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Self-Care for Parents: The Most Underrated To-Do? You.

Self-Care for Parents: The Most Underrated To-Do? You.

Published: Jan. 11, 2023Updated: Mar. 21, 2024

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As we jump into a time symbolizing new beginnings and change, we want to take the first month of 2024 to encourage caregivers (and ourselves!) to make a plan to prioritize self-care. Exhaustion can wax and wane throughout the year, but remember: in times of hardship and in times of ease, self-care is not selfish!

For some expert advice and tips on how to maintain mental wellness and regulate stress, we spoke with psychologist and founder of CARE-LA, Dr. Lauren Stutman, as well as the co-founders of Carnelian Psychological and Educational Group, educational psychologist Stefanie Rushatakankovit (LEP, BCBA) and clinical psychologist Dr. Lyre Fribourg (BCBA-D).

Self-care cartoon

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“You can’t pour from an empty cup”

Caregivers of children with disabilities have shown higher levels of financial and psychological stressors than caregivers with typically developing children. “Reducing caregiver stress is a critical step to ensuring the best health outcomes possible” for both the caregiver and the child, the authors write. An analysis published by the American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities also found that caregivers of children with developmental disabilities “are at elevated risk of depression compared to [those] of typically developing children.”

Dr. Stutman reminds us that taking care of yourself and your mental health will not only fill you up to better take care of your kids, but it’s also a great way to model self-love and self-care. Change happens from the top down, which is a good reason why self-care for caregivers is so important.

And, she says, remember not to be too hard on yourself. There’s no “magic bullet” that is going to make everything run smoothly, so managing expectations and being okay with things not going 100% according to plan can also help ease anxiety and stress.

As you’re planning and prepping to meet your kids’ needs this year, remember to incorporate some self-care for yourself. Dr. Stutman recommends child care, therapy, attending a yoga class (or any favorite exercise!), complaining (when appropriate), and more!

Tips to help elevate mental wellness

In need of some self-care plan ideas?

Self-Care Bingo

Focus on the positive (we know, easier said than done)
While this statement seems cliché, creating a habit of positive thinking can alter the chemistry in the brain. Positivity has mental and physical benefits in the body — so much so that the power of positive thinking has gained scientific credibility. So enjoy the ride!

Take some time to breathe . . . literally
Meditating for five minutes gives you a few minutes dedicated to YOU and only you! Dr. Stutman shares her small but mighty way to hack the nervous system and activate the portion responsible for the relaxation response in our body. It’s called the 4-7-8 breath exercise. Breathe in through your nose for 4 counts, hold for 7, and release through your mouth for 8. (This works for both kids and adults!)

Make it fun
Use our Printable Self-Care Bingo Card as a handy reminder of things you can do for you. Print it out and tape it to your fridge; every time you complete one of the things listed on the bingo card, mark off the square just like in regular bingo.

Say no (without feeling guilty)
The pressure to keep up with everyone and everything can be stressful. It’s okay to say no to things you don’t want to do or don’t have the time or energy for. Dr. Stutman is a big fan of saying “no” as much as you can.

Don’t play supermom or superdad
Superheros may be able to stay up all night, save the day, live double lives, and barely have time to eat, but we humans can’t sustain that lifestyle. You don’t have to do it all. Ask for help! And if you don’t have family or friends who can help, find out if your child is eligible for respite care. Access to Respite Care and Help (ARCH) is an organization that helps parents find respite care near them and ways to pay for it.

Don’t forget about your relationship with your significant other
Parenthood and caregiving can put strain on the central relationship in the family. Whether it’s planning a date night or making time for a six-second hug to get the happy chemicals flowing, feeling connected with your partner will help you and your significant other as well as the relationship with your kids.

Make room for pleasure
Whether it’s a fun social activity with friends (which is strongly associated with better mental and physical health) or just solo activities like taking yourself to a movie, shopping, running, or reading, research says it’s good for you to add a little self-indulgence into your schedule.

Practice self-forgiveness
Feeling guilty is a major barrier to taking time for ourselves. Why go on a date night when we could be spending time with our kids? Why buy that cup of coffee we love when that money could go to our kids’ school supplies or therapy? A study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that maternal self-forgiveness — which “helps reduce self-blame and restore self-worth after perceived failures” in dealing with a child’s disability — is significantly related to less parenting stress, higher psychological well-being, and overall better health.

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.

Make self-care a family value
As we practice self-care, we are also modeling for our kids the importance of taking care of one’s own needs. Incorporating self-care as a family 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. And you can make it fun by labeling it something your kids may resonate with, such as “mommy’s self-care time” or “fun hours.” You can even encourage your child to engage in a “fun hour” for themselves (on their own or alongside you) with an age-appropriate self-care activity. It can also “teach kids how to react to challenging situations and is shown to improve empathy development.” For example, if you’re engaging in a relaxing “craft hour,” you can both journal or draw to practice how to self-regulate emotions. You can use the prompt “draw (or write) what your feeling looks like” and even reference the cartoon Inside Out, which is all about feelings.

Create balance over time
We all have coping mechanisms to use in the moment when we have to deal with an IEP crisis, or a sudden backorder on medication, or a denied insurance claim (again). But creating healthy self-care routines means incorporating activities into our everyday schedules. As Undivided Navigator Heather McCullough tells us, "A common saying is that 'you can't pour from an empty cup.' So self care to me is doing something for myself that helps fill up my cup, even just a little bit more. It doesn't have to be fancy, but it could be! Personally, I get manicures every few weeks because it gives me an hour in a kid-free, non-medical environment. It puts me around adults with no pressure to talk if I don't want to. I use my hands all day to care for my medically fragile kiddo, type messages to doctors, call to schedule appointments, etc. So for me, making my hands feel nice makes me feel nice.”

