Real Self-care for Busy Parents
During the rush of everyday life, we often neglect our own basic needs. It’s common for parents, in particular, to feel exhausted or burnt out, and when we raise this issue with friends we often hear “don’t neglect your self-care” or “have you tried meditation or yoga?”. That’s fair advice, but the problem remains: there’s simply no time.
Our alarm jolts us awake in the morning, and before we know it we are throwing back a coffee while getting the kids’ school lunches ready. We blink, and now we are behind the wheel of the car, stuck in the morning traffic while the radio plays the same familiar tunes. We blink again, and we are sitting behind our desk at work, plowing through some documents and another cup of coffee. The day passes by, and before you know it you are back in traffic picking the kids up, back home cooking dinner, cleaning, and going to bed. Rinse and repeat.
How is somebody supposed to start meditation or yoga when we are so boxed in by our responsibilities? It seems like adding self-care practices to your day is just another job to do that we don’t have time for, and would only serve to make us feel more overwhelmed; we often feel like it would require a lot of effort or a lot of time. The truth is that you don’t need heaps of spare hours in the day – you just need some knowledge and some good strategies! The trick is to make small changes in your life that add up to big improvements.
What is self-care?
You might scroll down your social media feed and see people in linen shirts drinking margaritas by the beach, or heading to a day spa, or walking to yoga class with an iced latte in their hand, accompanied by the tags #selfcare or #followyourbliss. This seems to be the benchmark we are presented with, and the path down which we should travel if we are in pursuit of this elusive concept of self-care.
But what if these activities – however pleasant they may be – are just commodified and commercialised appropriations of what self-care really means? Engagement with these activities is at an all-time high, yet rates of anxiety and depression are higher than they have ever been (APA, 2020). Stress and parental burnout are higher in cultures where self-care is emphasized the most. Why is this?
As author and parenting expert Dr. Justin Coulson suggests, these activities are largely self-indulgence masquerading as self-care; they are typically quick-fixes, are financially unsustainable for many of us, and do not treat the cause of one’s burnout – they merely offer an escape from one’s responsibilities for a brief period (Coulson, 2021). These activities can offer momentary relief from minor stressors, but what if the issue is deeper than that – what if you are feeling deeply unfulfilled or are chronically unable to regulate your emotions? A margarita might not actually help.
Active, creative, and restorative self-care can help you feel more balanced and experience less burnout. We need to practice a certain degree of discipline to engage with real self-care, and ‘discipline’ does not imply anything heavy-handed – according to Dr. Coulson, it means committing yourself wholeheartedly to practices of personal growth and the development of true wellbeing.
Self-care is a practice and a discipline. It means spending time in the present moment, without worrying about all the things that are expected of us; including the social media broadcasting of your supposed self-care practices.
Self-care strategies for busy parents
Here are three key strategies for parents to start using for active, creative, and wholesome self-care.
Develop good everyday habits
Research shows that one of the best ways to improve your well-being is by developing good habits (Clear, 2018). Habits are effective because they start with small changes, and build up momentum – similarly to the idea of compounding interest. Get enough sleep, eat healthy meals, get some exercise, practice mindfulness or anything that is spiritually aligning, be smart with your money, and all those other things that you already know you should be doing. Maintaining a healthy life in relatively unspectacular ways will be the all-important foundation of your self-care practice (Blom et al., 2021). It’s all about creating and sustaining small, but regular practices.
What follows is a brief summary of some fundamental daily habits that will bolster your overall wellbeing:
Sleep. Good quality sleep is very important for energy levels, mental alertness, mood, physical health, and more. While anywhere between 6-9 hours is adequate for an adult, research has suggested that the amount of sleep you get is of secondary importance to the quality of sleep you get (Pilcher, Ginter, & Sadowsky, 1997). To enhance the quality of your sleep you can reduce exposure to blue light from televisions, laptops, and phones in the evening, manage your stress levels and allow yourself to calm down when approaching bedtime, and reduce your alcohol and caffeine consumption.
Nutrition. There are countless dietary models that you could choose from, but it’s best to keep things simple. Author and professor Michael Pollan suggests one rule for eating healthily: eat whatever you want, as long as you make it yourself. Instead of ordering foods like pizzas and burgers, find some quick 15 minute recipes on Google and make something yourself. General principles for good health include eating whole foods like vegetables, grains, beans, and nuts, don’t eat too much sugar or processed foods, and eat enough protein and good fat to give you the energy needed to tackle the day. It’s easier than you might think.
Exercise. When exercise is mentioned, people often think “I don’t have the time or the money to go to the gym!”, but that is not necessarily what we are suggesting. Your body loves movement of any sort; anything that gets the blood circulating around your body creates energy and vitality, and can improve your overall health (Pillay, 2016). This could look like a few minutes of light stretching in the morning or evening, a jog around the block before picking up the kids, or even investing in a standing desk so your body can remain activated throughout the day instead of becoming sedentary. If you can find a spare 10 minutes, search for a YouTube video that can guide you through a quick workout or stretching routine!
