Our children take their cues from us. How we react to situations, what we say, down to body posture and even our voice inflections when we speak — they are taking it all in. Kids are, indeed, “little sponges”, absorbing the good, bad and the not-so-good about the way we handle our everyday lives.
As our children’s first teachers, there are methods we can use and steps we can take to ensure that, as much as possible, our messaging to them does not get garbled and mixed up due to our own unidentified or unresolved inner struggles.
Thirty-five years ago, when I was expecting my first child, a good friend of mine who had a 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son told me, “Don’t be afraid to take time for yourself. Let your husband or the grandparents babysit, and just get away!” She added, “They did not tell us this in Lamaze class. And it does not mean you’re a bad mother. In fact, it will help you be a better mother.” I admit I was skeptical at first, because as she had said, the concept of parents — mothers in particular — taking time for ourselves just wasn’t a “thing” back then. But she was right. And oh, how I came to understand exactly what she meant by the time my second and third children were born!
Today, in the age of mindfulness, parents have access to several strategies to help relieve stress, center their focus and just take a breath to be in the moment and decompress. Nurturing, positive parenting can flourish when parents make time to care for themselves.
Amy Morin, LCSW, offers effective tips in her recent article “15 Self-Care Strategies for Parents”:
- Meditate. A quick five-minute meditation and deep breathing can bring feelings of rejuvenation and relaxation.
- Spend time in nature. Take a walk outdoors and bring plants into your indoor spaces or artwork depicting serene landscapes.
- Go for a walk. A 20-minute brisk walk is essential to the body and the mind. Even if you’re pushing a stroller!
- Listen to music. Whether it’s tunes to dance to or classical favorites that help us reflect.
- Engage your senses. Experience aromatherapy with scented candles or oils; enjoy a hot bath.
- Carve out alone time. Even if it is only five minutes — schedule and keep that date with yourself to read, journal or do nothing at all.
- Turn your bedroom into a retreat. Declutter and create a comfortable space for solitude.
- Take a break from electronics. Shut it all down. Unplug for a predetermined amount of time — daily, weekly or for whatever amount of time is necessary for you to recharge your own battery.
- Savor something. Enjoy a cup of herbal tea or coffee, or a favorite meal or treat. Take your time while savoring.
- Write in a gratitude journal. This daily act raises the mood. Studies show that people who keep gratitude journals sleep longer and enjoy a better quality of rest.
- Spend a little money on yourself. “Retail therapy” is really a thing. Treat yourself!
- Practice mindfulness. There are many mindfulness programs and daily routines that will help you stay present and enable you to savor the moment.
- Check the to-do list. Checking something off the to-do list can reduce stress and free up mental space. And it gives a sense of accomplishment.
- Schedule time with friends and family. It is vital to make time to hang out for coffee or a meal and connect with other adults — without the kids.
- Join a book club. In-person book clubs are important for interpersonal engagement, setting aside time to read and having something to look forward to each week or month.
- Start your own book club if you cannot find one. And while online book clubs do not provide the same kind of social interaction, they are still viable options.
Self-care also includes eating healthfully and getting proper rest and exercise.
The intentional practice of self-awareness, self-care and managing our emotions helps to provide balance within ourselves, which transfers into our relationships with the outer world. Self-reflection rewards us with sometimes hard, honest feedback that can prompt us to make necessary changes in our lives. It is a tool that provides insights into our strengths as well. Self-development and growth are ongoing. They are positive attributes — skills to be built upon and nurtured within us that our children will absorb and later see as part of healthy “adulting.”
We can easily spot traits in our children that we recognize as good and not so good. And as their first teachers, we can model for them the skills we are incorporating into our own lives when we practice mindfulness and self-awareness, nourishing the mind-body-spirit. The transformation within us should begin first before we can be successful (or even believable) with our kids.
By learning to recognize and manage our own stress and becoming more attuned to stress-inducing situations, we can now become more proactive, rather than reactive. We can be solutions-oriented, instead of exasperated and/or defensive when things go wrong. Our children then become real-time witnesses to how to problem-solve, and even how to handle failure without fear or feelings of dejection and rejection. It is a complete game changer from the old-fashioned “Do as I say, not as I do” — to “Trust what I say because it’s what I do.”
Taking care of ourselves as parents, giving ourselves grace when we make mistakes, acknowledging our mistakes and making necessary adjustments inspire our kids to do likewise on a conscious and subconscious level. “Focus on progress, not perfection,” is one of the principles of the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) in Kensington, Maryland. Perfection is not the goal. Removing the expectation to be perfect eliminates the stress from the parent/child equation. Becoming better and better at a skill is the focus. With firm and friendly prompts, and gentle reminders when training and giving instruction to our kids, we pour into them our calm manner and encouraging language. Mimicking us in the best possible ways, our children will practice what they are learning. Encouragement is empowering. And empowerment builds confidence within children to dream as high and as lofty as their imaginations will take them — fearlessly.
As first teachers, when we achieve a level of sustainable mindfulness and connectedness to ourselves and our immediate surroundings, we can then be better able to provide for our children a strength-based foundation of life skills. As they grow up, they will use these tools to continue to hone and develop. They will flourish because of the positive, not perfect, modeling and support they receive from us during their formative years and beyond.
- 15 Self-Care Strategies for Parents, Simple but effective ways to take care of yourself by Amy Morin, LCSW, Very Well Family, January 31, 2020. Verywellfamily.com
- Examples of Encouragement from The Art of Encouragement, PEP. Pepparentonline.org