Self care doesn't have to be expensive or time consuming. But it does need to be a non-negotiable as a parent of a teen in 2021.
A large part of my work in helping restore parent-child relationships includes helping parents reduce their stress levels. Parents and caregivers are no strangers to stress, especially during a pandemic. By the time they come to me, many of the parents I see have spent years burning the candle at both ends as they run their business, run their household, and attend to their teen's educational and mental health needs. This leads to all the feelings they hate admitting to: parents feel angry, resentful, and defeated.
In my fifteen plus years of working with children and families, I have yet to see a case in which parental stress *didn't* have an effect on a child's mental health. So yes, your stress is also stressing out your kid, even if they hide it well. Because of this, parental stress becomes a part of every parent guidance session.
The hallmark of my process for wrapping up each session is to ask clients "what is your self-care plan for this week?" which has more recently evolved into "what can you do this week to nurture yourself?" I have no doubt that many folks attribute self-care to expensive bath products, a fancy meal, or some other costly purchase. On the flip side, it's no secret that many of us will spend hours in front of the TV, binge watching our favorite show and call this self-care.
To be clear, my intention is not to bash anyone who takes time for physical rest by lying down in bed and watching hours of TV if that's what truly feels restorative (for a limited time frame). I myself did this when I was overcome with grief after the September 18th passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. What started off as an episode (or three..) of Call the Midwife turned into a next-day binge because I was simply too sad to do anything else. But this was a product of grief, not stress. This would fall under those "rare circumstances" in which I'd give myself a *one-day* pass for binge watching, and it's mostly because I spent time watching my favorite social-justice oriented show instead of scrolling through the news and reading about the political nightmare going on in the world.
But this is not a post about active versus passive self-care. That's a post for another day. This post will focus on managing parental stress without breaking the bank or scrambling to find child care. It's also a friendly reminder that we often have self-care tools at our disposal without giving it much thought.
This is the most under-rated self-care strategy I have come across in all my years as a mental health provider. When I'm working with a client who is especially overwhelmed, I don't bring out a fancy tool, or expensive tea, or a pricey candle. I sit and breathe with my client. No special rhythm. Just inhale-pause-exhale. I sometimes look at the clock to see if we can do this for 30-60 seconds of just noticing the natural breath. We do this before even discussing what's got them overwhelmed. We pause.
For some folks with medical conditions, breathing is quite difficult and they should discuss this with their medical provider. For those without major respiratory complications, practicing deep breathing can be a useful tool, especially because you can utilize it almost anywhere, anytime (although I do not recommend trying this if you're near a dumpster...obviously).
So assuming you're not near a dumpster or some other foul-smelling source, just practice noticing your breath. Above all, are you exhaling....actually exhaling? Many deep breathing techniques encourage an exhale that is *longer* than your inhale. This can be tricky. So if you're a beginner, try counting your breath and just noticing how long your exhale lasts. You can take this to the next level by using the free Calm Breath Bubble. There's also a longer deep breathing video available for free.
Free meditations (even on paid apps!)
So, you've noticed your breath, matched your inhales and exhales, and practiced breathing for 30-60 seconds. If you want to take this to the next level, try an app! Most apps have a paid subscription for premium content, or some sort of free trial for paid content. The unpaid version of the Calm app at least includes "day one" on their multi-day series (e.g., Seven days of soothing pain).
Many of my clients have struggled to integrate meditation into their self care routine. Sometimes 15-20 min feels too long, and that's okay. Other times, difficult emotions start to bubble to the surface during meditating. This is also okay, and it's an important issue to bring up in therapy. If 15-20 minutes is simply too much, a 3-minute meditation can still be very restorative.
Ear plugs (yes, ear plugs!)
To be fair, not everyone has the luxury of silence. Some caregivers need their ears to be able to listen out for someone who needs them immediately. And for some folks with a history of trauma, the thought of not being able to hear is simply terrifying. If you do not fall into this category, or if you're a caregiver who is able to get some respite while you take some time for yourself, then consider this option.
Modern life is often surrounded by constant noise. A TV on in the home, upstairs neighbors having an argument, traffic outside your window, a spouse's phone that won't stop ringing. The list is endless. Personally, I can't stand noise pollution. It's the most surefire way to ruin my mood. Today I am privileged to enjoy a home that is much less noisy than my previous homes, and I can afford noise-cancelling headphones. Before this, I relied heavily on ear plugs, and I wish someone had told me about them years before.
There is a wide variety for types of ear plugs. Silicone, putty, foam, slim size, kid size, large, disposable, reusable, etc. Fortunately, if you try one variety that isn't comfortable, there is likely another option that you can easily find at your local pharmacy or online. And the overwhelming majority of the options are under $10, and there are plenty of great options under $5.
You don't have to be a doctor to recognize that stress causes tension in the body. I won't offer specific stretches here because everyone's body is different. However, finding a stretching routine that is appropriate for your body, and practicing this routine for just 2-5 minutes per day can be a healthy and restorative low-cost self care activity.
If you have two fully functional arms and hands, congratulations, you can give yourself a massage! Most of us carry tension in our neck and shoulders, and it's usually safe to give yourself a gentle, slow neck rub. If you're looking to get creative and massage other parts of your body, my low-cost favorite tool is a tennis ball. Again, I will not offer specifics here because everyone's body is different, but I invite you to discuss feasible and safe practices with your healthcare provider.
Another option that can be done for under $10. Sure, there are fancy spa kits to soak your feet that cost well over $20. But...have you seen those $2 dish pans at Target? The 12-quart option is usually 15 in by 12 in...so unless you have enormous feet, this should work just fine (no offense if you do have enormous feet). For those with larger feet, try a cat litter box, which you can also find at Target for about $5-10 depending on size.
Fill your container with plain hot water, or add some Epsom salt (which you can also get at Target for under $5). Soak for as long as you feel comfortable. Maybe try a Calm app breath bubble while you soak your feet! Or put in your ear plugs and enjoy some silence! There are countless ways to customize this into a low-cost luxurious experience!
When we're overwhelmed, it's easy to become frustrated when a mental health strategy doesn't "work" the first or second time we use it. In a results-driven world such as the one in which we live, it's common for us to move on when something doesn't give us the outcome we want immediately. To this I say "keep going." Repeat, repeat, repeat. Parents often tell me that meditation or other strategies I've offered don't work and are driven to give up after just a few trials. My answer is always the same. Repeat.
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Note: This blog post was originally published on September 25, 2020 and was reposted with some revisions on May 28, 2021.