About Self-Care For Parents of Chronically Ill Children
By Martha McLaughlin
We’ve all heard stories of parents who have a rush of adrenaline and perform amazing rescues when their children are in emergency situations. The urge to protect can be overwhelmingly strong. Sometimes, though, stress doesn’t come from a crisis situation, but from an ongoing one like a child’s chronic illness, and different resources are needed to manage it. When your child has ongoing needs, your related needs are ongoing as well.
Beliefs that Interfere With Self-Care
It’s easy to believe that if you take time for yourself, you’re taking something away from your child. It’s wise, though, to clarify what your child actually needs from you. Children need physical care, but they also need emotional support and good role models. If you’re under too much ongoing stress, those needs become harder to meet. Stress can make it more likely you’ll become ill yourself, making it difficult to manage daily tasks. It can also lead to irritability and resentment, which interfere with being emotionally supportive. It’s helpful to remember that children learn self-care skills from their parents and that modeling healthy habits is important for their development. These include things like getting enough sleep, exercising, eating well, meditating, journaling, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and engaging in restorative activities.
Another common belief that can interfere with caring for yourself is the thought that if you were strong enough or a good enough parent, you wouldn’t struggle with parenting tasks. Maybe you have a picture in your head of what a good parent looks like. It’s important to examine how you came to have that picture and whether or not your standard is realistic. It’s easy to look at other parents who seem to be able to do it all and fall into the trap of comparing yourself to them. The truth, however, is that all parents have challenges. Remember that your situation is unique to you, your needs are real, and only your family has the right to decide what’s best in your particular circumstances.
Evaluating Self-Care and Making Necessary Changes
If you’re the parent of a chronically ill child, you might want to ask yourself the following questions:
- How well are you managing the stress of your child’s illness? The Family Caregiver Alliance suggests learning to recognize your own personal warning signs that stress is building to a harmful level. Possible symptoms include sleep disturbance, forgetfulness and irritability.1
- Can you make small changes in your routine that would help you recharge more effectively? Would you feel more relaxed if you read a novel or book of poetry instead of reading the news? Would it be more uplifting to watch a comedy on TV rather than a drama?
- Can you find 10 to 20 minutes in your schedule to consciously elicit the Relaxation Response? Our bodies respond to stress with fight or flight reactions that arise from our sympathetic nervous system. Although helpful in the short-term, they can be harmful over time. The Relaxation Response comes from the parasympathetic nervous system and is our body’s way of counteracting and turning off stress reactions. A Psychology Today article notes that there are many ways to prompt the Relaxation Response, including visualization, massage and prayer. A simple technique is to sit quietly with closed eyes, progressively relax all muscles from your feet upward and breathe through your nose while focusing on a non-emotional word.2
- Are there things you can plan and write down to help you free up emotional energy? The Kids Health website recommends keeping a notebook of health-related information, such as important phone numbers, medication instructions, insurance materials and any questions you have for medical personnel.3 It’s also important to think about an emergency care plan and write down what will happen in various scenarios. You’re able to relax more fully when thoughts are out of your brain and on paper instead.
- Do you need more help? Make a list of the ways other people could help lighten your load. If people ask if they can help, be ready with an answer. Do you have friends or family members you could ask for help, even if they don’t offer? If not, could you hire someone? If money is a problem, could you barter or trade services?
- Do you have support and understanding from others on the same path? Support groups can be a valuable source of both advice and encouragement. Many support groups are online, which allows you to participate on your own schedule.
It’s never easy to find a healthy balance between caring for yourself and caring for your family members, and chronic illness makes that even more challenging. There’s no perfect way to do it. The important thing is to keep the goal in mind, evaluate ongoing needs and make adjustments when necessary, and remember to be as kind to yourself as you would be to someone else.
1 “Taking Care of YOU: Self-Care for Family Caregivers.” Family Caregiver Alliance, Accessed December 11, 2017.
2 Mitchell, Marilyn. “Dr. Herbert Benson’s Relaxation Response.” Psychology Today, March 29, 2013.
3 “Taking Care of You: Support for Caregivers.” Kids Health, Accessed December 11, 2017.