Self-care and Family Well-being, by Dr. Jennifer Andersen

This is Part 1 of the Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes Blog series. Click here for the Introduction to the series.

First, take a moment to thank yourself for clicking on this link! The past few months have placed so many new burdens on caregivers, and just as some may have subsided a bit, we are faced with additional stressors this week. Last week, Dr. Jaime’s blog addressed how families are adapting to distance learning. This second part of our blog series focuses on a few practical ways to promote well-being for the entire family. Finding even just a few minutes of the day to devote to your own wants or interests can be very challenging. Children who used to spend anywhere from 7-10 hours a day across school, extracurricular activities, and playdates, have now been spending all of those hours at home, with family. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the tasks of providing education, opportunities for movement and exercise, socialization, and stimulation in the form of playtime were addressed by a much larger support network. Now, these responsibilities have largely fallen to primary caregivers, many of whom are also expected to work from home. Teachers, coaches, babysitters, service providers, or extended family members who would usually spend time with children in person have been unable to. Parents have reported high levels of stress, anxiety, frustration, and exhaustion. The good news is, there are some quick and simple strategies that can make this situation a bit easier on children and caregivers alike.

Self-care is, quite literally, taking care of oneself – that is, one’s body and mind. Just as we take time to eat during the day, taking time to check in with our physical and emotional state is just as important. You’ve likely heard of the analogy of the oxygen mask on an airplane – put yours on first so that you can be available to help your child with theirs. Much in the same way, if the adults in a household prioritize their own self-care, they will be more regulated and better equipped to help their children use these same skills. In an effort to avoid bombarding families with even more Things To Do, I’ve provided three key words that can be easily recalled during the day – an ABC” of self-care. These are by no means the only ways to engage in self-care, but a good starting point to keep things manageable. We welcome any other suggestions that you may find helpful!

  1. Awareness: Asking oneself, “What do I need right now? Does my body need to move or stretch? How long have I been working without a break? What am I feeling?”
    • Name what you are feeling and express it out loud. Modeling emotional expression for children helps them develop a wider emotional vocabulary and can also help them organize some of the confusing feelings they may be experiencing internally.
    • If you check in with yourself and answer yes to “Does my body need to move or stretch?” Fantastic! There are so many ways to build in a small movement break: walking to the kitchen to get a drink of water, standing and reaching your arms over your head, twisting from side to side. The Openfit app has a wide variety of live exercise classes throughout the day, including a few 5-minute classes consisting only of stretching. There is also a wonderful child-friendly book called Mindful Movements by Thich Nhat Hanh, featuring ten easy movements designed to bring the awareness back into the body in a fun way. Breaks that involve movement and getting outside are even better. Our bodies love getting fresh air! Kids can plan ahead with their families to make outside time into a game (e.g., “What should we look for while we’re outside today? How many birds do you see?” Caregivers can scaffold this and add visuals for children with language difficulties).
  2. Breathe, mindfully: It seems like I see the reminder “Just Breathe” all over social media, even on t-shirts or mugs available for purchase. But what does it actually mean? Research shows that taking a few deep breaths can help refocus the mind and allow us to relax. Paying attention on purpose to the physical sequence of an inhale-exhale also puts us back in touch with the body. The free version of the Calm app has a breathing exercise tab, with timed prompts to inhale and exhale. The duration of the exercise can be adjusted for as many minutes as you have (even one minute). This is another great exercise to model for kids – you can invite them to try it with you, or they can watch and “coach” you through it. Letting children take the lead and announce when it is time to breathe in and breathe out helps give them a sense of efficacy and control, in an appropriate way.
  3. Connect: With restrictions on our ability to socialize with others in person, it can be easy to neglect our social networks. Send a quick text during the day to a close friend – sharing something positive (e.g., “The kids are playing nicely together right now”) or simply sharing how you are feeling in the moment. Invite the children in your household to connect with their peers, too: “Daddy’s going to call Grandma today to say hello; which friend would you like to say hello to today?” Scheduling a video call with a babysitter or coach that your child hasn’t seen can also be a great way to maintain those relationships. Finally, connecting with new peers and instructors is another possibility. Outschool offers online classes for children, grouped by age, with subjects ranging from “Intro to Card Magic” to “Introduction to Veterinary Medicine.” Varsity Tutors also offers online classes by subject and grade level, at no charge.

Keep in mind: you are doing your best and expectations should be adjusted during times of high stress. On a final note, I have a version of “Self-Care Bingo” at home. I often check the sheet and send a text to a family member or friend when I reach “bingo” during the day. There are several self-care bingo visuals available online for those who are interested in printing out a version to use with their family.

Wishing you all lots of success on your daily journeys of well-being!

Stay tuned next week for our next blog!

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