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10 self-care tips parents need to improve their mental health

December 16, 2021 • read

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10 self-care tips parents need to improve their mental health

The COVID-19 pandemic has been especially hard on parents who have seen their usual support networks stripped away, and it’s common for parental anxiety to rise each time COVID-19 cases go up. 

Even without the pandemic, caring for children is relentless and it can be difficult to find the time you need to recharge. But not making space for your own mental health and self-care can be disastrous. Read on for the effects of mental health on parenting and how self-care can help.

What is self-care?

Self-care is everything you do to take care of yourself, and it doesn’t have to be fancy. Brushing your teeth, eating well, sleeping enough, and showering regularly are the building blocks of living healthfully. 

These may seem like a given, but for some parents — especially those with young children or children with special needs — it can be hard to make these things happen every day. It’s easy to put self-care on the back burner when you’re busy, but that’s usually when you need self-care the most. 

If you were working from home or outside of your home during the COVID-19 pandemic and helping your child/children with online school, chances are you didn’t have 10 minutes to yourself — and that’s likely when you could have used it the most. While practicing the basics of healthy living is a great start, self-care that safeguards your mental health should be more comprehensive.

Children’s mental health is connected to their parent’s mental health

If you’re experiencing mental health issues, your children’s risk for them increases as well. While it’s true that certain mental health conditions have genetic influences, other things matter too. 

Parents who have difficulty coping are more likely to disengage or respond inappropriately to their children. They’re also more likely to expose their kids to harsh parenting, and even abuse. Research also suggests a link between early parental stress and childhood mental health problems later in life.

This isn’t to say that your child will have poor mental health if you struggle yourself. Parents who model appropriate coping mechanisms and self-care strategies are more likely to raise children who do the same. Showing your kids how to care for yourself in the face of depression or anxiety can provide them with the resources they’ll one day need to care for themselves, effectively teaching them resilience.

How does mental health affect parenting?

If you’re exhausted and experiencing symptoms of stress, you’re likely not doing your best parenting. Whether you have a two-month-old or a 16-year-old, parenting requires patience and empathy – both of which tend to be in short supply when you’re struggling. 

You can’t pour from an empty cup and parenting is no exception. No other job requires you to start the moment you wake up — and sometimes multiple times a night. Depression and anxiety can add another layer of complexity, making parenting seem overwhelming or even impossible.

Additionally, parental anxiety and stress, like other forms of stress, can increase your risk for cardiovascular issues including heart disease and even cancer. Lack of stress management can also put you at risk for mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. Thankfully, research also shows that feeling like you have more control helps to alleviate the negative impacts of stress. Here’s how to take control of your self-care practice to improve your parenting and your mental health. 

1. Schedule time off for yourself.

You don’t need to book time at the spa, but you do need to take some time for yourself. Whether you desperately need a haircut or just want to set aside time for reading, plan for it in advance. Ask your partner to watch the kids, and if they can’t or if you’re a single parent, bring in a babysitter if possible or ask a family member for assistance. 

It’s important not to spend your downtime crossing items off your to-do list. Cleaning the kitchen or prepping dinner isn’t relaxing, and it sure isn’t time off! It can be hard to take time away from your favourite people and may even feel selfish at first, but returning refreshed and reenergized means you’ll be even better at parenting.

2. Ask for help

These last 18 months of school shutdowns, shuttered extracurricular activities, and working from home have all increased the parental load. The COVID-19 pandemic has also laid bare the effects that social isolation has on parental anxiety and managing stress. The truth is you can’t do it all on your own and you probably don’t want to try. 

If you’re struggling — or even if you feel you’re not — enlist the support of your nearest and dearest. Have your children spend some time with friends or other family members. Or, ask for help with other things like picking up groceries, dropping off a meal, or helping to homeschool your four-year-old during a school shutdown. If nothing else, the past two years have shown that it really does take a village to raise children. 

