Parents, Give Yourself Grace (and Space) for Mental Wellness
Dr. Lisa Spector, MD, FAAP, is Division Chief of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at Nemours Children’s Hospital, Florida and a Professor of Pediatrics through University of Central Florida College of Medicine. After earning her medical degree from the University of Iowa College of Medicine, she completed her pediatric residency at Tulane University School of Medicine, which was followed by a fellowship in child abuse pediatrics at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a second fellowship in developmental behavioral peds at Children’s Mercy Hospital and Clinics. Dr. Spector is a member of the Orange County Public School Mental Health Commission and co-chairs the Florida State Health Improvement Plan (SHIP) Mental Well Being and Substance Prevention (MWSP) Priority Area Workgroup (PAW). Nemours Children’s Health collaborates with Embrace Families – the lead nonprofit agency overseeing child welfare in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties – to raise awareness of and prevent child abuse.
Dr. Spector was kind enough to take some time to pen her thoughts for those who feel the stress of parenthood and doubts they have as caregivers.
In Other Words…..
By Dr. Lisa Spector, MD
Hands up if you’ve said this to yourself at some point: “I’m supposed to be the parent, but I have no idea what I’m doing.” How about “Other moms and dads can handle this, so why can’t I?” Or even, “I just can’t do this.”
Working hard to be the best parent (or caregiver) you can be is admirable, but it can also create a lot of pressure. No one is perfect. Everyone has bad days. And things that can go wrong often do, from daily dysfunctions, like spilled cereal and traffic to more serious problems, like illness or job loss. When that happens, trying to put a brave face on for your family and kids can add to the problems you’re already struggling with.
But here’s a secret: Part of being a good parent should include giving yourself permission to make your own mental health a priority. That’s because the way you handle your “bad days” (or weeks, months, or years) serves as a model for your kids and sets the stage for your family dynamic.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it might seem like a herculean task just to finish everything that needs to get done in a day – let alone take extra time to invest in self-care. But it’s worth it, and it’s not as hard as you might think to get started:
- Give Yourself the Right Foundations. Getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet and spending at least 15 minutes a day doing something active outdoors are three of the best things you (or anyone) can do for your own mental health. Even if all you can manage is a quick stroll during your lunch break or moving your bedtime up by fifteen minutes, caring for your physical health will bolster your emotional wellness, too.
- Build Your Support Network. When it comes to relationships, look for quality over Scrolling Facebook or Twitter during your lunch break offers plenty of chances to chat with friends, but it may not offer the emotional benefits of more personal time. But a phone call with a friend, a family dinner, a board game or a neighborhood potluck can help buoy your mood in just a few minutes.
- Find Your Everyday Happiness. Studies have found that simple habits of gratitude and mindfulness can play a powerful role in mental wellbeing – and even better, they’re habits you can share with your kids. If you eat dinner together, stay at the table a few minutes longer and ask everyone to share things they’re thankful for or happy about. If you keep a journal, make a few quick notes about how you feel before you go to bed.
- Be Honest with Your Kids. It can be hard to talk to your children about a difficult situation – whether that’s your own mental health, family finances or scary headlines in the news. If you’re not sure where to start, let them guide the conversation. Ask what they already know (or think they know) about the situation, and then help them address any worries or “what-ifs” in a supportive way.
- Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help. For many people, mental health struggles often come with the even heavier burden of stigma. We don’t talk about it, and we often cope with our problems alone. But that isn’t a long-term solution – and it’s important to talk to your physician or contact a mental health professional if you feel overwhelmed.
It’s normal to want to be the “perfect parent.” But that’s not actually the most important, or even the best – thing you can provide as a caregiver. By being honest with your kids, and giving yourself permission to mess up, feel bad, and try again, you’re already doing a great job.
If you or someone you know needs more information about community resources available for families in crisis, visit EmbraceFamilies.org and click on the Find Support tab, then I’m Looking for Help. You can also find more tips for parents, kids and teens at Nemours’ KidsHealth.org.