Self Care for Parents
I’ve saved the topic of parent self-care as the final piece within the series on helping your child cope with change, but although I chose to write about it last, it’s really the most important piece of the puzzle. It’s difficult (and sometimes impossible) to help others unless we help ourselves first. Caregiver fatigue is a real thing! Helping your child 24/7 requires an infinite amount of compassion, and compassion has to start with self-compassion. If you feel like your compassion gauge is reading on the low side, it’s probably time to practice self-compassion and begin a self care routine.
A first step in helping a sensitive child is to increase your awareness about how much your own thoughts, feelings, and energy deeply affect your child. When you are genuinely calm and are present with your child, it creates space for your child’s feelings and can help your child feel more grounded, centered, and better able to self-regulate. It’s a win-win because you both feel better!
You may have noticed that when you have unresolved anxiety, high levels of stress, and/or negative thought patterns, your child reacts and then you find yourself focusing all of your energy on trying to help your child while you yourself are still in crisis. This can become a vicious cycle that is only broken when you begin to take care of yourself.
When we are overly-stressed, we tend to check-out or “numb” our feelings and are not functioning in the present. Sometimes being present may feel uncomfortable and this is a sign that you need to give yourself some attention and love. Practicing self-compassion and learning to practice mindfulness in your thoughts, speech, and actions will allow you to parent effectively and help strengthen your relationship with your child.
We all have very busy schedules these days, especially if you have a child with special needs. While it may not always be practical to take time away, there are ways you can incorporate self-care into your daily life. Below are some practices that are simple things you can do to create space within your day for self-care.
Your own sacred space: A main part of helping children cope with change is to consider the environment, as we discussed previously. Well, guess what? This applies to grown-ups too! Yes, parents also need a special place where they can go and take a “time out” for self-regulation. I always recommend to the parents that I work with to create a sacred space for themselves in the home. This may not be your bedroom. Many times, as parents, our bedrooms are not the quiet, relaxing places they once were before having children.
Ideally, your sacred space should be off-limits to everyone else but you. If that’s not possible, then finding a shared area that you can go to for alone time when you need to will do just fine. Take some time to go through the previous post on environmental considerations; re-read it in the context of creating your own personalized space. Consider colors, textures, sounds, and smells in this area and fill it with things that help you feel calm and centered.
Rituals and routines: This is another area we previously covered in the context of helping your child that also applies to self care. Sleep is crucial for restoring balance and setting a morning and evening routine can help with regulating your sleep schedule. Some suggestions for an evening routine might be shutting down electronic devices at a certain time, at least an hour before bed, drinking an evening cup of tea, taking an Epsom salts bath, using lavender mist or essential oil, and reading or meditating before bed. In the mornings, it’s nice if you can wake up before your child to start your self-care routine. Take a long shower and try self-massage with a natural sugar scrub, followed by morning tea and perhaps some mindful movement.
Daily intention setting: Intention setting is a mindful practice during which you take a few moments to create a positive mindset for the day. I like to set my intention for the day either before I get out of bed or at the start of morning meditation or yoga practice. Some good examples of intentions for the day are: “I am strong in body, mind, and spirit,” or “I speak gently and act compassionately towards myself and others”. Finding an intention that feels right to you may take a moment of quiet contemplation. Generally, try to keep it simple and focus on positive statements.
Art Journaling. Writing in a journal at the end of the day can help your brain wind down and process all those dancing thoughts. I like to mix up my journaling with words, colors, and pictures. Sometimes my journal entry becomes a “to-do” list for the next day, but at least I’m not laying in bed worrying about those things once they’re written down. I like to keep a mandala journal, which is drawing within a circular shape on the journal page. I trace a circular object on each page of my journal and doodle or color in a circle whatever comes to mind. It’s fun to watch the mandalas evolve over time and change with my moods and mindsets.
Body scan: A body scan is a great way to begin practicing non-judgment and self-compassion while increasing your awareness and regulating your mind and body. A body scan is similar to progressive relaxation, in which you take time to focus on each part of the body, scanning gradually from your toes to the top of your head and back down to your toes again.
Because this is a meditative practice, allow yourself to be curious about the experience and to practice non-judgment. It’s okay to have a thought or judgment while practicing mindfulness, in fact, thoughts will likely happen. If you catch your mind wandering or assigning “good”
or “bad” labels to feelings or sensations within the body, simply label the thought as just a thought and then go back to noticing the body part and any shapes, colors, textures, feelings, or sensations that you experience.
