We hear it. We say it. But do we do it? When you are a parent of a child who has experienced trauma, it might not be your habit to practice self-care. Yet. But we hope to challenge you a little bit today. We suggest that self-care for adoptive, foster, and kinship parents is a priority that you cannot and should not neglect.
All parents need times to recharge, refuel and rest – and those times can be tricky to coordinate in a typical, busy home. However, when you are parenting a child with challenging behaviors rooted in trauma, abuse, or neglect, building in “me time” can feel selfish. Some might even say indulgent or maybe even logistically impossible.
“I Think I’m Too Busy for Self-Care.”
Suppose your child has learning disabilities, medical needs, or emotional or mental health struggles. In that case, we know your calendar is already filled to the brim with tutoring, therapies, specialist appointments, IEP meetings, and caseworker visits. Maybe you are fostering or in an open adoption. Then you also have to consider birth family visits – sometimes complicated further by the network of your child’s extended birth family.
In addition to the full calendar that most adoptive, foster, and kinship parents juggle, you are likely also monitoring your child’s educational progress. It might be summer enrichment work right now, which can feel manageable. However, homework battles consume your weekday afternoons during the rest of the year. Daily, you also balance your child’s emotional and mental health, whether it’s fall-out from early trauma, lagging skills, or developmental delays.
Phew. You are, indeed, quite busy. However, with all that is on your plate, you need to take care of yourself to take care of your family.
The Barriers to Self-Care Are Mostly In Your Head
Adoptive, foster, and kinship parents frequently tell us that they “can’t” schedule self-care into their family calendar. We would posit that many of the reasons you object to self-care are actually messages you tell yourself or messages that you’ve internalized as true, consciously or unconsciously.
These internalized messages don’t just keep you busy, they keep you from taking care of yourself.
I’m a Care Giver, Not a Care Receiver.
It’s uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of nurture and care when you are accustomed to being the caregiver. When our identity is wrapped up in giving care, it’s hard to see that we deserve nurture.
I Asked for This Life.
We understand that you chose this path and that you might have received the message – or spoken the message to yourself – that you don’t have room to complain about the weight of it because you asked for this. Wherever you might have picked up this message, it hangs out in your brain when you feel tempted to reach out for help or support and shouts you down.
I Don’t Have it So Bad.
It’s easy to look around and compare your hectic, busy life to others’ circumstances. When you have a naturally caregiving bent, it’s easier to decide that you can make it through. Even when you are barely muddling through, it’s okay because your life is not nearly as hard as Jane’s.
I Don’t Even Know What I Need.
We also get the lack of clarity you might feel about what it is that you actually need. When you are overwhelmed, sleep-deprived, and depleted mentally and emotionally, it’s a challenge to think through what will help you the most. Scheduling a routine appointment for your own rest seems out of reach.
Trust us – some of these barriers are in our minds, too. The mental, emotional, and physical labor of caring for an adopted, foster, or kinship child is weighty. These barriers feel insurmountable — unless you get some help and guidance to get you over or through them.
Practical Tips to Overcome Those Barriers and Start Self-Care
We are offering these practical tips to help you identify and re-write the messages you tell yourself about why you don’t need self-care. Your challenge is to pick one or two of these tips to start new messaging and new habits. This list is inspired by the recent CreatingaFamily.org podcast, Taking Care of Yourself When Parenting Harder to Parent Kids.
Give Yourself Permission.
Start by telling yourself that you are worthy of care and that it is okay – even good! – to engage in self-care. If you must, say it out loud, a few times a day, until you believe it. We’ve included a couple of scripts to help you change the messaging in your head.
- I am worth taking care of.
- I will take better care of my family if I learn how to take care of myself.
- I cannot give to my family what I have not learned to give myself.
- Self-care will make me a better (mom, dad, grandparent, aunt, uncle).
Say “No” More Often.
It might be intimidating to say “no” to more events on your calendar or, “asks” from friends and family. However, it’s a vital step in setting healthy boundaries for yourself. Start small by giving yourself permission to say “no” to that upcoming bake sale contribution. Or by bowing out of a park meet-up with moms from your kids’ school. Replace the thing you said “no” to with an activity that fuels you – like a walk alone in the park, a coffee date with your best friend, or early bed for the kids and a movie date on the couch.
Establish a Routine.
If you don’t already have a predictable, manageable routine for your household, set one up. It’s a form of self-care itself, and it sets you up for scheduling other self-care as well. For the summer months, you might want the schedule in your home to be a bit looser but remember how your kids respond to unstructured time vs. routine and plan accordingly. When the kids go back to their weekday school routine, tighten up the schedule but continue to prioritize your “me time.”
If you do well with a running To-Do list for yourself, put your self-care activity or event in writing. Some parents might prefer to schedule their couple dates and alone time on a shared online calendar to keep each other accountable to stick to the plan.
Once you have a good routine running for your home, look for additional times to schedule self-care time. Consider what activities might need to be removed for the sake of prioritizing that time to recharge. Be flexible and gracious with yourself while you are working it out.
Pick One Thing.
Within the routine you have established for your family, be sure there is one thing you can look forward to daily. One mom we know looks forward to climbing into bed with a book one hour earlier than her spouse. She lights a candle and plays soft jazz music while she reads her historical fiction. What can you plan on daily to keep you moving through the day?
It’s GOOD to Start Small!
If you are not in the habit of regular self-care, build your muscle for it in small ways. Schedule a manicure or pedicure once every two weeks. Be sure to turn off your phone while you are in the massaging chair to maximize that hour or so.
Other small ways to start the habit of self-care can look like these ideas:
- Saturday morning coffee with your partner while the kids chill with cartoons.
- Go for a walk alone in the park. Bring along your favorite podcast or new music.
- Watch one movie a week starring your favorite actor until you’ve exhausted their whole body of work.
- Soak in a hot bubble bath while older kids clean the kitchen (and lower your standards on what constitutes “clean”).
- Take one hour every other day to learn a new hobby or pick up a hobby you’ve neglected.
Ask for the Help You Need
Whether it’s laundry, a grocery run, or two hours every week of childcare, be specific about the help you need. Some parents find it helpful to brainstorm this together. Others can immediately list the tasks of life they are willing to outsource to create time for self-care. Remember, asking for help IS self-care. And it helps you carve out time for that which nourishes, rather than depletes, you.
Many adoptive, foster, and kinship parents have loving, supportive people in their network who frequently say, “If you need anything, please let me know.” Train yourself to respond to that offer with a concrete task that will help you.
For example, “Oh, I’d really appreciate it if you could run Johnny to soccer camp on Tuesday and Thursday night this week.” Or, “Really? Because I sure could use a meal on the table Wednesday night since I’ll be down at the children’s hospital all day with Suzy.”
Teach Yourself to ACCEPT the Help
Those who offer you their help might not know what you need, but when you provide ideas for specific support, then take the help when it comes! It sounds silly to say it so bluntly. But if you are used to telling yourself that others have it much harder than you do or that you asked for this life, you have to re-write the messages with healthy, NEW messages in your mind.
Self-Care is an Investment in Your Whole Family.
Parenting adoptive, foster or kinship kids who need so much of us is challenging, rewarding, and consuming. When we invest the time and intentionality in taking care of ourselves – body, mind, and spirit – we are modeling for them how to be healthy. We are giving them the best versions of ourselves that they — and we — deserve.