By Erika Cloutier
"So, what are you doing for yourself?"
The mom I was talking to had just shared the details of her upcoming week, and I honestly wondered how she planned to fit it all in: appointments for her children and obligations for her job, keeping up the house, volunteering at school, taking on a project at work that "no one else wanted," having dinner at her in-laws', making cookies for the bake sale, helping a friend move, and still finding time to eat, sleep, and perhaps, go to the bathroom once or twice a day!
She laughed. "I don't have time for me."
As a family support and training worker and an active graduate student clinician, I often ask this question to parents, and I nearly always get the same response. As a society, we have somehow defined "good parents" as those who run their kids around to practices and clubs, donate to all the bake sales, send in treats for holidays, volunteer for every school project, become PTA president, and spend every free moment making sure their children don't miss out on anything. By default, our society of "good parents" are losing touch with what really matters.
As it turns out, all that running around for your kids pales in comparison to the importance of taking care of yourself first. Recent studies in journals such as The Journal for Specialists in Pediatric Nursing and the Journal of Child and Family Studies, show there is a direct link between parental stress and a child's quality of life. Collectively, researchers examined the connections between a variety of populations and life-stressors, and all have come to the same conclusion: When parents are stressed-out, their children are not as successful in school (academically, socially, or behaviorally) and have more difficulty regulating their emotions.
Parents who are stressed may be more reactive to their children's behaviors, may spend less time bonding and creating positive memories, or may have difficulty modeling healthy ways to deal with stress and intense emotions. When a child responds with challenging behaviors, the parents become more stressed, thus creating an ugly cycle. Thankfully, parents can break this cycle by having more fun and taking care of themselves first.
"But, I don't know where to begin, I haven't done anything for myself in years." What made you happy when you were younger and had less responsibility? Did you play sports or an instrument, go out dancing, or like to draw? Consider joining a rec sports team in your community or taking a drop-in art class at a local library. Try something new. (Who knows? You might actually enjoy belly dancing! Or at least have a few giggles.) Taking care of yourself does not need to be extravagant or a long-term commitment. It just has to be something you enjoy and doesn't cause you extra stress.
"I can't afford to do things for myself." The library is a fabulous resource for free activities. They also offer passes, providing free or reduced admission to museums and other places of interest. The events tab on Facebook and events calendar on many community websites are other great places to find free or cheap events going on locally.
Often as parents, we spend a lot of money on things our children want to do, such as dance classes, sports fees, and the newest Nikes. We need to recognize that taking care of ourselves is worth our child taking two dance classes instead of three or buying their sneakers at Walmart rather than Olympia Sports.
"I don't have time to do things for myself." If baking cookies for every bake sale and chaperoning every field trip doesn't bring you joy, replace it with something that benefits you and your child. Make a list of everything that fills your day and decide which commitments cause you stress. Although some are unavoidable, such as going to work, it's likely there are others you can eliminate. Or consider including the children in things you enjoy, such as painting or hiking. Create memories and lower your stress at the same time.
"I hear you, but thinking about stress is stressful." Any change from what you are used to can be a lot of work. Start small if you must, but start. Play music you enjoy while you are cleaning the house, listen to a book on CD while you are driving your children from appointment to appointment, make a face at yourself in the mirror and laugh. You might find that enjoying moments becomes contagious, and doing more for yourself becomes easier.
Erika Cloutier is a graduate student counselor at the Becker College Counselor Training Clinic, where she sees adults, adolescents, couples, and children with a variety of behavioral and mental health challenges. To schedule and appointment with Erika or another skilled counselor or inquire about the reduced fee services available at the CTC, contact Clinic Director Dr. Beth Greenberg at 508-373-9752.