When we are grappling with how to support our child, this can be all-consuming. We look into different strategies, we read books and do online research so we can learn more about what to do. We get in touch with professionals, investing money, time and energy into making things better for our child. But there is another piece of the puzzle that most of us (me included) overlook. And that, my friend, is self-care.
Oprah Winfrey said, “The truth is, you don’t have anything to give that you don’t have”. As parents, we’re in the business of giving (or ‘being for others’ as my mum calls it). Sometimes we give and give and give until there is nothing left. And please don’t think that I’m saying people who are not parents don’t give too, it’s just that there is something about parenthood that can involve a total eradication of your needs as you care for a small human (or humans) who needs you profoundly.
A vicious circle
If you are worried, you get tired: anxiety and stress are exhausting and sometimes you literally can’t sleep because of whatever is on your mind. Sometimes, a child’s issues will have a knock-on effect on their sleep, or maybe sleep is the problem. If your child is not getting enough shut-eye, neither are you. If they (and you) wake up tired and grumpy, everything is harder, everyone is tireder the next day, and so it goes on.
Picky eating - even when it is developmentally normal as opposed to very extreme - can really wear a parent down. Research* shows it can even impact the parent-child relationship. It can alter how you feel about yourself as a parent too. This is draining stuff! There are so many things about supporting a child who finds eating hard, that require strength:
- You need to be consistent
- You may need to deal with negativity or judgment from others
- You may need to be your child’s advocate
- You need to spend extra time thinking about and planning meals
- You need to aim for ‘calm and kind’, even when you’re feeling frustrated
- You need to work hard getting everyone else onside
This is a huge ask if you’re feeling depleted.
When your levels of anxiety about your child have no let-up, this can have a serious impact on your couple relationship, too. If you are parenting with a partner, different ways of dealing with your child's behaviour and different ways of handling stress and difficult emotions can lead to a sense of real separateness. Feeling 'alone together' can lead both parties to feel extremely isolated. Make sure you make some time both to connect as a couple WITHOUT focusing on your child's issues, and - on a separate occasion - to get together to communicate about your child and really listen to how each other feels.
My three tips for awesome self-care
Ever heard of a gratitude journal? Write one to yourself. At the end of every day, think of three (or ten, or fifty… why set limits?) things you did today that you are proud of and make a note of them in a special book. You can even include positive feedback you get from other people. Or that cute note your child wrote telling you how much they love you. It can be a natural instinct to focus on what didn’t work - on what we didn’t achieve or could have done better. Flip this around and recognise all the small (and big) things that you have aced. Swap self-flagellation for a pat on your own back.
Take a break! Little breaks throughout the day, whether you are working or are a stay-at-home parent, actually make you more productive and energised. I am just getting into using the ‘pomodoro technique' where you take five minute breaks after 25 minute chunks of work. You can even get an app to enforce it! Every now and then we need a bigger break - think weekend away with your partner if you have one, or a night staying over with a friend in another city to recharge your batteries. Or maybe a solo walk in the country if that is your thing. Or a day shopping - all that matters is that it’s what YOU want to do. When was the last time you did something that was all about you?
- Share your burden. Don’t worry about moaning or being ‘all about me’. Don’t feel bad that your situation is nothing to complain about compared to another person’s... you can always find someone worse off and someone better off. It’s okay to own your negative feelings and tell someone honestly how you are doing. It can be really hard to admit that things are tough, but actually, honest sharing and asking for help are the strong thing to do, not the weak option. Chose someone who you trust and you know can listen without judgment.
Me and self-care
I am constantly trying to get better at self-care. Sometimes, it’s other people who remind me how important it is. Other times, my body gives me a gentle nudge by making a unilateral decision to stop. We’ve all been there - going all out until we end up in bed with a virus (or maybe that’s just me…)
I got my hair cut today and my hairdresser, Mandy, asked me how I was. It was the first time I had sat down and done something for myself in ages. Usually I am running around caring for my family; working on my PhD research; busy with clients…But something about being asked how I was doing in such genuine way, made me pause and give a really honest answer.
I told Mandy I’d had a bad chest for nearly a month and was feeling super tired. She asked what the doctor thought and I admitted I hadn’t got it checked out. I realised as we chatted, that the reason I hadn’t gone to the doctor was that I literally had not had the conscious thought that maybe I needed to. I was so busy focusing on everyone and everything else that I wasn’t just ignoring my own needs, I was unaware of them.
[EDIT: I went to the doctor and it turns out I've had bronchitis for a month. Let's say this article is a case of 'do as I say, not as I do']
Self-care and supporting your child
If you are on the brink of making some changes or have decided to take a new approach with mealtimes - maybe in the wake of some professional advice - have a think about when to take the plunge. Make sure you are rested; oh my goodness, getting to bed early can be a self-care game-changer! Make sure you are feeling supported and you are looking after yourself. Eat well, exercise, plan in some fun… generally think about yourself and feel good about thinking about yourself.
All of this will give you extra strength to be there for your child and - as an added bonus - you’ll be teaching them self-care through what you model, too.
* Goh, D. Y., & Jacob, A. (2012). Perception of picky eating among children in Singapore and its impact on caregivers: a questionnaire survey. Asia Pacific family medicine, 11(1), 5.