5 Ways to Model Mental Wellness for Neurodivergent Kids
Make self-care a family affair
As we practice self-care for ourselves, which is necessary in and of itself, we are also modeling for our kids the importance of taking care of one’s own needs. Similar to helping our kids build self-confidence, self-discovery, and advocacy, this work doesn’t usually happen in one conversation, but is lifelong and ever-evolving. Incorporating self-care as a value and making it a priority for the whole family, parents and kids, can make it easier for us to take a breather when we need to, without feeling guilt or shame. Because families are interconnected units, like a bee hive, when one member is burned out, all the other bees feel it too. The hive thrives when everyone is taking care of themselves, and each other, which can be especially important in making sure our typically developing kids get the support they need as much as their siblings.
You can embed self-loving practices in everything you do as a family, from the way you wake up in the morning, to how you talk to yourself when you’re angry, to how to ask for time alone just to take a breath (try this breathing exercise!). Modeling how valuable self-care is for everyone normalizes it, and it becomes something you can do regularly, not just “when you feel like it,” (which can quickly become never).
Add some fun to it
One of the best ways to ensure you’ll continue investing in self-care practices is by making them fun! That doesn’t mean you can’t wake up at 4 a.m. to meditate for an hour — it just means that whatever you choose to do will feel better if you’re actually enjoying yourself. For example, instead of calling it self-care, you can call it something your kids may resonate with, such as “mommy’s me-time” or “fun hours.” By putting a positive association with it, you can model self-care as more than a chore. Another way to make it fun — gamify it! You can set self-care goals with your child, for yourself, them, or your entire family. It can be for things you do together or separately. It can even be as simple as brushing their teeth, taking their vitamins, or practicing other functional life skills they’re working on. You can track their self-care habits and if they practice for a month (or any other timeline), you can reward them with a self-care related activity, tool, resource, or trip. (Need ideas for motivating rewards? Check out our list of disability-accessible activities in Southern California!)
Create a routine
Unplanned self-care time is fun, and sometimes we need spontaneous time for ourselves, but learning to build a lifestyle around taking care of our needs makes it more than just something we treat ourselves to once in a while. Creating a family self-care plan can be as easy as a family brainstorm session and a calendar. Get creative! You can always modify it over time as your children’s support or your family’s needs change.
Try to incorporate activities into your everyday schedule to keep self-care habits sustainable. For example, you could make a healthy dinner as a family every night, or encourage your child to take some quiet time to read or take a sensory break every day after school. Think about things your family would like to prioritize or work on together routinely (e.g., less screen time per day, one hour of reading time after dinner, etc.). Pick a couple of activities that will support these goals and include them in your calendar — and make it visual so it’s easy for the whole family to follow at a glance. Post your family self-care plan in a place where you and other family members can see it often. Hang it on the refrigerator or by the front door.
From "me-time" to "we-time"
Practice calm in the midst of chaos
Being mindful as a parent is hard, but it can help us stay regulated and better able to meet our kids’ needs, and our own. In the midst of burnout and fatigue, our calm response helps kids calm down and feel safe — and helps model how to self-regulate themselves when they’re feeling out of control or overwhelmed. Self-care can also “teach kids how to react to challenging situations and is shown to improve empathy development.” It improves how mindful we are, and how we value ourselves, and others. “Paying attention to what’s going on in your body isn’t a selfish act, marriage and family therapist Diane Simon Smith tells us. "It's actually in service of being present for our families. When we’re feeling calmer and better, we can transmit that to our children. We can teach them how to do it. Say, ‘Let’s take a moment, let’s stop, let’s breathe; let’s feel our bodies with our feet on the ground and be here right now, be fully mindful of this moment.’”
How can you practice this? Create a list of things that set you off, such as being late for school/work, and ways you can combat it calmly, such as setting an earlier bedtime or wake up time, or picking out clothes the night before so you don’t have to do it in the morning. And have a few tactics on hand for when situations get a little too chaotic, such as walking away for five minutes for a “brain break,” or learning how to loosen up and laugh at things that might otherwise set you off. If you and/or your child sees a mental health professional, they can help you come up with strategies to model for your child when it comes to handling tough emotions.
- Keep it simple! Make a plan that fits with your family’s lifestyle, goals, and preferences — that you can actually commit to — that isn’t overly complicated or long. The simpler it is, the easier it will be to stick to.
- Make it flexible! Taking care of ourselves and our mental health shouldn’t add more stress, it should support your daily routine. Some days might be busier than others, so find ways to be flexible if you have to shift things around.
- Tailor it to the individual! Self-care isn’t a one-size-fits-all. Structure your self-care activities so they support everyone based on their unique needs. That might look different for you than your neurodivergent kids, but you can still work together toward creating healthy habits.
How do you practice self-care as a family? Share your ideas with us!