Heading past the holiday season into the new year is a good time for parents to strengthen an essential skill for caring for our blended and foster families, specifically taking care of ourselves. Self-care sounds like the opposite of self-sacrifice, but it’s actually an important foundation for that trait. Here are five important reasons to use self-care as an important tool in our parenting skill set this year.
• Our Children Need Our Best Efforts
Parenting stepchildren and foster children is challenging and hard work at the best of times. In addition to the usual challenges of a traditional family, many of our kids have mental health challenges or high conflict biological parents. It takes what sometimes feels like superhuman reserves of patience and compassion to help them move past their trauma. Yet we are not superhuman, and if we deplete all of our resources, we will not have anything left for the inevitable crises. And have you ever noticed how our family members’ crises seem to hit just when our reserves of attention and patience are at their lowest? The best way, maybe the only way, to cope is for us to top up our resources on a regular basis.
Self care can feel very selfish, as if we are putting our own needs ahead of our families’ needs. In reality, self care is a recognition that we are only human, and that we have to take care of our emotional health and physical health if we are to have the resources we need to care for our families. The direction to ”put on your own oxygen mask first” is never more true than when parenting a foster or blended family.
Think of it in terms of finances, another of our finite resources. Giving kids meaningful birthday presents is a good thing, but none of us would think it wise to buy presents with money that we need for a mortgage payment. We agree that our children need a safe place to live more than they need even the most wonderful presents. Self care is the equivalent of a mortgage payment. It ensures that we can be present for our kids and give them quality time, not just whatever is left over. If we take care of first things first, we’ll have a better foundation for a good relationship with our children.
• Self Care Reduces Stress and Chaos
Stress is inevitable in blended and foster families. Our kids’ world is out of balance, and it takes time for all of us to get used to each other. Unfortunately, stress usually creates more stress, and we can end up in a crazy downward spiral. The only way to break out of that spiral is for us to approach each situation with compassion, patience, and renewed commitment to our kids. If we have taken time to recharge our emotional resources, we’ll be better able to muster the responses that will lower the family stress level.
The principle works the same when we feel our family is on the verge of chaos. We can’t avoid schedule changes or other disruptions to our routines. What we can do is respond calmly, offer emotional support, and work through ways to get everyone back on track. Those responses take a lot of emotional resources, and we need to have stockpiled the resources ahead of time.
In this sense, parenting a family that includes trauma survivors is a bit like maintaining a car. You can’t always avoid potholes, hard stops, and road conditions that damage your car. But you can regularly change the oil and check the tires, hoses, and brake pads. That preventive maintenance can help your car run smoothly, even in the face of adverse conditions. Parents of foster and stepchildren need emotional and physical maintenance, too, in order to have any hope of dealing with inevitable stresses and setbacks.
• Self Care Helps Us Remain Grounded
One of the greatest parenting skills we can develop is a sense of perspective. It is too easy to get caught in an anxiety spiral where every setback or disruption seems like the first step towards total disaster. Spending time on ourselves - whether through physical exercise, meditating, a gratitude journal, or adult time with friends — helps us step back from the immediate situation and evaluate it more objectively.
Being grounded has many benefits for our families. It helps us, for example, not take it personally if our kids say that we don’t belong in their lives. At the most basic level, we are not the people who are supposed to be in their lives, and it’s not our fault that they can’t have the biological family they want. On the other hand, it’s not their fault that they have strong feelings about the situation. We have to accept that reality and find ways to forge a different and new relationship that is strong and loving in its own way.
Being grounded also helps us develop the patience to let kids bounce off us. Children will push boundaries; it’s part of their normal development. They will ignore household chores and find different ways to challenge house rules. They want to know where their limits are and if they can trust us to be a safe space. When we have the emotional resources to be grounded and not take their rebellion personally, we can recognize that they are simply doing what kids do. It’s not about us.
It seems counter-intuitive that self care helps us avoid focusing too much on ourselves and our feelings. Getting our heads out of a situation and focusing on another activity, however, is a time-proven way to get some perspective on stressful situations. It helps us find the balance that is necessary to parenting children who have been through trauma.
• Self Care Helps Develop Resilience
One of the hardest parts of parenting children who have suffered trauma can be picking ourselves up after a setback and trying again. There will be difficult times when we feel like complete failures and think that we will never have a positive relationship with our foster children or stepchildren. Our best efforts will feel like just not enough to make a difference. The only effective way to find the wherewithal to keep trying is to renew our strength through self care.
The fact is that none of us is perfect, and we inevitably will make mistakes with our children. In this respect, self care is more than spending extra time on ourselves. It involves finding ways to forgive ourselves, learn from the experience, and try again. Self-compassion can be a tough skill to learn, but it sometimes can be the only thing that keeps us going as parents.
• Self Care Sets A Good Model for Our Kids
Our kids will need many life skills as adults, and self care will be a foundation for many important skills. Children who have suffered trauma, for example, often struggle with negative thoughts and regulating their big feelings. If they see us finding healthy ways to overcome mistakes, they will learn far more from our example than from anything we say to them. Indeed, being vulnerable and admitting our mistakes may be one of the best times for us to connect with our children. Similarly, learning self-compassion and resilience can be particularly difficult for children who have never seen those traits in action. Showing them how we do that will be an invaluable positive influence on their attitudes toward themselves.
Self care is more than indulging ourselves, and it’s more than merely something else to put on our to-do list. It’s a way of giving ourselves the resources to do all the things that we want to do for our families. As we arrange our priorities this year, let’s be sure that we build self care into the solid foundation of our families’ lives.