3. Make some “grown-up only” time

It’s easy to lose focus on yourselves as a couple once you and your partner have kids. Arguably, however, reconnecting with your partner only gets more important as the years pass. Programming some one-on-one time with your significant other is a great way to work on keeping your relationship strong. It’s also a time for you to reflect on who you used to be before kids. 

Schedule a date night, a night away, or even a longer trip with your significant other. The more restored and rested you are, the better you’ll be as a parent. Taking a break from your kids will help you appreciate the time you spend with them more. Absence makes the heart grow fonder after all.

4. Say no more often

Having kids often means there are lots of asks — from contributing to the school bake sale to signing your child up for yet another activity. It’s easy to feel pressured into participating when you’d really rather scale back. When it comes to the dozens of “little” asks of being a parent, it really is okay to say no. These things aren’t mandatory for a reason. 

5. Don’t forget to feed yourself

Preparing nutritionally balanced, Instagram-worthy lunchboxes for your child is great, but not at the expense of feeding yourself. If your child is older, have them help with, or outright make their own lunch the night before. If that isn’t an option yet, double up on their lunch portions so you’re both covered for meals. 

When it comes to dinners, minimize time in the kitchen by batch cooking healthy meals a couple of times a week, and share responsibility with your partner or older kids. If you’re feeling too overwhelmed to cook, consider reaching out for help. A family member or friend is probably only too happy to drop something delicious on your doorstep.

6. Do something to keep physically active

The link between physical and mental health is undeniable. Individuals with mental illness are at higher risk of physical issues, and those with chronic physical issues are more likely to experience mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Best of all, you don’t have to join a gym to be active. 

Try going for a walk, holding your kids while doing squats, or cranking up the tunes for a dance party. Regardless of how you get it, aim for 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a week, or just over 20 minutes a day. 

7. Get a good night’s sleep

This may be easier said than done — especially if you have a baby at home — but sleep is a linchpin of self-care. Lack of sleep is directly tied to mood disorders like depression. Depression can also worsen sleep problems, triggering a vicious circle

If you can, aim to wake up and go to bed at the same time each day. If you’re up at night with a young child, try an earlier bedtime or consider sharing night wakings with your partner. If your kids are older, you’re practicing good sleep hygiene, and you’re still not able to get a good night’s sleep, it may be time to enlist the help of a sleep therapist.

8. Get your family to pitch in

Doing things yourself often feels easier than coercing your partner and kids into actually helping around the house. But resigning yourself to doing it all pretty much guarantees you’ll always be stuck doing it yourself. Don’t be afraid to delegate. Unpacking the dishwasher, setting the table, vacuuming, and helping to prep dinner are all good places to start. 

Tasks should be age-appropriate, but you might be surprised at what even young children can accomplish. If your child has mastered walking, they’re capable of walking their own dishes to the dishwasher. And most three-year-olds can help unpack the dishwasher. Start them young and watch them grow up helpful!

9. Stop comparing yourself to others

It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like you’re falling short when you start comparing yourself to others. Maybe your neighbour has a perpetually pristine house and perfectly put-together kids. 

But is having a clean house a high priority for you, or are there other ways you’d rather spend your time? And would your kids even let you pick out their outfits and french braid their hair for an hour? You’re the best parent for your kid, and your parenting style is the best fit for your family, no one else’s. 

10. Start small

Parents are busy. It’s not always easy to eat perfectly or sleep for as long as you should. Exercise especially can feel more aspirational than possible. Stop focusing on what you “should” be doing, and instead, do what you can, when you can. If you spend your day in front of a screen, minimize the amount of time you spend watching stuff recreationally. 

If you’re stuck at a desk working from home or outside of the home all day, take regular breaks to stretch or even just to stand up, and limit caffeine, alcohol and sugary foods as much as possible. Self-care is a process, not a one-time trip to the spa. 

Sometimes even the most comprehensive self-care isn’t enough. If you’re struggling with your mental health, it may be time to consider speaking with a therapist. Maple makes it easy to speak to a therapist online from the comfort of your home when it’s most convenient for you. Get in touch to schedule a visit with a Canadian-licensed therapist today.

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