Caring for a child with mental health challenges can make it difficult for you to take care of yourself. After all, a parent’s first instinct is to put your child’s needs ahead of your own. The worry and stress you experience, however, can quickly take their toll on your mental and physical health.
The best thing you can do for your child in addition to caring for them is look after yourself. If you’re physically and emotionally fit and healthy, you’ll find it easier to be a better parent and cope with anything that’s thrown your way. And keep in mind: Despite what’s often the impression, self-care is important for dads as well as moms.
From getting outside to going to therapy, there are a host of ways you can take care of yourself mentally, emotionally, and physically.
How Does Caring for a Child With Mental Health Challenges Affect Parents?
Parenting a teen or young adult with mental health issues can be stressful and overwhelming. It might leave you feeling anxious and depressed and can also affect your work and outside relationships. It can wreak havoc on your body or cause health issues. Sometimes it can cause burnout, a condition characterized by emotional and psychological exhaustion. According to a recent study published by the journal Affective Science, up to 8% of parents in the U.S. experience burnout, one of the highest rates out of 42 countries studied.
A parent who is dealing with a child with depression or anxiety can easily feel like they’re incompetent or even a failure because they can’t fix the problem or help their child enough, said Kallee Wilson, AMFT, a clinical director at New Haven Residential Treatment Center. “It can affect their core beliefs about themselves and their abilities, which can lead them to feel anxious, helpless, and hopeless.”
Everyone deals with stress differently. Here are some red flags to watch out for:
- Poor sleeping patterns such as not getting enough sleep.
- Not eating properly.
- Feeling fatigued.
- Headaches or stomachaches.
- High blood pressure.
- Inability to cope with daily tasks at home or at work.
- Feelings of anxiety, such as feeling on the edge, frantic, or irritable.
Why Should You Take Care of Yourself? How Does That Help You and Your Child?
Taking care of a child with mental health issues requires time, energy, patience, and empathy. If you’re putting all your energy into your child and not looking after yourself, you’ll find it harder to do what you need to do and cope with the demands.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), focusing on your health helps you better handle the challenges of supporting your child because you’re able to adapt to changes, build strong relationships, and recover from setbacks.
“It’s like when you’re on an airplane and they tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else with theirs,” Wilson said.
Self-care can lower stress levels, increase energy, and make you stronger mentally, emotionally, and physically, which means you’ll be more able to deal with any situation.
“Making sure you look after yourself is a good way to clear your head and find peace among all the chaos,” Wilson said.
What Are Some Ways You Can Practice Self-Care?
Self-care essentially means giving yourself the time and attention you need to keep yourself healthy. You should do it without feeling guilty. There are so many ways to take care of yourself, and some only require a few minutes a day. If you make self-care part of your daily routine, it will be easier to make sure you do it.
- Eat well and sleep well: When you’re a caregiver, you want to take care of your loved one to the best of your ability, so it’s vital your own basic needs are met. Part of your self-care plan should include caring for your body by making sure you eat regular, healthy meals with plenty of veggies and get at least seven hours of sleep, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Make time to relax: It’s crucial to take time to relax as part of your self-care routine. There are plenty of options to choose from, including taking a yoga class, having a hot bath, or getting comfy on the sofa and reading a good book. If you’re relaxed, you’ll find you’ll be able to cope better with any situation.
- Try meditating or breathing exercises: Meditating and deep breathing exercises are quick and easy ways to relax, clear your head, refocus, and reduce stress. They can also help you sleep. You’ll find a host of apps such as Calm and Headspace that make it easy, even if you’ve never tried meditation before.
- Exercise daily: Whether you like running, walking, or working out, exercise should be part of your daily routine. It’s a great mood booster that will make you feel better about yourself mentally and physically and leave you energized and able to care for your child.
- Get outside: Being outside has been shown to improve your well-being, as discussed in a recent research review published in Science Advances journal. So, go for a hike in the woods with your dog or your kids or take a quick walk around the block. Being in the fresh air, even for a few minutes, will help clear your head and recharge your batteries.
- Meet up with friends, family, or a support group: It’s easy to feel lonely and isolated as you navigate your child’s mental health. Having a good support system, whether friends, family members, or a support group, is vital for your mental health. Make sure you arrange regular meetups for coffee or a walk.
- Set a goal to do something you enjoy every day: Self-care can simply mean doing things you enjoy. Make a list and try to do one each day. Sometimes, it can involve doing things that have nothing to do with your children, such as spending time with friends or going on a date with your partner.
- Find ways to connect physically: Hugging is good for your emotional health. Physical touch releases oxytocin, one of the happy hormones. So, find your significant other, kids, a friend, or your pet and give them a hug!
- Be kind to yourself: Parenting a child with mental health issues can be incredibly hard, and you won’t have all the answers. One way to take care of yourself is to make sure you show yourself some compassion.
When Should You Consider Therapy?
“While it’s never too early to get the additional support of a therapist, the moment it feels like it’s too much to handle or you’re worried if you’re going about things the right way is the time to get help,” Wilson said.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed and in over your head, knowing someone else is on your team can be invaluable. Having an expert to guide and coach you can give you the strength and energy you need to keep going when it feels really difficult and help you realize you’re not alone.
If you feel therapy would help you take care of yourself and would like to find a therapist near you, you can use Psychology Today’s search tool. If you’re interested in a peer-led family support group, NAMI offers free groups around the United States. You can use its search tool to see if there’s one in your area.