Make some space
Once you have developed some good everyday habits, you will find it easier to take on more intentional self-care practices – the game, however, is to find a bit of time that you can set aside to do so. For more structured behaviors like meditation or journaling, a degree of solitude and stillness is required. For example, a valid goal is to stay mindful and grounded in times of stress whilst parenting, but that mindfulness must be cultivated intentionally during calm, quiet periods of the day. Perhaps between dropping the kids off at school and beginning your day’s work, you could spend 15 minutes journaling, reading, and meditating. It’s very easy to get caught in the daily routine as a parent, and forget to create moments of peace and calm for yourself – yet, these are extremely important in promoting your mental wellbeing.
To help etch out periods of quiet, focused time, try saying ‘no’ to the completion of an unnecessary job, try turning the television off after the kids go to bed so you can focus on your self-care, or speak with your partner about arranging periods in which each of you can be undisturbed by kids and responsibilities. The more habitual and aligned with your values these practices become, the more they can help you feel clear, present, and ready to tackle the challenges that life throws at you. The more focused you can be while engaging with these practices, the easier it is to find the time to do them; by making this time as rewarding and nourishing as you can, you will get used to doing it as part of your routine, and over time it will become easier and easier to carve out this space again.
Our kids have a special way of getting under our skin and making us lose our cool. For this reason, we must learn to remain calm and regulate our emotions; this will be our greatest ally in our self-care, as poor habits often arise as a result of attempting to cope with stressful experiences.
Many exercises can work to calm us down during moments of intensity, and most of them attend to our nervous systems. When we become stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed, our ‘sympathetic nervous system’ is activated; you might know this as ‘fight or flight mode’. When this happens, our heart-rate increases, our breathing hastens, and we become quickly angered and irritated (McCarty, 2016). Therefore, we need to learn to modulate our sympathetic nervous system by engaging in good mental and physical habits, such as meditation, exercise, or simply deep breathing; these activities activate our ‘parasympathetic nervous system’, or our ‘rest and digest’ state (McCarty, 2016).
One deep breathing exercise you can do on the fly is called ‘box breathing’, and it goes like this:
- Breathe in deeply through your nose for 4-7 seconds
- Hold your breath for 4-7 seconds
- Exhale for 4-7 seconds
- Hold your exhaled breath for 4-7 seconds
- Repeat as many times as you like
This exercise has been proven to lower your heart rate, and remove the body’s stress response, activating the parasympathetic nervous system (Ma et al., 2017); it requires no prior practice and can be done at any point during the day – sitting down while resting or during any activity. As long as you can set the intention to enter a state of calm, focus, and restful acceptance of your surroundings.
Of course, mindfulness practices are also great for learning to deal with irritations and discomfort (Desormeau, Walsh, & Segal, 2018). During times of minor stress, it is useful to notice the way you feel in your body, and how you might be reacting to certain triggers. If there is something that is putting you off your usual emotional state, do not ignore it or try to fix it; instead, take a moment for reflection and understanding of the situation. By honestly learning about yourself through these moments of discomfort, you can begin to develop a strong sense of self-management – one that allows you to tolerate minor stresses more effectively.
Self-care is vital for our mental health, but it isn’t always easy to implement into daily life. Start with small changes that are easy to build up over time. It might feel like you don’t have the time or energy to make these changes, however, we promise it is worth it!
- Eat healthy, natural foods that you have prepared yourself
- Exercise whenever possible throughout the day; this could be a few minutes of stretching or walking.
- Make time during your day for activities that nourish you mentally and allow you to recharge; this could be taking a bath, walking in nature, or writing in a journal.
- Practice mindfulness and self-awareness through activities like meditation, breathing exercises, or journaling.
Remember to be patient with yourself. Life can be hectic, and you are not the only one who is making the effort to get your head above water; it will take time, but we encourage you to enjoy the journey!
Recommended Resource: The Superpower Kids website offers a comprehensive of range of Social & Emotional Learning (SEL) articles and resources for parents.
- American Psychological Association, Stress in America 2020 – A National Mental Health Crisis.
- Blom, V.; Lönn, A.; Ekblom, B.; Kallings, L.V.; Väisänen, D.; Hemmingsson, E.; Andersson, G.; Wallin, P.; Stenling, A.; Ekblom, Ö.; et al. Lifestyle Habits and Mental Health in Light of the Two COVID-19 Pandemic Waves in Sweden, 2020. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2021, 18, 3313. DOI.
- Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: an easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones; tiny changes, remarkable results. New York: Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
- Coulson, J. (2021, October 16). Self Care. Retrieved from: Website.
- Desormeau PA, Walsh KM, Segal ZV. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. The Oxford Handbook of Stress and Mental Health. 2018;:688–704.
- Ma X, Yue Z-Q, Gong Z-Q, Zhang H, Duan N-Y, Shi Y-T, et al. The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in Psychology. 2017;8.
- Mccarty R. The Fight-or-Flight Response. Stress: Concepts, Cognition, Emotion, and Behavior. 2016;:33–7.
- Pilcher JJ, Ginter DR, Sadowsky B. Sleep quality versus sleep quantity: relationships between sleep and measures of health, well-being and sleepiness in college students. J Psychosom Res. 1997 Jun;42(6):583-96. doi: 10.1016/s0022-3999(97)00004-4. PMID: 9226606.
- Pillay, S. (2016, March 28). How simply moving benefits your mental health. Retrieved from: Website.