If you’ve listened to the pre-flight safety check on any airline in the world, you will know you’re supposed to put your own oxygen mask on before helping your children with theirs. This flies in the face of our parental instincts doesn’t it? But, of course, if you aren’t fit and healthy, you aren’t in the best position to help your children.
Parents are used to ignoring their own needs in favour of trying to meet the needs of their kids. But when parents are tired, stressed or unhappy, they can’t offer the best support or nurture the mental health and wellbeing of their children.
Clinical Psychologist Jo Cole sees many parents facing mental health challenges. “Parents face the same mental health challenges as everyone else, while also having the sometimes-stressful job of caring for kids. Juggling lots of different responsibilities can mean parents don’t take the time to look after themselves. This can lead to high levels of stress, which people can react to differently.
“Stress is the body’s reaction to change or overload, which you can experience physically and mentally,” says Jo. “Warning signs can be different for everyone – but some typical ones include changes in sleep and appetite; headaches; tiredness; irritability; difficulty concentrating; or worrying more than usual or feeling down more than usual. Everyone experiences stress sometime; and when it occurs in manageable amounts, it can create energy and motivation so you can respond to life’s demands. When stress reactions are severe; occur frequently; or over a long period of time it can become a problem.”
Supporting your mental health and wellbeing can be as simple as ensuring you have a healthy diet and get a little exercise every day. This will give you energy and, if you involve your child too they will get a direct benefit too.
Try and spend a little time alone doing something you enjoy, like reading, gardening or taking photos. Again, this doesn’t have to be complicated - you could take this time when your little ones are napping or in the evenings after they have gone to bed.
Try and tune into yourself and recognise when you are feeling stressed. Think about what might be causing this. This will help you understand how to relieve the stress, either by actively employing relaxation or mindfulness techniques, or working to remove the cause of the stress. You can get further support from organisations like Smiling Mind.
Building and maintaining positive relationships is an important protective factor that can support you in the every-day challenges life throws you. Support may come not just from family and friends, but also your children’s early childhood staff or school teachers, as well as community organisations and health professionals. “Most people have at least a few people they can talk to or get support from – a friend, a helpful family member”, says Jo. “It may just mean you need to take some time out for yourself, alone or with someone supportive, and recharge. Being able to draw on that support in more trying times is also very helpful”.
If you think you need more help than that, there are lots of ways to get support. Jo says, “If you need advice about parenting, you can contact parenting support lines, or local parenting support services or groups. Your child’s day-care or school could be a good place to ask about these supports. If it’s about yourself and how you’re doing, start with your GP and ask what options there are for counselling in your local area. Many work places offer Employee Assistance Programs that offer free counselling”.
Here is some further information on getting support for your own mental health and wellbeing.