Have you heard, “Take care of yourself!” or “Do something for yourself!” and thought, “How would I even do that? Where would I start?”

It can feel frustrating when people talk about self-care like it should be easy to fit into our busy lives. 

Why Care About Self-Care?

If you’re a parent or caregiver, it can feel even more difficult to practice self-care! Caring for a child is hard emotionally and physically. There are sleepless nights and more responsibilities and we forget to take care of our own needs and our mental health.

It doesn’t get easier as children get older. The hard parts just change as our children change. We can get so busy taking care of everything and everyone else that we forget to take care of our own needs. But that is exactly why it is so important to learn how to make time for our own self-care.

Not taking care of yourself can lead to:

  • Exhaustion
  • Anger
  • Less patience
  • Depression

These symptoms can then make it harder to parent the way we want to parent, sometimes leading us to respond to our children a little grumpier or less patient. It might be hard to make time to take care of you, but it can really make it easier and less stressful to parent the way you want to parent.

How Would I Start Practicing Self-Care?

How do you shift your thinking to caring for yourself without feeling guilty or overwhelmed?

You may have heard ideas in the past like get enough sleep, go for a run, take a long shower, meditate, or journal. Those can be great, but maybe not for everyone. Self-care is not “one size fits all.” So instead of suggesting specific activities, one group of psychologists released an article giving “guidelines” to thinking about when planning more self-care. 

Those guidelines include reminding yourself that:

  • Small changes can help a lot
  • One change in one area can make things better in other areas, too
  • Patterns matter, not perfection
  • Focus on what is important to you
  • Lean on people who care for you
  • Treat yourself the way you would treat someone you love

Structuring Self-Care

Some of these guidelines can help you pick self-care ideas that will work for you. Some will help you stay positive about taking time for yourself. Here are examples.

Example 1: Get enough sleep: We know we need sleep, but many caregivers do not get enough sleep or find it hard to make it happen.

  • First, remember small changes can help.
  • Maybe start by putting down your phone or turning off the television 15 minutes earlier than you normally do. Remind yourself of your goals of having more energy or being in a better mood. These can feel more important than those extra 15 minutes on screens.
  • If you find yourself not able to pull yourself from the show you were really enjoying one night, instead of beating yourself up, remember you are not trying to be perfect, you are just trying to improve patterns.
  • Even when patterns improve, roadblocks can still come up. What if you have a child that wakes up many nights? Lean on others and treat yourself how you may treat a loved one.
  • You might ask your parenting partner to take their turn putting your kid back to bed. Or you may ask a friend or family member to keep the kids for a night of uninterrupted sleep for you. It may also look like reaching out to your doctor for more help around your own sleep or your child’s sleep.

Example 2: Do a fun activity you enjoy: Many caregivers have trouble thinking of activities they truly enjoy. They can list activities they do when they are bored or have down time but not activities that bring them joy.

  • One way to re-learn yourself and find activities that bring you joy is to first list the identities that you value.
  • Identify three to four identities other than caregiver that bring you joy or confidence. Examples could be partner, friend, athlete, artist, musician, volunteer, crafter, student, traveler, hair stylist, cook or builder.
  • Write those identities down.
  • Then, each morning pick one identity to focus on.
  • Plan 15 or 20 minutes that day to an activity related to that identity. That’s a short time, but small changes can help a lot. You may have to be creative!
  • If you’re working on your athlete identity, the activity may not be exactly what you want, like playing a full pickup soccer game at the park. But, maybe, you make time to play around with the ball in the front yard for 15 minutes.
  • Creating a pattern of enjoying small moments could grow over time until you are able to commit time to the full game. Parents are often encouraging their children to get involved in activities that bring them joy and confidence, so we can be doing the same for ourselves.

Hopefully, these examples show how to use the guidelines to come up with a self-care plan that will work for you and how to think differently about self-care. Some things will get in the way of self-care and it will take work to develop good self-care habits. Remember that it’s worth it and might even make some of the other work of caregiving a little less stressful or even a little easier!