Healthy parenting is a lot like that (frightening) in-flight safety message: you have to make sure that your own oxygen mask is secure before assisting others.
It can be easy to believe that your own needs have to come second (or third or fourth) after the needs of your loved ones. But healthy parenting doesn’t mean sacrificing yourself for the sake of others. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
Your kids notice when you aren’t taking care of yourself. Author David Code asserts in his book Kids Pick Up On Everything: How Parental Stress Is Toxic to Kids that a parent’s own stress level can actually be contagious and negatively affect their children's cognition.
Teens actually begin to model the stress-based behaviors of their parents and start to develop higher stress levels themselves. And with parents reporting higher levels of stress than adults without children, the likelihood of your child adopting your stress just increased. Parents are more likely to overeat, lose sleep or skip meals because of their stress.
Self-Care Stress Busters
Taking time for yourself doesn’t have to be just another item on your never ending to-do list. Try incorporating these strategies into your day:
1. Make exercise a priority
Exercise is more than just a weight-loss method. The side effects of movement have been linked to a whole host of improved health benefits. Remember how parents are more likely to lose sleep due to stress? Exercise has been linked to better sleep, and has even been shown to improve sleep and negative mood symptoms for patients with insomnia.
In addition to improving sleep quality, exercise has also been shown to lower the levels of stress-inducing hormones like cortisol and increase levels of the stress-reducing hormone serotonin.
Ironically, stress can often keep adults from exercising when they need that hormone-boost the most. That’s why it’s important to keep your exercise routine sustainable — that way even when you’re feeling tired or overwhelmed exercise won’t feel like just another task.
I used to blame not working out on not being able to go to the gym because I didn't have childcare. A friend recommended Gixo to me so that I could do live classes in real-time at home and now I have access to a personal trainer. This was important because I struggle with self-motivation and if I have somebody encouraging me I tend to do better. I'll even let my kids watch Paw Patrol or some other educational cartoon while I'm doing the session since they go by pretty quickly.
2. Breathe deeply — and often
Taking deep breaths isn’t just for your yoga class. Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, has been shown to reduce depression and anxiety, lower blood pressure and help with sleeplessness.
But it can be easy to unconsciously establish unhealthy breath habits that don’t actually utilize our full breath-capacity. That’s where regular breaks for belly breathing can come in handy, especially when you notice an increase in your stress level.
The best part? You can utilize this tool during that stressful work meeting, when you’re in line at the grocery store or in the middle of an argument without making anyone the wiser. But if you are worried about what people might think, you can always head outside for a three-minute breathing break.
The actual breathing technique is simple. Breathing through your nose, inhale slowly until you feel your belly expand (it can be useful to place a hand on your belly), then exhale for the same count. Try to match the length of your inhale to the length of your exhale. Setting a regular reminder on your phone can help you make this a consistent part of your day.
3. Take time for stillness with meditation
All the buzz around meditation is not for nothing. The practice of sitting in silence has been shown to decrease stress, improve sleep quality and even increase creativity.
Starting a meditation practice can be intimidating. After all, it can be easy to feel like you’re not doing anything while you’re sitting in silence. Thoughts about your never-ending to-do list or the cleanliness of your house can be easy distractors.
That’s why some experts suggest making your meditation practice the first thing that you do when you get out of bed. Rather than reaching for your phone first thing in the morning, try taking that five or ten minutes that you might normally check your email, or scroll through social media, to sit in silence. If you’re having trouble calming your mind, try downloading a guided meditation app like Headspace to help you focus on your breathing.
As a parent, you spend a majority of your time doing for others. Take some time this month to focus on your own health and wellbeing — you’ll become a happier and more effective parent in the process and your family will reap the benefits.