I usually write to parents about tools and strategies to help their kids, but sometimes it’s the parents who need support, myself included. It’s been a hectic time in my household with the start of the school year, new schedules, and a home renovation to boot! When I told my son’s therapist all that was going on, he suggested that we ramp up my son’s mindfulness and self-regulation strategies. Although I knew the therapist was right, this suggestion actually filled me with a sense of overwhelm and stress. I quickly realized that both my boys are actually doing fine, and I’m the one in need of some self-care and stress relief.
It’s essential for parents, and especially those whose kids have special needs, to find time to take care of ourselves. It’s not easy to do, but if we don’t put on our own oxygen mask first, if we’re anxious and short-tempered, what good will we be to our child?
So here is my self-talk and what I put in place to help me through this time that I thought might be helpful to share. First, as I’m practicing self-regulation tools and strategies, I try to remember to let my kids know what I’m doing and why. This way I’m not only giving myself something I need, but my acts of self care are also serving as a role model for my boys. For example, if I’m heading out for a calming activity like a walk or yoga class, I make sure to tell my kids that I’m doing this to help myself feel centered and calm. When we cuddle at bedtime, I ask them to please be quiet because I’m going to practice my mindful breathing. They can practice with me or watch my belly go up and down. Let your child know that you need tools for self-regulation just as they do.
I also pull out some resources to help remind myself of what has helped me stay regulated in the past. I sometimes post these in a central place for the family to see as well. Here are a few of my favorite strategies for helping myself and the whole family stay well-regulated and in touch with their emotions:
– Mood Meter: Post this chart of facial expressions (p. 72 in Make Social Learning Stick!) on the refrigerator or in another central location. In the morning, I refer to it and tell my kids how I’m feeling and describe my mood. I share some tools that I might use during the day if needed.
– Six Sides of Breathing: Leah Kuypers (OT and creator of the Zones of Regulation*) developed this easy strategy for taking calming breaths. Trace the sides of a hexagon as you breathe in, hold, and breathe out. Do this twice (at least) to move around each side of the hexagon. Use the chart on page 88 of Make Social Learning Stick! or draw your own hexagon.
– Table Talk: Use family meals as a chance for each person to check in about how they’re feeling or how their day went, including both the highs and lows. Some families like to do this with a “talking stick,” a spoon or spatula used as a microphone that gets passed around the table. As parents, we can model a variety of feelings, both positive and negative, and how we dealt with them.
Another tool that my family is familiar with is the Zones of Regulation*, a curriculum that fosters self-regulation developed by Leah Kuypers. The Zones offers effective, easy, hands-on tools for identifying and controlling one’s emotions and reactions. This is a great approach for the entire family and helps us to discuss situations that trigger certain levels of internal states and which tools might help when the level or emotion doesn’t match the situation at hand. I posted one of the zone handouts with my toolbox of resources to remind myself of what has helped in the past.
All in all, working on my own self-care and modeling tools for regulation helps my kids and the entire family. If we/parents prioritize ourselves, this is a model for our kids—we all know that they learn from what we do more than what we say. And, similar to how the heart pumps blood to itself before the rest of the body, we need to care for ourselves before caring for our kids or others.
After a brief feeling of guilt for not taking the advice from my son’s therapist and doing what comes naturally to me (taking care of others), I realized that taking care of me IS actually taking care of my children. Becoming more relaxed myself not only helps me, but also provides a model for my kids and spills out into their lives as well as to others in my life. Try it! Put on that oxygen mask and take care of yourself. Just don’t forget to mention your plan to the rest of the family along the way.