Though becoming a parent brings many joys and satisfactions, it is inherently stressful and demanding and can take its toll on parents mental health. Parents can easily put all their energies into caring for and attending to their children, and sacrifice their own personal needs and self-care.
Juggling the many demands placed on them, it is easy for parents to cut off from their natural supports or sources of rest or recreation, and over time become depleted stressed and burnt out. This is especially the case if parents are dealing with extra challenges such as a child with special needs, stressful work, and/or family losses or crises.
Further, in the modern world, many parents suffer from a constant guilt – a guilt that they are not doing enough or they are not doing it right and this all adds to the pressure.
For some parents becoming a parent is not how they anticipated and instead of the joyful feelings of love for their child, they can experience a sense of loss for their former life and experience their child as a burden. These negative feelings (though part and parcel of being a parent) can lead to extra guilt and can become repressed leading to further stress or depression – such feelings are often the basis of post natal depression.
Though many parents sacrifice attending to their own needs and mental health for the sake of their children, ironically in the long term this does not serve their children’s needs. If you become stressed, burnt out, or depressed as a parent then you can no longer be there for your children.
When your mental health suffers you can become negative, inconsistent and resentful or neglectful in your parenting. As a result, it is important for parents to prioritise their own welfare and mental health, as well as caring for their children. This is a crucial balance to achieve as much for your children’s sake as your own.
Children need cared-for parents as much as they need parents to care for them. It is a bit like the safety notice on planes which says that though your inclination is the reverse, you should first put your own oxygen mask on before helping your child with his.
This is why when making crucial parenting decisions you should take into account your own mental health needs as a parent as well as those of your children. For example:
– when deciding how to approach a baby not sleeping through the night, some parents opt for letting the child co-sleep with them in their bed for a period and others work hard at getting the child to settle in his room. The decision should be as much about what is least disruptive and most restful for the parent as what works for the child.
– with a toddler you might feel under pressure to start toilet training with your child, but because you are going through a difficult period in work, it might be a better idea to defer the training until you have more time.
– with older children, you might become stressed, ferrying them to all their extra-curricular activities when you it would be better for your own mental health to reduce these activities drastically or make other arrangements for your children travelling there.
In my own clinical practice, many of the parents come to the service looking for strategies to deal with their children’s behavioural problems. However, frequently they are so stressed or overwhelmed by the problems that they are not even in a position to reflect about how they are reacting let alone implement a behaviour management plan.
The first step to help them take a step back and to build plans around their self-care and support. No progress can be made with their child until they feel more secure and centred as parents. Frequently, my advice to parents is to redirect some of the time and energy that they have being putting into caring for their children towards caring for themselves.
Taking this step back and shifting perspective can make a big difference. Once a parent feels more relaxed and secure, they can begin to understand their own reactions and to separatetheir own needs from those of their children. From that position, you can begin to make choices in how you parent and tackle any problems that arise.
Though parenting is about relationships with your children, good parenting starts with your relationship with yourself. The more you can understand the sources of your own reactions and attend to your own needs, the more you will be able to understand and respond to your children’s individual needs.
This means you must learn to prioritise your own mental health as well supporting your children’s well being.
In the long term, practising self-care as a parent has benefits for your children as well as yourself. Not only will you feel more secure, content and fulfilled as a person, but your children will have access to more available, attentive and consistent parents.
Practice daily self care
Try and have a daily relaxation time for yourself that you keep sacrosanct, This could be a short daily walk, or doing yoga, or 15 minutes reading before bed or simply having a cup of tea listening to the radio. Find something that works for you.
Have a weekly review time
Have a weekly review time, when you take time to review the important priorities in your life. Are you getting the right balance between your work and personal life, and between parenting your children and attending to your needs as a individual. Take time to understand your own needs and wishes as person as well as all the demands that are put on you as parent,
worker, spouse etc.
Take action if you feel you are getting over stressed
Notice the early warning signals of your stress levels rising ( such as irritation, tiredness or even physical sickness). Take early action to address things such as seeking support, changing routines, saying no to less important demands etc. Though this might be extra work in the short-term ( e.g. setting up a more relaxing routine/ arranging day care) this will benefit you in the long term.
Prof. John Sharry, Irish Times, October 2010. John writes in the Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.
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