Mental Health and Parenting: Facts and Tips
Let’s face it, parenting can be stressful and overwhelming at times, even for the people that seem to have it all together. You may find yourself wondering if you’re doing things “right,” if you’re too hard on your kids, if you’re spending enough time with them, or judging yourself harshly for the many mistakes you feel you have made. It’s hard not to compare yourself to others. The truth is that no parent is perfect (no matter what Instagram seems to tell you), and there are many different styles of parenting that contribute to guiding kids to be conscientious, productive, and compassionate members of society.
However, when you’re in the thick of your toddler’s gnarly meltdown in the middle of the supermarket, it can be difficult to not judge yourself and worry about how others may be judging you as well. Kids can activate old wounds for you that you may not have realized you even had. Add any symptoms of depression, trauma, or anxiety on top of that and you may be feeling activated more so than ever before.
It is possible to be a great parent and take care of your own mental health needs, though it may take some trial and error in terms of balancing time and energy.
If you’re feeling like you’re on the verge of a mental collapse, something needs to change. Even if you don’t currently feel like you’re quite at that extreme, check-ins are a good thing. All too often, we feel as though parenting SHOULD be exhausting, that it’s just how things are. We can think that if we aren’t worn thin, then maybe we aren’t doing enough. We connect with other parents through a sense of burnout comradery that isn’t necessarily healthy.
Sometimes we receive messages that it’s not okay for us to want time away from our kids. That we SHOULD be experiencing some level of shame or guilt for wanting someone to put us in a timeout and step away from parental responsibilities, even for a few hours. Everyone needs a break and to be able to focus on themselves. After all, how do you keep driving a car if you don’t stop to fill up the tank occasionally, let alone give it a tune up, rotate the tires, or change out the spark plugs. Skip those steps and you will be broken down on the side of a random road being unable to help anyone
Warning signs that your mental health may be on the decline:
- Patience is wearing thin or nonexistent
- Frequent headaches or upset stomach
- Chest is tight
- Losing empathy or connection with kids
- Feeling resentful
- Increasing apathy
- Getting little or no joy from previously fun activities
- Feeling overwhelmed with making decisions (even small ones)
- Increased anxiety
- Easily distracted
- Decreased energy
- Losing interest in daily activities
- Making frequent mistakes
- Missing appointments
- Losing interest or energy for self-care
- Not being able to follow the plot in your favorite weekly show
Taking Care of Yourself (While Taking Care of Your Kids)
It might seem impossible to take good care of yourself while taking care of your kids. Often there just doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day. The reality is that you can’t neglect yourself if you want to be the best parent you can be for you kids. Being the best parent you can be usually includes being present, interested, and compassionate; all of which are hard to do if you run yourself ragged. Taking care of someone (yes, even your own kids) while completely neglecting yourself isn’t noble. It doesn’t earn you a special badge or place of honor for your sacrifice.
Think about what that models for them—that it’s ok to hurt yourself for the sake of someone else. Our job as parents is to get our kids ready to be healthy, functional adults. This includes taking care of themselves and setting boundaries with other people and their time. They learn this from you. If you do nothing strictly for yourself and you don’t take time away, you run the risk of losing yourself and losing your boundaries.
Kids are very perceptive.
Treating yourself like you don’t matter DOES NOT go unnoticed. Not only is this detrimental for you, but also for your children. Kids need boundaries to feel safe, and they need to learn to become aware of and respond to the needs of others in healthy ways.
If you don’t have a lot of social support, it may feel as though you have no wiggle room to incorporate “me time” into your day. Making yourself a priority is a necessity. You may be surprised at how just a little shift or change in your day can provide a noticeable relief. This might look like forcing yourself to get back into neglected hobbies, having your kids take the bus to school or carpool for after school activities so that you have more time for yourself, or asking for breaks with the help of partners, family members, friends or fellow church members. Try to reinforce for yourself the idea that it is NORMAL and HEALTHY to need periodic breaks away from your kids and the responsibilities that go along with caring for them. It doesn’t mean that you love them any less and it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad parent.
Tips to help you start focusing on self-care:
- Allow yourself to ask for and receive help (e.g., someone else watching your kids, or cooking dinner for you so you are free to engage in other activities or relaxation).
- Find something that’s meaningful to you that DOESN’T have to involve your kids (e.g., writing, dance, art, exercise, reading, etc).
- Schedule down time for yourself– if possible make it outside of the house so you are not tempted to fill that time with chores.
- Practice saying no to your kids and not feeling guilty (e.g., “No, I’m not feeling up for the park today, This isn’t a good night for your friends to stay over, I don’t have the time to make that for dinner, I am going to make this instead”).
- Join a support group to help guard against isolation. This doesn’t have to be a formal one, a group of close friends choosing to spend time with each other for validation and support can be amazing.
- Work to let go of the idea that if your kid does or doesn’t do xyz it means you’re a bad parent.
- Schedule and attend ALL your doctor’s appointments too. Skipping your physical or emotional health won’t help anyone feel better. If you need to see your OBGYN, PCP, psychiatrist, or therapist make that a priority. Even if it involves having to tell someone else NO.
Kids unfortunately don’t come with a manual, and neither does life in general. Maybe you feel trapped with no options when it comes to parenting, or maybe you feel overwhelmed by too many options. If you feel like you would benefit from processing your balance of self-care and parenting, make an appointment with Angelus today. Your therapist will help you to get clear about the balance that you would like in your life, what specifically that might look like, as well as the action steps to get you there.
Blog Credit: Natalie Drozda, MA, LPC is a PH.D student in Counseling Education and Supervision at Duquesne University & therapist at Angelus Therapeutic Services