSW
For all the joy, wonder and fulfillment that raising a child can bring, parenthood is really hard work. For many parents, taking care of kids and other responsibilities is all-consuming, often leaving you falling into bed exhausted at the end of the day with no time to nurture yourself. Guilt can loom heavy in parenting and make you feel that you need to sacrifice your own happiness for your kids. This is certainly understandable, but will it create happy kids? Probably not. The fact is that when you take the time to nurture and care for yourself, you actually have more to give.
Anyone who has been on an airplane knows, in case of danger, put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. It makes sense - how can you be of any help to anyone else if you are struggling to breathe? Research shows that people in close relationships become emotionally similar over time (Keltner,and Oliver, 2003). If a parent is not taking care of his or her own mental heath and is stressed out, overwhelmed, or depressed, children may start to mimic these emotions. Taking care of your own mental health is a great way to model self-care for your children and will also make you more patient, cheerful, and emotionally available to them.
Ok, so we’ve established that you need to take care of yourself. But how do you find the time? There are bills to pay, carpools to drive, homework to supervise and soccer games to attend. How do you possibly make time for yourself? It may sound ambitious, but I’m not talking about date nights and spa days (though I highly recommend those as well!); there are actually a lot of little things you can do regularly that can help you feel healthier, more energetic, and more connected with yourself and the people you care about. And the great thing is that many of the things you can do to take care of yourself, also have benefits for your children.
Make Yourself a Priority. You probably don’t think twice about making sure your child’s needs are met. You know the signs when he is tired, hungry, bored or overstimulated. You make sure that she gets balanced meals, time outdoors, play dates, and plenty of sleep. But do you give yourself the same consideration? If so, good for you! If not, then think about committing to giving yourself the same love and care that you give to your child. If you’re tired, nap when your child naps. Maybe you just need a little quiet time? Have your child do something independently while you take a few minutes to relax. Take the time to nourish yourself with healthy food, friendships, and activities that bring you fulfillment. When you make sure your needs are met along with your child’s, you will be more patient and present with your children. You will also be teaching them to make healthy choices for themselves by modeling good self-care.
Evaluate Your Life Style and Limit Stress. There are many techniques for dealing with the effects of stress, but an even better strategy is to eliminate the sources of the stress before you feel its effects. Of course, a certain amount of stress is unavoidable and can even be a good thing, as it means we are engaged in the world; but sometimes the choices that we make can add unnecessary stress to our lives. When we take on too much, we may find ourselves feeling anxious, irritable, and impatient with our kids. If you are feeling the effects of stress, chances are your children are going to feel this too. They might think it is their fault or react by acting out or being defiant, leading to even more stress. So what can you do about it? Start with taking an inventory and being mindful of how you feel throughout the day. What activities, relationships, or thoughts are sapping your energy or making you feel stressed out? Which of these things can you change or even cut out from your life? On the positive side, notice what makes you feel content, engaged, and connected. Are you making enough time for the things that feed your soul? You might find that a drastic change is in order, like moving so you can be closer to family support, or changing jobs to pursue a more fulfilling career or to shorten your commute. Or maybe you just need to make some simple changes that will make your daily life more manageable, such as limiting the number of after school activities your children participate in or implementing a chore chart for a more equitable division of labor. Your children might not be so excited about any ideas that require them to give up something they enjoy or to take on responsibilities, but keep in mind the bigger picture: If you can reduce the stress in your life your children will reap the benefits of a more calm and peaceful household -probably one of the most valuable gifts you can give them.
Take Care of Your Health. Getting enough sleep, exercise, and nutrition are essential to good physical and mental health but busy parents can sometimes neglect these basic needs. There are many ways to incorporate healthy habits into your daily activities with your kids. Invite your kids to do something active with you. Most children will be happy to go for a walk, take a bike ride, or kick around the soccer ball. Or crank up the tunes and do some dancing while you are making dinner or cleaning the house. You might find that you spend a lot of time as a spectator of team sports or other activities where your kids are active but you are sedentary. When I take my kids to dance class or swim meets, I bring my walking shoes and spend 15 minutes taking a brisk walk while they are warming up. By making your health a priority, you will not only feel more energetic, but you will be teaching your children about healthy choices as well.
Do at Least 5 Things You Enjoy Every Day. Too often we postpone pleasure, waiting for the work day to be over, the children to be in bed, the weekend to come, the summer vacation. Sure, for many parents the days can be full of hurdles and things to simply “get through” and sometimes we can forget to just stop for a moment and enjoy being alive. This doesn’t have to mean time away from the kids but, rather, finding the small joys in every day. Make a playlist of your favorite music to listen to while you drive your kids to school or go to work - you can even sing along. Have a picnic. Play a game. Meditate. Go to the beach. Cook a delicious meal or treat yourself to your favorite takeout. Make a date with your partner or meet a friend for a walk. Read a book. Watch the sunset. Tell a joke or do something silly and watch your child’s beautiful face light up with laughter. Whatever it is that brings you joy, make time for it, even if it is just a few minutes. You will feel more centered and have more to give and your children will appreciate your cheerful demeanor. You will also be teaching them to find joy in the simple pleasures of daily life.
Life is filled with challenging events and life with kids can be chaotic. Some days will just be hard and your needs may come last. But if you make yourself a priority on a regular basis you will be keeping your proverbial “tank” full and will have something to draw from on those extra tough days. So the next time you feel yourself becoming depleted, stop a minute and think about what you can do to nurture yourself. You deserve it - and so do your kids.