If you're the Mum or Dad of a young person who’s struggling with their mental health, you’ll be painfully aware that the services designed to help your child are buckling under the weight of the number of referrals they’re getting. This means that the burden of supporting your child is very likely being carried by you, perhaps alone. In the UK, the bleak reality of services like the NHS’s CAHMs (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) is unbearably long waiting lists and usually only the most serious cases getting accepted.
So, there’s a good chance you’re feeling panicked, totally exhausted, perhaps even broken. Because while your child’s struggling, your own mental health has probably taken a back seat. It might feel selfish to think about caring for your own needs while they’re finding things so hard.
But this article will hopefully convince you that prioritising your own self-care isn’t contradictory to doing what’s best for your child. Actually, caring for yourself so that you feel stronger is exactly what they need from you.
Channel that moment when you’re on a plane and they tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first before you help your child with theirs. This is the same, you need stability yourself before you can best help your child.
The Challenges You’re Probably Facing
It’s hard to be the calm and positive parent that your child needs when you’re feeling crushed by the troubles and pain they’re experiencing . This is especially true if their struggles involve things that are deeply challenging and hurtful for you, like self-harming, an eating disorder, or worse. You’re no doubt completely frustrated, angry, and sick of waiting around for the professionals to step up and help. Maybe guilt and self-doubt are weighing you down too?
The Horizon Plan, our free online course for parents caring for a young person struggling with mental health, calls these kinds of negative, intrusive thoughts and emotions felt by parents, ‘bad thought bullies’. The bullies are a provoking outside force trying to drag you down. When you’re dealing with all this, self-care is going to be an effective way to release tension. Basically, it’s how you’re going to shut the bad thought bullies up.
Why do Parents Often Ignore Self-Care?
So, if it’s so important, why do so many parents ignore self-care? For starters, when your child or teen is struggling, your knee-jerk reaction is probably to spiral down with them - that’s just instinct isn’t it. It probably feels far more tempting to climb down to join them in their lows. But this feeling may well be stopping you from making time for self-care which could help you to feel stronger and be better able to support them.
The commercial self-care that’s plastered all over the internet today is all expensive spa treatments, luxury body care products, and scented candles. But this isn’t what self-care is all about. Of course, the ‘wellness’ market would like us to think it’s all about quick fix products because that’s what sells. They can’t sell ‘a peaceful cup of tea with the newspaper’ on Amazon - although it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if someone tried to. It’s these kinds of fads that make us feel guilty about admitting we’re even doing self-care. We’ve been led to believe that self-care is materialistic when really it’s a crucial step towards feeling stronger. There’s nothing selfish about getting back on your own two feet before trying to help someone else who’s struggling. In fact, using self-care to get to a stable point where you’re able to provide unwavering support for your child is a powerful way to approach this situation.
Why Should You Bother with Self-Care?
Imagine everybody has a bucket inside them which carries all their stress. We all have a tipping point at which our bucket becomes so full that it overflows, pushing us over the edge. The beauty of self-care is that it acts as a tap that can let some of this stress out of your bucket. This is a crucial step towards being a calm, consistent, and reliable parent. The aim of putting self-care practices into place now is to start emptying your bucket before it has the chance to spill over. As mental health campaigner Natasha Devon says in her book, ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental’, “you wouldn’t wait until you were falling to begin building a safety net”.(1) Self-care is the safety net that you need and it’s never too soon to start putting it into place.
Also, you’re a human being too and you deserve to feel able to cope with your own life. Looking after a young one who’s struggling mentally and emotionally is an unavoidably painful experience. But you can put yourself in the best position possible to cope with it by working on your own state of mind. Self-care is a crucial building block for achieving this mental stability. If you’re not kind to yourself, you’re setting yourself up to feel overwhelmed and drained by the situation. Self-care is, therefore, vital as it provides you with little moments of respite to replenish your energy levels.
Ultimately, the state of mind you’re in is going to dictate how you respond to the challenges of your child’s recovery. So, it’d be much better for everyone involved if you were coming from a place of positivity and mental strength.
Claire Sutton, Co-Founder of the Youth Mental Health Foundation, says that if there’s any hope of your child sharing their troubles and anxieties with you and leaning into your guidance, they first need to believe that you won’t “freak out” about any of the things they might share with you.
There’s a sort of “invisible chord linking parent and child which allows you to sense each other’s unspoken emotions”. Just as you can always pick up on when they’ve had a bad day at school, they too can tell if you’re not coping. So, once you work on your self-care your child will start to sense your improved positivity and stability. They’ll then be more likely to trust in your support.
At first it might feel like you’re artificially faking your ‘calmness’. But, apologies for the cliche, you’ve got to ‘fake it till you make it’. By regulating your stress levels with self-care you’ll slowly make it to a point where you really do feel confident and calm enough to deal with the situation. Remember we’re only ever strong enough to help others once our own oxygen mask is already secure.
What is Self-Care?
It’s pretty unique to each person, but generally, self-care is about finding effective ways of caring for yourself physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. As parents, carers, and guardians you might feel like you’ve got seriously limited time to fit in any little self-care rituals. Let’s face it, childcare, parenting a teen and free time aren’t a match made in heaven. But don’t fret, it really can be something as small as buying a coffee while you’re doing the food shop. Anything that brings joy or peacefulness to your state of mind counts as self-care.
How To Do Self-Care as a Parent?
Self-care is all about checking in with yourself and noticing when it’s all getting too much. That’s when you can whip out a whole inventory of self-care acts. To help you get started here’s a list of ideas for inspiration.
Emotional Self-Care Ideas
Physical Self-Care Ideas
Social Self-Care Ideas
Some of these might work wonders, or maybe you’d rather come up with your own. As long as you’re investing time for yourself and consciously releasing some stress, you’re doing self-care right.
Being a good Mum, Dad, or guardian isn’t about sacrificing yourself in exchange for your child’s happiness. Of course, they are your priority, and you’d give everything for them to be happy. But one of the main ways you can support them is by looking after yourselves too. To be there for them, you have a responsibility to try to keep yourself stable, positive, and strong. As Audre Lorde, activist and professor, put it “caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation”. It’s this self-preservation that’s going to buy you the energy you need to guide your child on their recovery journey towards being a healthy and happy young person.
To learn more about self-care and how to support a child or teen struggling with mental health, CLICK HERE for the Horizon Plan, our free online course.