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Self-care isn’t selfish. Your child’s mental health depends on it

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

As parents it can seem that the world’s pressures have amplified from the time that tiny baby comes into the world. A typical parent struggles with a lack of sleep, financial stress, juggling work with child care, the worry that comes from caring for little ones, increased house work and generally not having time for yourself. This lifestyle can leave us feeling completely depleted. The problem is that when we don’t care for ourselves we can’t be the effective parents that we want to be.

We know that to help our children to manage their emotions they need a calm adult to regulate with them and work through the difficulty together. We all know that when we have had very little sleep or we are at “breaking point” from over commitments, our tolerance levels are low. We become just as reactive as our kids and end up modelling the behaviour that we desperately want them to STOP.

But there is another benefit of practicing self-care. By modelling self-care for ourselves, we are teaching our children that they too need to care for themselves. We are showing them that it is okay to say “no” to things when you are feeling overwhelmed, that you need to eat well and exercise, that we need to do things that make us “light up” make life enjoyable. Self-care can have the same effects in maintaining your child’s mental and physical health as it does for you. After all, surely we want our kids to grow into adults who know how to set boundaries, have health relationships, are able to care for themselves physically and emotionally.

What is Self-Care?

Self-care is more than just bubble baths and manicures, although though these can be good too. It is anything that helps us to feel restored rather than taking from us. What makes one person feel “refuelled” will be different for another. For some having the house tidy is really important and they prioritise this. For others it’s having time to be creative and paint, it really is different for everyone. However there are general categories that self-care seem to fit into. These are any activity that we do or don’t do deliberately in order to take care of our physical, mental and emotional health.

Physical Self-care

It is so important not to neglect the basics. Sleep, eating well, exercise and having regular health checks are often overlooked when it comes to self-care. But if our bodies aren’t functioning at their best, how do we expect to be able to everything that we need to do? I’m sure we don’t need too much convincing that sleep is important. We all know how hard it is to function when we have had a difficult night. The truth is sleep is as important to our health as eating, drinking and breathing. It allows our bodies to repair themselves and our brains to consolidate our memories and process information. Poor sleep is linked to physical problems such as a weakened immune system and mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. So when we choose to stop Netflicks from playing the next episode and make ourselves go to bed, we are actually choosing to care for ourselves and priorities our health. The same is true when we choose to eat healthy most of the time (sometimes self-care is also indulging), we are recognising that we are important and we deserve to treat our bodies well.

When it comes to exercise, this doesn’t have to be boot camp at 5am, unless this is something that you enjoy. But exercise is important and it is as good for our emotional health as it is for our physical health. It increases serotonin levels, leading to improved mood and energy. But again what’s important is that you choose a form of exercise that you like. A walk, Pilates, running, riding a bike, sport, it doesn’t matter you just have to keep moving and give yourself permission to make this time a priority.

Physical self-care for kids

Obviously it will depend on your child’s age and what they are able to do but introducing physical self-care is important. It could be as simple as blowing their nose by themselves, brush their teeth or understanding that we need to wash our hands before we eat. Given this current climate hand washing has been that kids everywhere have learnt. But we can explain that it is important that we look after our bodies and by doing these things they are doing what they need to stay healthy.

It is often difficult to get children to eat their vegies. But if we start teaching them to understand how this is important for their health we are setting them on the right path. Please don’t force them to eat vegetables, this will only cause them to associate these foods with a negative experience. But continue to serve them vegetables and encourage them to keep trying them. Most importantly you need to eat them too. Let them see you eat and enjoy them.

When it comes to teaching kids to maintain physical health, there are a lot of ways to encourage good habits. You can exercise together in a lot of different, fun ways, like kicking a ball in the backyard. The important thing isn’t necessarily to get into great shape or to take on big athletic challenges, but to build a regular routine of physical self-care that maintains good health and balance. Talk to them about how good it feels after you have done some exercise, help them to notice how their body feels.

Mental Self-care

Parenting can be incredibly mentally overwhelming. There are so many things to think about and remember. That’s why one of the best ways that we can care about ourselves mentally is to learn to say “no”. We need to recognise what are our boundaries that keep us feeling like we are coping well and stick to that. This might mean not answering the phone during dinner, not emailing between certain times of the day, saying no to extra commitments, it could even mean having a weekend without going anywhere if you and your family need some “down time”. On the other hand, you could be someone who recharges by going out with your friends. If you feel “human” again after a night out with your friends, then this your clue that you need to make time for this. You may not need a night out every week, it could just be a coffee date, a phone call or another way to feel connected. Work out the things that you need, how often you need this and make it a priority.

Mental Self-care for kids

Identifying and expressing feelings is something that needs to be learned, and this can be acquired as early as age 3. Helping children to verbalise emotions is as simple as teaching feeling words and discussing the emotions of characters in your child’s favourite stories. Have fun with this, encourage them to draw how they are feeling. These simple strategies can go a long way in benefiting your child’s social relationships and help seeking behaviours. Children who use emotion-related words were found to have less difficulty making friends. The ability to use words to express emotions gives young children a valuable tool to support their mental health.

Emotional Self-care

When we have looked at mindfulness (there is more information in my previous blogs) we know that stopping and being present helps us to move from an emotional and stressed state to an emotionally calm place. But this doesn’t mean hour long meditations, it just means teach ourselves to stop and appreciate where we are. Learning to relax and calm ourselves will benefit every aspect of our lives. You could do this by doing a few minutes of slow controlled breathing, it could be having a gratitude journal to help you to reflect on the positives in our lives or it could be getting up before anyone else to have that time of peace and quiet.

Emotional Self-Care for kids

Make "down time" a priority. Everyone can benefit from some time without the high pressure of activities or the over stimulation of screens. Make a space in your routine for regular time where your child can choose a quiet activity that they enjoy. Drawing, lego, craft, board game whatever they enjoy that helps them to feel calm.

It is always a good idea to teach your children relaxation and mindfulness. In my previous blog I have given a lot of ways to practice mindfulness with children. It helps to do something together and for them to see that you benefit for it too.

A lack of self-care can create a downward spiral. If we are stressed and overwhelmed we can't be empathetic and patient parents. This can then cause us to feel guilty and down we go. Taking care of ourselves helps us to be the best parent that we can be. On top of this we will be teaching our kids the importance of self-care and gives them coping strategies for life.

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