Self-care for Exhausted Parents: How Do You Recharge Your Batteries?

March 22, 2012 by

How do you take care of yourself and relieve stress as a parent?

When I was in school for social work, very little was said about self-care.  Sure, a few professors might have remarked about “stress” or “parental burnout,” but no one really addressed how we were supposed to take care of ourselves in stressful situations.  When I first started working directly with people who had experienced significant physical, emotional and/or mental trauma, I found out firsthand how important it is to take care of yourself, not only for the people you are supporting, but also for you.  If I was feeling drained and not fully present, I could not give my best to the people I was supporting.  Conversely, if I was taking care of myself, then I found that I had the physical and mental stamina to assist people in meeting their needs.

I think this concept is important for parents as well.  As a parent, you are the number one caregiver in your home for your children, not to mention your other responsibilities, such as caring for your own parents or being a financial provider for your family.  If you are the parent of a child with diagnoses like ADD/ADHD or ODD or other behavioral issues, it's even more important that you take care of yourself.  When you're parenting a child with behavioral issues, it can be a draining, frustrating and demanding task.  Many times you are working with not just your child, but also other treatment providers, the school, and perhaps even law enforcement or the courts.  It's vital to take some time to yourself so that you have the energy to respond to your child and to the behavior you are seeing, rather than reacting from an emotional, exhausted state.  If you don't take this time, the effects of this built-up stress can lead to increased irritability, fatigue and even health problems.

Now, I know many of you are reading this and thinking, “Yeah, right!  How can I possibly think of recharging my batteries when my child is screaming at me, refusing to do homework, and getting in trouble all the time?!?!”  I understand that; however, self-care does not mean taking an extended vacation, or a trip to the spa every week (although that would be nice!).   The key to taking care of yourself is to regularly schedule some time for YOU.  Put it on your calendar, and keep that commitment to yourself.  One trick I have found that works for me is to find those hidden pockets of time that I can use.  One example is your daily commute.  Instead of stressing over the mountain of work that you have waiting for you at your desk, or rehashing the fight you had with your child that morning, try listening to a CD, audiobook or radio program you enjoy.  Singing (loudly) in the car can be very therapeutic!  Another method to try is some deep breathing.   The great thing about this is you can do it anywhere at any time, even when you are in an argument with your child, or other stressful situation.

An additional tactic to find some time for yourself is getting up early in the morning or blocking out some time one evening a week, and using that time for yourself.  Note that I said, “for yourself”, and not for tackling your daily tasks.  Use this time to linger over a cup of coffee or tea, journal, take a class, work on a craft project or exercise.  Find a supportive, nonjudgmental friend or family member you can call when you really need to talk. If it's another parent in the same boat and you can find some humor in the situation together, that can be very helpful — sometimes laughter is the best release out there. Doing something physical can serve a couple of purposes, as well, as it is a proven stress reliever and can also give you the physical boost of energy you need to get through your day.  It doesn’t need to be intensive marathon training either — a simple walk or working in a garden is also beneficial.

The key to effective self-care is to find something, or a couple of things, that you enjoy, and making time to do it.  Although it may feel selfish to do this, it’s actually replenishing your energy stores so that you have the stamina and the clarity to keep up with your multiple responsibilities of caring for everyone else.  It’s like the classic example of the airline safety demonstration: you have to put on your own oxygen before you can help those around you.

So what do you do to take care of yourself?  Or, what small steps are you going to take to start?  Feel free to post your ideas here!

P.S. If you find yourself feeling hopeless, irritable, helpless, worried and/or sad most of the time, not interested in things you used to enjoy, or have thoughts of harming yourself or someone else, we recommend looking to find some local supports to help you as well.  Talk with your doctor, or contact a service such as  211 is an informational service that can help to connect you with resources in your area.  You can also reach them by calling 1 (800) 273-6222.  You deserve to get the support you need to take care of yourself.

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