A body scan can be particularly helpful to do before getting out of bed for the day. It gives you an opportunity to check-in with yourself and focus inward before you have the chance to begin any negative thinking loops. If you feel pain, sadness, etc. anywhere in your body, simply observe the sensation before your mind begins to label it as a “good” or “bad” feeling. If you find yourself having a difficult time focusing on the body part and are constantly distracted by thoughts, this is okay too. It doesn’t mean you are doing a “bad” job, it simply means you have a busy mind. Observing your busy mind is a great first step to self awareness!
Self-massage: Warm sesame oil or coconut oil are great natural oils to use for self-massage. Practicing self-massage creates an opportunity for you to practice self-compassion. After your shower or bath, rub a bit of oil on your hands and massage into your skin. Use long, sweeping movements on your muscles and circular movements on your joints. Take a moment to be grateful for your body and give it love through the kind act of massage. Just avoid the eye and facial area as the oils may cause breakouts and blurry vision.
Breath awareness: Throughout your day, pay attention to your breath. Is it shallow or deep, fast or slow? Simply focusing your attention on your breath has a calming effect on the nervous system. When you focus your attention on your breath, your attention is taken away from your problems and stress.
Mindful movement: Whether it’s practicing yoga, taking a walk in nature, swimming, running, gardening or simply doing household chores, any kind of daily practice that involves movement has the potential to also become a mindfulness ritual. Simply focus your awareness on your body as it moves and notice the sensations, sights, smells, and sounds of the experience. Physical activity can be an excellent way to connect your body and mind while serving as an outlet for stress.
Mindful eating: We have to eat every day, so this is a great way to squeeze in a simple self-care ritual. When our lives are full and busy, we often multi-task while we eat. Some of us have conditioned ourselves to be otherwise engaged while eating, watching a show on television or surfing the net on a phone. But mealtimes are the perfect opportunity to connect with ourselves or others. If you’re eating with your family, incorporate a no-device policy while eating, sit at the same table, and spend the time connecting by sharing an experience.
If you have the chance to eat alone, have a nice meal with yourself. Use good dishes and cups. Even if it’s a simple meal, arrange it so that it’s visually appealing. Take a moment of gratitude for your meal before eating or say a prayer. While you’re eating, take time to enjoy and savor the experience, noticing the colors, shapes, flavors, and textures of your food and drink. If you don’t have time to do this at every meal, try to fit in a tea time in the morning or before bed and drink the tea in a similar fashion.
Maximize car time: Running errands all day or have a long commute? We often spend a great deal of time in our cars. Unfortunately, many people allow themselves to become highly stressed while driving. Instead of allowing yourself to become distracted by negative, repetitive, or future-oriented thoughts on the road, you can practice mindfulness while driving.
If you’re driving home from a stressful day at work, you can relax your mind and prepare yourself to be fully present when you come home by focusing on your breath. Maybe take a moment to remind yourself of the things and/or people in life you’re grateful for. Perhaps set an intention for your evening. If you’re alone and need an emotional outlet, turn up the music and sing along! If you’re in the car with children, you can think of creative ways to connect. Play some children’s music and connect with your inner child as you sing along to the words together. This can create an opportunity to have a positive interaction with your child that will benefit both of you.
Time away: Most of these tips are things you can incorporate into your day and practice even when you can’t get away. Sometimes, however, it’s important to recognize when a vacation is needed. If you notice yourself becoming easily angered or irritated, have difficulty practicing compassion towards others, or if you’re constantly getting sick, it may be time for a getaway. If this is the case, sometimes your close friends or family members will be the first ones to let you know. Pay attention to these indicators and give yourself permission to get away from time to time. A mini-vacation or staycation doesn’t have to cost a fortune. Maybe it’s just time to call the helpers in your life and ask for help. You are a good parent, you work hard, and you deserve it.
Remember to be gentle with yourself
This is not a to-do list; you don’t have to try to “nail it”. Many days, I’m doing all right if I can just do one nice thing for myself. These are simply some suggestions but you can get creative and find things that work for you. As a guideline, a good routine incorporates healthy habits that are repeated daily. Healthy habits and a soothing environment can help you gain awareness of your mind and body and learn to be more present for yourself and for your child.