Self-Care for Parents: The Most Underrated To-Do? You.
As we jump into a time symbolizing new beginnings and change, we want to take the first month of 2023 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).
“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 neurotypical 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, massages, complaining (when appropriate), and more!
Tips to help elevate mental wellness
In need of some self-care plan ideas?
- 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!)
- From the Carnelian Psychological and Educational Group: Use this monthly “Happiness Calendar” from Greater Good magazine that has a day-by-day guide on quick things caregivers can do to maintain their own emotional well-being.
- 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: “The world is moving so fast, especially with things like after school activities, homework, and therapies filling up our jam-packed schedules,” she says. “I try to limit what I say ‘yes’ to so I can have some downtime.”
- 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. 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.
- Set realistic expectations and goals. In this clip, Dr. Fribourg explains her three-goal-method for caregivers: set one goal for yourself, your child, and the whole family:
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 that if you’re seeing symptoms you don't normally have, such as loss of appetite and wanting to sleep a lot more, or having big shifts in mood like getting very easily triggered or frustrated, “that's when you really need to step back and check in on yourself and pull in your reinforcements, your support system. Find someone to talk to. If you’ve pulled in your reinforcements and that’s really not changing much, it's time to seek professional help.”
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. 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.”
Rush 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.
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.”
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 and 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!