Self-care for parents
We ask mental health experts with kids how they look after their own well-being.
Parenting is hard. It’s a full-time job and many parents find themselves prioritizing their family’s well-being before their own.
When we are able to meet our own mental and physical needs, it not only benefits our well-being, but our children’s as well.
But how do you make it happen? We asked three mental health experts, who are also parents, how they do it.
Hear from Dr. Lisa Damour, Sonali Gupta and Dr. Hina Talib on how they prioritize self-care, the activities they practice and the benefits they have witnessed for their families.
What have you learned about self-care as a parent?
If you haven't started yet, then now is always a good time to make space for self-care.
Lisa: Very often, I think parents assume that taking time for themselves means that they are taking time away from their children. But this isn't true. When we care for ourselves, we are better able to care for our children. And caring for ourselves underscores for our children the importance of self-care while also showing them how it's done.
Hina: Self-care is something that can be done a few minutes at a time, it is like a habit that takes some effort to create, but then is always there with you. But self-care can also mean asking for help when you need it at home, at work, from family and sometimes from therapists or other mental health clinicians.
Sonali: If you haven't started yet, then now is always a good time to make space for self-care. It's a big step towards self-compassion and resilience. Be gentle with yourself and others as you begin to start your self-care journey. Turning small practices into rituals takes time and at the same time it's an investment towards our mental well-being.
How do you personally practice self-care?
Sonali: The time I take out for myself is what I call my 'Pause Rituals' – a conscious pause in the day followed by rituals that are self-soothing at a physical, mental and social level. I came up with this term after I struggled with burnout about 10 years ago. The key is to focus on just one thing when engaging in these self-soothing practices and to build it into the day, even if it means 10 minutes on a very busy day. I go for a walk alone at a fixed time every day, meditate and listen to soothing sounds in the morning, take a 15-minute power nap (more if I can) and spend time reading non-fiction. Building time for fun and play is also something that I see as self-care. As a therapist and a parent, my pause rituals have served as a sacred space for me.
Hina: As I get older, I find myself returning to these basic life ingredients for my own well-being: moving my body, breathing, getting enough sleep, putting my phone down, and eating more fruits and vegetables. When I feel my mental health is strong, I realize I am doing these things. Whenever I start to struggle with my mental health, I look to do more of these things. Of course, when I have the time, I like to add in stretching, yoga and just talking to my parents, other family members and friends. Just a few minutes of hearing their voices and sharing my thoughts settle me.
Lisa: As a psychologist I know that sleep is the glue that holds human beings together, so I make a point of protecting my ability to fall asleep quickly and stay asleep at night. To help myself fall asleep quickly, I try to slow things down in the evenings. Like many people, I have found that it's almost impossible for me to fall asleep shortly after I've been busy with any kind of highly engaging activity. To help myself stay asleep at night, I try to get regular exercise and lots of fresh air, both of which help me sleep more soundly.
How do you find time for self-care?
My thinking always feels clearer when I let my mind wander wherever it needs to go.
Hina: Time for self-care feels out of reach for me – it literally slips through my fingers as I run around parenting my two young children and completing the tasks of my day job. I always feel on duty. I prioritize self-care by baking it into my routines with my children and at work. When I brush my teeth, I practice mindfulness, while I cook, I talk to my family or friends, during bedtime with the children, I hold some yoga poses. I breathe deeply often at work in between meetings and try to put my phone away when the day is done, but this is hard for me.
Lisa: One thing that has really helped me as a mom has been to make the most of the quiet time that I have to myself. In the past, I would listen to music or talk to friends on the phone while folding laundry or making dinner, but I have come to appreciate the benefit of doing simple tasks in silence, especially when my mind feels cluttered. I find that I am able to reflect on things that are weighing on me and come up with creative solutions to the challenges I'm facing. My thinking always feels clearer when I take advantage of opportunities to let my mind wander wherever it needs to go.
Sonali: I have come to see self-care as an activity that needs daily attention. On days I don't get time to build self-care, I feel overwhelmed, wired and anxious. My family and I have chosen to openly talk about the big feelings we may be experiencing, like when we feel overwhelmed and overburdened. Over the years all of us, including my husband and daughter, have talked to each other about how self-care, and taking some time for ourselves, allows us to feel more centered and operate from a place of calm.
How has your family benefitted from your self-care?
If I do not prioritize my own mental health and well-being, I do not show up with my best foot forward as a parent.
Lisa: When I'm well-rested and my mind is clear, I am much more patient with my children and a lot more fun to be around. After a good night's sleep, I have energy to play, host a "kitchen dance party," or come up with other ways to enjoy my daughters' company. And when I'm not distracted by my own concerns, I am much better able to focus on my girls and what they need from me.
Sonali: Our practices of self-care have helped deepen my family’s resilience. Self-care brings about a sense of calm and this calm can be also contagious, which helps us in tough moments. Self-care has helped us respect each other's space, unique needs and at the same time, built space for compassion and empathy towards each other.
Hina: Some of my proudest moments in parenting is when I catch my young children deep-breathing to find their calm when they have hard feelings – something they have watched me model in front of them often. I love when they ask me to do some bedtime yoga or when they just start doing it themselves. I have learned that if I do not prioritize my own mental health and well-being, I do not show up with my best foot forward as a parent.
About the experts
Dr. Lisa Damour (@lisa.damour) is a psychologist, author, New York Times contributor and mother of two.
Sonali Gupta (@mentalhealthwithsonali) is a clinical psychologist, therapist, author, columnist and mother to a teenage daughter.
Dr. Hina Talib (@teenhealthdoc) is a pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist, writer, teen media creative and mother of two.