Health & Science

Self Care For Parents In the Time of Coronavirus

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Self-care is a term in heavy rotation right now as most of us hunker down with our families during this stressful pandemic. Unfortunately, it’s also one that most parents feel guilty about putting into practice. 

Between caring for little ones and maybe even grandparents too, helping kids adapt to new homeschool routines, and worrying about house-bound neighbors, it’s easy to stress yourself out making sure everyone else is okay—which might be especially true for parents who are putting on a brave, cheerful face for the benefit of their children. But as those super-smart flight attendants say before every takeoff, you’ve got to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping anyone else.

“Basic survival dictates you take care of your basic needs,” says Miami family therapist Tania Paredes, Ph.D. “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” 

Rather than being selfish or even indulgent, self-care has benefits that extend beyond parents to the entire family. In fact, research shows that parental burnout has a negative effect on every member of the family—so self-care is an act of caring for your kids.

Plus, making the time for self-care is probably a lot easier and less time-consuming than you think. “Self-care during a pandemic can be as simple as showering and getting dressed or having a short FaceTime call with a friend while having a cup of coffee,” Paredes says. “Make it easy.” 

That last part is key because the more seamless self-care folds into this new existence, the more likely you are to keep it up, perhaps even long after this pandemic is over. Here are a few easy ways parents can practice self-care during the time of coronavirus. 

Finally give meditation a try. 

If you think it sounds hokey, consider that meditation is really just about paying attention to something we do all day every day anyway: Breathing. Physiologically, deep abdominal breathing creates a relaxation response in the body, according to the medical experts at the Cleveland Clinic

There are so many great meditation apps and websites out there (Headspace and Calm are two of our favorites), and many are giving away classes for free right now. Sessions can be as short as five minutes; in most cases, you determine the length depending on how much time you have. There’s a ton of research behind meditation’s effectiveness, and it’s the kind of thing you can do when you go to bed or right before you wake up, or while you’re hiding in the bathroom trying to get a few precious moments to yourself. There are even walking and cooking meditations that allow you to keep doing what you need to do while simultaneously taking time for yourself. 

If your kids can’t leave you alone even for just five minutes (we feel you), get them involved. There are also family-friendly meditations, so you can include them but still take care of you, too.

Have a “date night” walk with your significant other or heck, go on a walk by yourself for a change. 

Some experts say it’s one of the most instantly gratifying things you can do, and being outdoors is scientifically shown to improve mood and well-being. One mom told us on Facebook, “I took a nice little bike ride the other day during sunset, and it felt great. It was a small, simple gesture for myself, but needed.”

If you need time alone with your thoughts and have another adult at home to watch the kids (or if your kids are old enough to take care of themselves for a stretch of time), try to slip away on your own when you can—or take a walk with your partner to enjoy some adult conversation after a day of childcare and homeschooling. If your kids are little and need to come along, ask them to walk a bit ahead (assuming they can still adhere to social distancing while you keep an eye on them) so you can take a moment to appreciate the sounds of nature and the change of scenery.

If you’ve got outdoor space, don’t wait until your kids want to play to use it.

Another Facebook mom told us she tells her family she’s “taking the dog out” then heads to the backyard to pull weeds and get some sun on her own. Sure, it’s a little white lie, but we’ll never tell.

Yet another mom placed a carpet made to look like grass on her balcony along with some cushions. She heads out there alone with her audiobook a few minutes every day and she swears she always feels better afterward. Use the buddy system (“you free me up for a bit and I’ll return the favor”) if possible to grab a few free minutes, or take advantage of the time when your kids are occupied with a great video—we’re all relaxing our screentime rules a bit these days, so don’t hesitate to take advantage when you can.

Come up with a safe word. 

One clever mom told us they have an understanding in her family that when someone says the word “rutabaga,” that person must be left alone for 15 minutes. Set the example and use the safe word whenever you need a break, then make sure to respect your kiddo’s wishes when it’s their time to use the safe word. This increases the chances they’ll leave you alone when it’s your turn to take a timeout.

Turn up the tunes

For some people, there’s nothing more soothing than the sound of music—or grooving to it. If you love to sing or dance, this counts as self-care. Choose a song that either relaxes you, recharges you, or simply releases emotions, and you might feel better right away. If you’ve got kids who love to boogie, too, get them in on the fun! Otherwise you can steal time for a musical recharge when you’re in the shower, in the car during a grocery run, or simply put on your headphones and lock the door. 

Try journaling. 

There’s a lot of research that shows the positive effects of journaling on how you feel, but many people don’t know where to start. All you need is a piece of paper and a pencil (you don’t need an actual journal), and a few simple prompts to get you going. For example:

  • What are you feeling right now? If it’s a mix of emotions, that’s perfectly normal. Write them all out. You’d be surprised how much relief you can feel from simply releasing your thoughts to paper.
  • Name one thing you’re grateful for right now. It can be as simple as, “I am alive and healthy and so is my family.” Practicing gratitude is an act of self-care because it shifts your mindset from thinking about what you don’t have to what you do have.
  • If you could be anywhere right now, where would you be? Sometimes letting your mind wander and daydream helps recharge it, so you come back to the present reminded that there are still plenty of good times ahead.

Lower the bar. 

Sometimes self-care is simply about doing less, and parents are increasingly operating in survival mode these days. One mom told us she’s gone back to meeting her kids’ basic needs, like food, water, fresh air, and clean clothes, and anything else is like the icing on top—it’s nice to have, but you don’t need it. “Lowering the bar makes it easier,” she said, in part because it takes so much of the pressure off, which can reduce your stress level tremendously. 

If all else fails, you can tell everyone you have a tummy ache and need to go to the bathroom or that you forgot something in the car. (You’d be surprised by how many parents suggested this on Facebook, so there must be something to it!) Bring your phone, a book, or nothing at all, and just take a few minutes just for you. Crying or screaming into a pillow to release pent-up emotions is optional, but encouraged if the release will make you feel better—that’s what self-care is all about.

Whether you wait until the kids are napping or you come out and say it’s “me time” for a bit, practicing self-care not only benefits you, it helps you be a better parent as well. If you think about it, it’s actually one of the most selfless things you can do.

You don’t just need it, your kids need you to take time for yourself, too—not to mention, you definitely deserve it.

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.