Vol. 19, No. 2 • May 2015

Self-Care: Do it for Yourself, Your Family, and Your Kids

This article draws extensively from Chapter 8 of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network's curriculum (2010)
"Caring for Children Who Have Experienced Trauma: A Workshop for Resource Parents."

If resource parents had a motto, it might be "children first." Or perhaps "children and their families first."

Either would be fitting. Foster and adoptive parents and kinship caregivers do what they do because they want to see children and their families heal and thrive. Their focus is on the welfare of others.

But they've got to be careful. Meeting the needs of the children in their care can be so all-consuming that sometimes they put themselves and their own needs last.

This, of course, is a mistake. To be healthy, children need healthy families. But when we neglect ourselves, we may suddenly find we are overwhelmed, exhausted, drained, frustrated, angry, resentful, and unable to take joy in the good work we do.

Compassion Fatigue
Caring for children who have experienced trauma can take a toll on resource parents. When the stress of parenting affects our mental and physical health or interferes with our ability to parent effectively, we are suffering from "compassion fatigue." The following can be signs of compassion fatigue:

  • Feeling mentally or physically exhausted most of the time
  • Using alcohol, food, caffeine, or other substances to fight feelings of being overwhelmed
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Feeling numb and distanced from others or your own life
  • Feeling unsatisfied in your work
  • Feeling moody, frequently lashing out at children or your partner
  • Catching every cold that comes along, or frequent headaches or stomachaches

When we start showing these signs, chances are we aren't providing the consistent, predictable, enriching, and nurturing care the children in our homes need. Self-care can help us get back on track; it can also keep us from getting to this point in the first place.

Common Barriers to Self-Care for Resource Parents

Outward Focus. Most days, foster and adoptive parents devote far more energy to others' needs than to their own well-being. In fact, many are uncomfortable being on the receiving end of other people's attention and assistance.

Busyness. Many caregivers really want to be there for others. They want to remember birthdays with a cake, they want to help out at church, or deliver a meal to a sick friend. So they work harder and longer.

Uncertainty. Too many caregivers simply do not know what meaningful self-care looks like for them. They know something is missing but they can't quite put their finger on just what might make them feel better.

Denial. Too many caregivers believe they somehow don't or shouldn't need support.

Minimizing/feelings of unworthiness. Natural and man-made disasters and other terrible occurrences in the news remind us there are always other people who are worse off. We're taught as children to be happy with what we have, since other people have it much harder. As a result we sometimes feel guilty because our stress and struggles pale in comparison.

Adapted from Weissberg, 2012

Barriers to Self-Care
We know we should exercise, eat right, and do the "other stuff" needed to take care of ourselves. But family life can be chaotic and demanding. When you add in parent-child visits, therapy appointments, school meetings, check-ups, and the other things we have on our plates, it is easy for self-care activities to be forgotten.

As the sidebar above illustrates, there can be many barriers to self-care for resource parents. If you've struggled with self-care, you're not alone.

As they turn out the light at the end of the day, how many resource parents think wistfully to themselves, "Maybe I'll be able to grab a quiet moment for myself tomorrow."

Self-Care Is a Skill
One thing to keep in mind about self-care is that it is a skill--something you can practice and get better at. You will make mistakes or slip up, but if you keep at it, it will become easier and a natural part of your daily life.

Self-Care Basics
Suppose you are a resource parent who is presently doing nothing to take care of herself. Where should you begin?

Here are a few basic self-care practices that should be part of every person's life:

  • Get enough sleep most nights; for some people this is six hours a night, for others eight.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet, including breakfast. Avoid eating on the run, behind your desk, or in your car.
  • Get some form of regular exercise.
  • Visit your doctors and follow their recommendations.
  • Use alcohol in moderation, or not at all.
  • Take regular breaks from stressful activities. Nonstop parenting can be a stressful activity. Find a way, somehow, every day, to have at least a few minutes to yourself.
  • Take a relaxing bath, read a book, sit on the porch, have a cup of herbal tea.
  • Laugh every day.
  • Express yourself. If you're feeling frustrated, sad, or angry, be honest about your emotions before they get out of control. Tell your children or spouse calmly that you are angry before you fly off the handle. Express the positive, as well, by making time to engage in something that you love, such as a craft, a game, writing, painting, or a sport.
  • Nurture your relationships with your partner, family, and friends. Have a hobby or take a class, get a massage, or have a regular night out.
  • Let someone else do something to take care of you.

By taking care of ourselves, we make it easier to face the challenges that come with parenting children who have endured trauma.

Create a Self-Care Plan
Setting goals can help you get the self-care you need. Consider creating a written self-care plan. The goal here is to maintain a balance between work and relaxation, and between your commitments to others and to yourself.

Your plan should include activities you do purely for fun. It should also include a regular stress management approach, such as a physical activity you enjoy, meditation, yoga, or prayer.
Your plan should list things you plan to do either daily or weekly/monthly. As you build your plan, be careful to include things that are reasonable--that you really can do--and that are just for you. The box below shows a sample self-care plan (NCTSN, 2010).

Sample Self-Care Plan
I promise to make time to take care of myself by doing the following at least...

walk the dog
play with the cat
read a book for pleasure
write in my journal
listen to music in the car

Weekly or Monthly
go bowling
nice dinner out with my partner
get a manicure, pedicure, etc.
go out with a group of friends
attend a support group meeting
go to the movies
attend religious services

Note: Your plan should include a just few items in the daily and weekly/monthly categories--not too many!

Remember, the best plan in the world will only work if you actually follow through with it. Deliberately place your self-care plan somewhere you can see it, and where it can serve as a reminder of your commitment to taking good care of yourself, as well as your children.

To view references cited in this and other articles in this issue, click here.

~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~