Aha! Parenting Blog

Practical solutions for real parenting problems

The Secret of the Full Cup: Self Care

"Dr. Laura, I'm great with my kids on vacation.  But most of the time, I'm just so stressed out, my default is yelling!" -- David

Vacations can sometimes be stressful: airplane flights, extended-family dynamics, disrupted sleep schedules.

But if we pay attention, we can usually structure vacations so that we as parents can slow down a bit and meet our own needs. We get a chance to soak in the sweetness of life, to feel more expansive.

That breathing room lets us ease up about the little things, enjoy our children more, and strengthen our connection with them. Naturally, kids respond by relaxing and cooperating more.

If only we could hang on to that relaxed, connected, "vacation" parent all year long!

We can. Or at least, we can come closer to it than we usually do.

It's true that life (especially work life) often gets in the way. We get over-scheduled, stressed out. Meeting our own needs is a challenge. Our kids can even begin to seem like a burden. That's when the joy of having kids becomes elusive, and we find ourselves screaming inside "This isn't what I signed up for!"

But it doesn't have to be that way. It IS possible to reduce the stress in our lives so we can slow down and find more joy in parenting on a daily basis. I know, it's hard to be joyful when you can't remember the last time you finished a sentence without being interrupted. But when we find ourselves resenting our kids, it's usually a sign that we aren't taking care of ourselves. And whose responsibility is that?

Every one of us can get pushed to the limit and go over the edge. Since we're the grown-ups, it's our job to stay away from the edge. And that ability to self-regulate is impossible if we don't notice our own needs and emotions. We aren't doing our children any favors if we don't care for ourselves at the same time that we're caring for our kids.

What if your child is in crisis? All the more reason to put on your own oxygen mask first, so you can think straight. I'm not talking about running off to Tahiti by yourself. I'm suggesting that taking care of your own needs will allow you to feel so much better about life, and about your child, that whatever challenge you're facing will be much easier to solve.

You're not being selfish to meet your own needs. In fact, you owe it to your child. Her ability to regulate her emotions will depend on how well you regulate yours when you interact with her. If you can stay centered, you'll be more emotionally generous. Your child will respond with more cooperation.

Want more motivation? You owe it to yourself. Life is too short to spend it feeling stressed and resentful. We never know how long we have. Unless you're very lucky, you've probably known someone who died without warning at a relatively young age. Don't postpone joy.

Ultimately, you're the one responsible for how you spend the life you've been given. On your deathbed, there won't be anyone else to blame if you’ve been unhappy. The secret work of adulthood is that we are all still growing up, and parenting forces us to learn to parent ourselves as well as our child.

So how can you nurture yourself, when all the hours in the day are already accounted for? There are two keys.

1. Change what you do. Don't assume you need a huge change. Instead, nurture yourself in small ways throughout your day, including while you nurture your child. (And if you do need a big change, you'll see what to do more clearly from that nurtured place, instead of just being angry.) Just get in the habit of asking yourself every half hour "What do I need right now?" Then do it. If you're not emotionally generous to yourself, you can't be emotionally generous to your child.

2. Change your attitude. Life doesn't have to be perfect to be wonderful. And we don't have to be perfect to be more than enough. Stop beating up on yourself or holding a grudge against life. Instead, nurture yourself. And cultivate gratitude for the good in every single day. You'll feel more supported -- and find more support.

I wish I could be your fairy godmother and wave a magic wand to help you find that inner peace and balance. The bad news is, every magic wand we can access takes work. But that work -- bringing compassion to our own imperfect selves, slowing down to just feel this moment in our life, to be more present and find more meaning -- is what transforms us. This work isn't only for our children. It's for us.

So over the next few weeks, many of these posts will focus on practical ways to de-stress and nurture yourself, so you can bring your best inner parent into your relationship with your child every single day. This is the first post of the series The Secret of the Full Cup.

For today, just notice your internal barometer. 1 is depleted, 10 is a full cup. How are you doing?


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