I. The importance of self-care
Confession time. This was me a few years ago. My days were spent working, running errands, getting the kids to and from school, sports practice, music lessons, doctor appointments, therapy sessions, cleaning the house, walking the dog, paying bills, answering emails, etc. I’d wake up, go at 100 mph all day with barely time to eat or go to the bathroom. I’d never have time alone or do anything for myself. I didn’t sleep well enough or long enough. My meals were on the go. I was always exhausted. Disconnected. There seemed to be no end in sight. My health suffered…weight gain, high blood pressure. My mood suffered… repeated depression and burnout… anxiety and even panic.
Does this sound familiar? I meet a lot of parents in this boat of doing everything for everyone but not doing for themselves.
Why do we do this to ourselves? What does this crazy level of sacrifice get us? What is it teaching our kids?
Parenting is hard. That’s the tagline on my website. It’s true too. Parenting is frustrating, challenging, maddening, joyful, exhilarating, fulfilling…. the adjectives are endless. No matter if your child has special needs or is neurotypical, parents are faced with an overload of demands on their time, emotions, and energy.
Faced with all of this, many parents throw themselves into their parenting role in the most selfless manner. Giving of themselves for their family. This is a wonderful thing to do… to a point. Parents who do nothing but sacrifice for their family often don’t take care of themselves. Sacrifice without renewal is a recipe for burn out, overwhelming stress, as well as health and emotional problems. It eats away at one’s ability to be an effective parent. When there is nothing left of you… who will care for your family?
Here are some basic ideas for taking care of yourself. These are things I implemented for myself and I help my clients do for themselves. Taking time to implement some of these things can help reduce your stress and increase your happiness. This will give you more energy to take care of your family. You will be more present and healthier parent. You will also be modeling good self-care skills for your children, thus helping them to be happier and healthier people themselves.
Good self-care IS good parenting!
II. Find time to exercise
If I could bottle the effects of exercise, sleep and sunshine… I’d be a Gazillionaire. The benefits of exercise are too many to list. Improved health. Feeling better physically. Outlet for stress. It stimulates endorphins (your body’s natural feel good chemicals). Improves your immune system. More energy. Improved brain function. The list goes on.
I consider having a sound exercise plan a crucial part of any stress management strategy. If you aren’t exercising and moving around a bit you are missing out.
I don’t have the time! I hear you say. It’s too hard! You cry. I don’t like it!
Yeah… I hear you. I get it. Here’s the thing, if you make yourself a priority (remember, take care of yourself so you can take care of others!)… then finding time can be done. Really, 20 or 30 minutes 3-4 times a week is all you need. You don’t have to go crazy and live at the gym. Just take time to go for a walk. Take up a sport… maybe even something you can do with your kids.
Years ago, I did taekwondo with my kids. We’d workout and train for competitions together in the morning. It was a great family activity for years. I got healthy, my kids got healthy… and we have a ton of great memories together.
The point is… if you make it a priority you can fit it in. Try different activities until you find some that work for you… that you enjoy. There aren’t any rules other than (as Nike says) just do it.
III. Get enough quality sleep
You should be getting 6 to 8 hours of sleep. If you aren’t sleeping well, then your health (emotional, physical and mental) are all compromised. Try the following to improve your sleep:
- Schedule your sleep. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
- Turn off the electronics (phones, computers, etc.) at least 30 minutes before bed. An hour is even better.
- Try some slow, deep breathing as you prepare for sleep. Clear the mind and shed some stress.
- Resist the urge to do projects late into the night… sleep time is important and should be sacrosanct. Putting some emotional and time space between work and activities of daily living and sleep time is crucial. Allow yourself to wind down. Whatever projects you are working on will still be there in the morning… and you’ll be better able to tackle them after you’re well rested.
IV. Enjoy a hobby
It’s too easy for us parents to lose ourselves in our kids. You are more than your kids. They’re important, no doubt… but they need not be your entire life. To that end, spending time every week doing stuff that’s just for and about you is important …a hobby or something. For me, I play a lot of music. It relaxes me. It’s something I enjoy doing and is part of my identity. I’ve also indulged in woodworking, chess and reading at various times in the past. These are things that are important to me above and beyond being a parent or working.
When you engage in a hobby, you destress. You create opportunities to be successful in ways that parenting and working won’t necessarily allow. You exercise different parts of your brain and create new and positive neural connections. Even just 45 minutes a week can be enough to give you a break and renew yourself. It’s not selfish… because taking care of yourself will allow you to better take care of your loved ones. You’ll also be more pleasant to be around (happiness is contagious!).
V. Date night, intimacy, human connection
I can’t tell you how often I see parents who have forgotten why they got together and had kids in the first place. They run from activity to activity, chore to chore, obligation to obligation and barely have time to say hello to each other in passing. This is a rough place to be and often strains their relationship.
The fix is simple: get a sitter…go out on regular dates. Hang out with each other. Laugh. Love. Be adults without the kids hanging around. Hold hands, hug, kiss.
Couples that do this make for stronger parents. They have more resilience and warmth in their relationships. They are happier.
As humans, we need connection to others. It’s how we’re wired. It’s a huge necessity. If that goes missing in our lives, we suffer. To the extent we suffer, we pass that suffering on to our children and other loved ones inadvertently.
Put the kids to bed a little early once in a while and make time for each other. Don’t sit there worrying about the day to day…just look into each other’s eyes, make out like teenagers. Do whatever it takes to stay connected and refreshed.
I have a special needs child…I can’t find a sitter! OR I don’t have the time!
That’s a definite challenge. Reach out to trusted friends and family members. Go to your local college and reach out to students in the special education programs. They are often looking for ways to make money and are being trained in the skills you need for looking after your exceptional; child. The bottom line is….do what it takes to get out every once in a while and have some fun and human contact with your significant other.
As to the time issue…make the time. When you make something a priority, you will find the time. This is important enough to you and those you love that it needs to be a priority. To that end, put something on your schedule. Even if it needs to be a week or two out. If you block off the time, then it’s harder to book the time with something else.
What if I’m a single parent?
Then I would heartily recommend you find time to go out with friends or even try dating. It’s challenging as a special needs parent, yet it can be done. This will be the subject of my next article in fact.
I hope you found this article helpful. Please comment and leave other tips for ways parents can engage in self-care. I’m always looking for new ideas to share.
Also, if you know of someone who might benefit from this article, share it with them. Finally, if you want to work with me personally to work on a self-care plan, go to www.erikyoungcounseling.com or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 484-693-0582 to set up a consultation.