Parenting can be a deeply rewarding experience. It can also be exhausting, nerve-wracking and stressful. The emotional work of caring for children in a world in which we have little control can put a tremendous strain on parents’ mental health. This is particularly true when children are very young but can still apply when they are any age.
At times, parents may nurture kids at the cost of their own well-being. Remember the emergency instructions passengers receive when they board an airplane? “Put your oxygen mask on first before helping others.” There’s a practical reason for that directive.
If a passenger looks after others around them before putting on their own mask in a low-oxygen environment, they risk serious health problems, including loss of brain function. They would not only be unable to help others but would need help themselves. If you run out of oxygen, you can’t help anyone—including yourself.
Parents experience higher levels of stress, and the associated physical and mental health risks, when they neglect that practical airline advice in their everyday lives. When they ignore early signs of stress and defer their own self-care, they reduce their ability to care for their children. Anxiety, unintended weight gain or loss, digestive issues, headaches, fatigue, sleep issues, burnout, frustration or a “short fuse” are all signs that it may be time to put the oxygen mask on first.
Here are four self-care tips for parents to try. These strategies also help parents model the importance of self-care to their kids.
Learn to respond, not react
Family life can be chaotic. Parents sometimes feel as though they’re caught in the middle of a whirlwind. Mindfulness practices can help you keep your cool during these wilder moments. You don’t need to learn fancy techniques or purchase anything to incorporate daily mindfulness practices into your parenting routine. The goal isn’t to eliminate stress altogether but rather to acknowledge what’s happening in the moment and learn how to cope with the chaos.
Make a plan
It can help to document the parenting challenges you’re facing and then develop a plan to handle them. You may want the support of a mental health-care professional. There are also free online tools, such as the Psychology Foundation of Canada’s Stress Strategies, that can help you develop personalized, research-backed stress management strategies.
Eat better to feel better
It’s not always easy to find time to prepare healthy, balanced meals. But big fluctuations in blood sugar can increase anxiety and add to your stress. Simple steps such as including protein at every meal and sticking to consistent meal times will help keep your blood sugar steady and reduce stress.
While a gym membership might not be in the family budget, it doesn’t cost anything to simply move around more outside. A walk or roll along a nearby trail, some raking or digging in the yard, or a game of street hockey with the kids all offer affordable, accessible opportunities to feel healthier and happier in the great outdoors.