Other ways she practices self-care include getting herself her favorite lunch, going for a walk in her favorite park, spending time with a friend, seeing a movie, sitting outside for some fresh air, or finding a quiet spot to watch a show on her phone when her child is napping. “It really doesn't matter what IT is as long as it's for you and helps to add to YOUR cup” she says.

Explore self-care tools and resources
Sometimes, self-care means cozying up with a good book, podcast, article, or helpful app. For some hand-picked resources (not just for parents but for the whole family), explore our list of Self-Care and Stress Management Resources for the Whole Family, with recommendations from neuropsychologist Dr. Rita Eichenstein and the Undivided Research team.

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It’s okay to need more support!

If you’re feeling dysregulated and defeated, and all the parenting books aren’t helping, it may be time to speak to somebody. Dr. Stutman suggests speaking to a professional, even if it’s for a couple of sessions, to get that additional support and coping-with-parenting skills.

It’s also important to be aware of your own feelings and behaviors, Rushatakankovit — who goes by “Mrs. Rush” — tells us:

Finding professional mental health support can feel daunting if you’re not sure where to look or how to get help. Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) and Comprehensive Behavioral Health (CBH) are two types of care that focus on behavior and relationships within mental wellness. Parents Anonymous Inc launched the California Parent & Youth Helpline, which offers emotional support to families. Anyone can call or text the number, 855-427-2736, when in need of someone to talk to.

Dr. Fribourg recommends Psychology Today for mental health support, which offers therapists, treatment centers, support groups, and more. The psychologist locator from the American Psychological Association is also a valuable resource for finding psychologists in your area. And now, thanks to Telehealth, you can even attend therapy from the comfort of your own home. Many telehealth agencies and apps take insurance or work on a sliding scale to make therapy more accessible. The American Psychological Association (APA) has a guide on how to find the right therapist for you.

Dr. Fribourg reminds us not to forget about your general practitioner as well! “Make sure parents are also talking to their internist or general practitioner for their annual physical check-ups/examinations. Sometimes we forget to make those yearly appointments for ourselves.”

Rushatakankovit emphasizes how important it is to NOT do everything by yourself. “It’s not healthy, and you’ll burn out,” she says. In this clip, she provides examples of where you can find relief and the necessity of being okay with getting help — even if it's just for a short amount of time.

The authors of the previously referenced study on stress also mention the value of parent-to-parent support and therapy groups. Dr. Stutman emphasizes how much healing can take place in a support group and being around people who share similar struggles and experiences. (Have you checked out Undivided’s parents-only Facebook group yet?)

Practice gentle goal-setting

A good reminder when putting care and love into raising the younger generation of the disability community is to listen to the older disability community! Instead of constantly trying to push oneself to “society’s” standards, embrace goal-setting with a healthier and gentler mindset. In The Washington Post’s article about new year’s resolution-making in the disability world, Dawn Gibson, writer, health advocate, and founder of Spoonie Chat, writes “We don’t have to be worn out all the time,” and suggests making goals that feel “empowering or replenishing.”

Set realistic expectations and goals for self-care
As Rushatakankovit reminds us, we can’t be all things to all of our children: “It's important [for parents] to understand the needs of their child. We all have fear of missing out. It's important for parents to not push so much, which adds to certain new levels of anxiety and pressure… [parents] really look at the needs of their child and focus on that.”

In this clip, Dr. Fribourg explains her three-goal -method for caregivers: set one goal for yourself, your child, and the whole family:

Self-care tips from Undivided Navigators

Undivided is a community of parents, guardians, Navigators, advocates, and experts, and we’ve resourced their tips and tricks for self-care for when things feel overwhelming and impossible — and just for a regular Friday night (because every day can be a self-care day, right?).
So there you have it, folks. Taking good care of yourself is one of the hardest things to do, but one of the most necessary! Try to slow down and take some time for you when you can — even if it’s just 5 minutes a day at first. You’re worth it!



“You can’t pour from an empty cup”

Tips to help elevate mental wellness

It’s okay to need more support!

Practice gentle goal-setting

Self-care tips from Undivided Navigators

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Lexi NovakUndivided Writer and Membership Coordinator

A dedicated writer taking complex topics and breaking them down into everyday language. With experience crafting content across digital mediums, she has supported editorial and production teams in both news and film. Lexi is the oldest in a set of triplets, raised by a compassionate mother and special education teacher whose life mission is to make sure every kid experiences joy. Lexi carries forward her mother’s passion in writing.

Co-author: Adelina Sarkisyan Undivided Writer and Editor

A writer, editor, and poet with an undergraduate degree in anthropology from the University of California, Irvine, and an MSW from the University of Southern California. Her fiction, poetry, and content have appeared in various mediums, digital and in print. A former therapist for children and teens, she is passionate about the intersection of storytelling and the human psyche. Adelina was born in Armenia, once upon a time, and is a first-generation immigrant daughter. She lives and writes in Los Angeles.

Reviewed by:


  • Stefanie Rushatakankovit, LEP, BCBA, educational psychologist
  • Dr. Lauren Stutman, Licensed psychologist and founder of CARE-LA
  • Dr. Lyre Fribourg, BCBA-D, clinical psychologist and co-founder of Carnelian Psychological and Educational Group

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