Self-care for parents: Why you need to take care of yourself first

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Attention all passengers:

In an emergency, a mask will drop from a container above your seat. Please fit the yellow cup over your nose and mouth and place the elastic strap around the back of your head. Pull on the hose to begin the flow of oxygen. Please put on your mask before you help the person sitting next to you.

Anyone who has flown on an airplane has likely heard these directions before taking flight. Those sitting next to you might be your children. Helping them after you help yourself might fight against your natural instinct to protect them.

But if they were to panic, which is likely in a scary situation, it might be a struggle to help them get on their mask. Supplying yourself with oxygen first, in a cabin that has lost pressure, will leave you in better condition to help your child.

In a similar way, our ability to support the social and emotional wellness of our children starts with caring for our own wellness first. This article provides an overview of key social and emotional skills that are important for adults to possess and model for their children.

Social Emotional Learning For Adults

From an early age, we begin to learn by observing those around us. Parents and educators know well that children are excellent observers of adult behavior. Children are constantly developing new skills through observation, imitation, and feedback. They also pay attention to what behaviors get them in trouble and behaviors that help good things to happen to them. Children learn to repeat behaviors that will help them get rewarded.

This concept, known as social learning theory, is highly relevant to social emotional learning (SEL). To develop social and emotional skills, young people need to continually see these skills modeled and reinforced by adults who are important to them.

As a parent, deepening your own social and emotional skills not only helps you but helps your child, too. With schools closing, parents are taking on an increased responsibility to keep their children learning.

Research shows:

Teachers who have strong, positive relationships with their students are less likely to experience burnout themselves. Teachers who have learned strategies for controlling their own emotions are better at dealing with the stress of teaching over time. Like parenting, it’s an emotional job! This is particularly important for those adults who have experienced trauma themselves.

Additionally, teachers who are able to remain calm during stressful events are more likely to provide students with a safe, supportive environment. This allows students to feel more comfortable taking intellectual risks. This can be true at home as well.

Just like teachers, who use SEL effectively to foster learning, parents can, too. If you are able to remain calm despite all the stressors that surround you during this time, your child will draw a feeling of safety from your behavior. In this bubble of safety, your child is more likely to thrive while learning from home.

With this in mind, parents can use a wide range of social and emotional skills to be effective role models. Among the most important are the abilities to:

  • Watch and manage your own emotions
  • Listen to and understand your child’s feelings and viewpoints
  • Let your child know that you believe their feelings and experiences are real and thank them for talking to you about them
  • Notice your own emotional reactions to your child’s behavior
  • Remember child misbehavior isn’t personal. Instead, see unwanted behavior as a child’s way to communicate. They need attention or help to learn better ways to feel safe
  • Remain calm when your child’s behavior is challenging, and
  • Maintain healthy boundaries and take the time you need for yourself.

Things to Try

Now that you have an understanding of the importance of taking care of yourself first and modeling healthy behavior, here are a few ideas to get started applying these skills:

Check-in with yourself

Pay attention to your own feelings. Acknowledge the stress and anxiety that you might be carrying with you. Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations, and this pandemic gives us plenty of things to worry about. Do your best to be honest about not being “OK.”

Learn more:

Prioritize your own self-care

What usually makes your day or week feel fulfilling? Chances are you are feeling the loss of “normal.” Maybe you are someone who goes to the gym every day and now you’re struggling to get a workout in. You might feel lonely going weeks without seeing or talking to colleagues, friends or family. The lines between work and your personal life might be blurring.  Find ways to continue, modify, or develop new self-care routines for yourself.

Learn more:

Check-in with your child about their feelings and perspectives.

Children will need your help to process world events and their own loss of “normal.” Remember that your child is observing the behavior of the adults around them and learning through observation, imitation, and feedback. Be mindful of your own behavior. Be kind, assume best intentions in your child’s actions, and share your feelings about what’s going on in the world and in your home in healthy, constructive, and hopeful ways.

Learn more:

In this difficult time, it’s important to think about the opportunities we all have to create stronger family units. One of the things you can work on during all this family time is forging healthier relationships with yourself and your family. While doing this work, however, it’s important that you take care of your own social and emotional needs first.

Without doing this, you will not be well enough to help your child grow their social and emotional wellness. These are frustrating and scary times. Do your best to model healthy behavior for your kids and give yourself grace when you’re not at your best!

This post contains an excerpt from the Social Emotional Learning for Educators series in the Michigan Virtual Professional Learning Portal. Educators can enroll in these courses, provided by the Michigan Department of Education, at no cost.

Parenting in a Pandemic (Blog Series)

With students home from school, social emotional learning strategies can help parents support their children’s overall wellbeing in the face of global stress from the COVID-19 pandemic. In this blog series, we offer strategies to help parents support students’ social and emotional needs during this disruptive time. If you’d like to receive notifications when new blogs in this series are available, you can subscribe to our blog here.

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Lauren Kazee

Lauren Kazee is the founder of LivingSLOW. Throughout her career as a licensed social worker, her efforts have focused on mental health and wellness for youth, inside and outside the school setting. She received her Bachelor of Social Work in 1993 and Master of Social Work in 1994, both from the University of Illinois in Chicago, Jane Addams College of Social Work. As a licensed professional, she worked in inner-city Chicago, rural communities in Ohio, and urban areas in Michigan as a school social worker and an outpatient therapist. Her experience within the mental health field and education system led to participation in various federal and state-funded projects throughout the state of Michigan, as well as opportunities to contribute to and support mental health efforts in other states.

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