Family therapist Caroline Penney explains how to take care of yourself without sacrificing your kids’ needs.
Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB) and words by Caroline Penney
As parents, we’re expected to do our absolute best for our children and often put their needs above our own. But when was the last time you did something just for yourself, and what if we told you that factoring some self-care into your day was actually good for your children too?
Parenting specialist, family therapist and author of The Parenting Toolkit Caroline Penney is the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud, so she knows a thing or two about mental health. Here she explains how to take care of yourself without sacrificing your kids’ needs:
The importance of self-care
Looking after yourself as a parent is of paramount importance because you have such a responsibility for bringing up your children. But all parents feel guilty sometimes. We blame ourselves for responding wrongly to our children and torture ourselves worrying that we could have done it better.
Different stages of parenting bring different stresses, so looking after yourself is important.
However being a parent is never easy, and children have their own path to follow which might be completely different to how we imagined it. The saying that a parent can only be as happy as their least happy offspring is a truism that has stood the test of time.
The stages of parenting
Different stages of parenting bring different stresses, so looking after yourself is important:
When you have a baby, it can be very isolating, lonely and frightening having such a small human to care for. It can also put a lot of pressure on your couple relationship as you have much less time for each other, when you are exhausted from lack of sleep, and sex can seem like a distant dream.
Having a toddler brings new stresses. You want them to be safe (survive this stage), but they have no awareness of danger, so you can be scared of taking your eyes off them for a second.
💗 School years
The school years bring the pressure of homework, friendships and helping your child relate to the outer world. You will want to support your children though all these challenges.
Adolescents bring a whole new dimension to how important it is to look after yourself, with all the additional pressures of supporting a teenager, as they find their own identity, sexuality and succeed in separating from their parents.
Self-care tips for parents
So here are a few ideas for how to incorporate self-care into your routine as you parent:
- Nurture yourself
It is important to remember whatever gave you joy before you had the children. Once in a while, cook food that you like, not just what the children want. See old friends, go dancing, have time out with your partner, do exercise, have a bubble bath, go cycling or to a football match. This is not being selfish because enjoying yourself replenishes your energy to give to the children. It is hard to give joy or happiness to your children if you don’t have it yourself. Looking after yourself can be hard to organise with busy schedules, but do make it a priority.
- Get outside
Go out every day with pre-school children, whatever the weather, to the park, a toddler group, swimming, singing classes etc. This can stop you going stir-crazy at home and breaks up the day. Whatever age your children are, a daily blast of fresh air will bring you physical and mental health benefits.
- Encourage chores
Start from an early age to ask children to help, even if only to put their shoes in the cupboard. Then, as they get older, they will understand that they all have to pitch in . That way, you will not end up servicing your children all the time and feeling resentful.
- Find some like-minded friends
These are people who encourage and support you. They can share the ups and the downs with you and make the whole parenting journey so much more fun. Keep away from people who make you feel inadequate or are competitive about their ‘amazing’ children.
- It’s OK to say No
Time and resources are limited when you have children, So if people ask you to do something extra, say, “I just need to think about it” or “I wish I could” and then do not feel guilty because it is better to be clear from the start than overload yourself.
- It’s also OK to say Yes
If people offer to babysit, to bring over a dish of food, or do the shopping for you, just say, “Yes”. When people offer help they mean it and it is not productive to think you have to do it all yourself. Accept it with gratitude.
- Eat a healthy diet
With small children, it is very easy to never to have time to finish a meal, so you end up just snacking on biscuits. We need proper fuel to keep our bodies healthy and active. Try to keep the fridge stocked with healthy snacks and make time for yourself to eat a proper meal rather than kid’s leftovers.
- Get enough sleep
It can be hard to get enough sleep, especially with very young children. Try to have a sleep when the baby is napping, even if that feels like your only chance to get things done. Seize opportunities for an early night and go to bed soon after the children go to bed if you can. It is very difficult to stay calm when you are sleep deprived.
- Look after your emotions
It is important to acknowledge and express your feelings or you bottle them up and risk exploding at inappropriate times. Sometimes learning to mediate or to use mindfulness can be very helpful. If your own experience of being parented was not great, it could be helpful to find a counsellor who can support you to be the parent you want to be.
- Don’t beat yourself up
It is very easy to feel we are making mistakes all the time but remember that it is OK to be just good enough. In the evening, it can be helpful to make a list of three things you thought went well, however small.
- Live in the moment
Enjoy the moment and laugh at all the crazy things that happen every day on your parenting adventure.