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Self-Care Strategies for Parents & Caregivers

January 20, 2024
by Amy Giguere Carney

In the latest SANA blog post, part one of a two-part series, Yale Child Study Center Social Worker Amy Giguere Carney offers several strategies and practices to help manage the stress that can accompany the joys of parenting. Amy specializes in clinical work with children and families, and provides clinical support to families during and after their visits to the SANA Lab. She also acts as a liaison between families and the community.

Parenting can be a rich, joyful, fulfilling experience, and it can also be incredibly stressful and exhausting. For families that have children with special needs, parental stress is often increased as time and attention must be divided differently, and tasks are often multiplied. Parents also tend to expend a great deal of energy trying to regulate their own moods and emotions in order to be present for their children. As such, having a bank of strategies and practices to employ can be invaluable.

Strategy #1: Mindfulness and Breathing

Bringing oxygen into your body during times of stress will interrupt your natural physiological stress response and inhibit your stress releasing hormones. So, when you notice yourself in a moment of overwhelm, stress, resentment, etc., press pause and mindfully take 3 - 5 deep breaths. Check in with your body and mind and ask yourself what you need in that moment. If you aren’t able to meet that need right then, make a commitment to yourself that you will address it later. Here are a couple of links to help you learn and practice deep breathing techniques:

Strategy #2: Plan Ahead for High-Stress Times of Day

Think about what makes certain times of day difficult and put buffers in place to help make them easier. It might be beneficial to create a flexible schedule so that expectations are clear and time is set aside for work, school, play, outdoors, screens, etc. If mornings are chaotic, try having everyone pick out their outfits the night before. If kids get particularly restless in the afternoons, perhaps that’s the time to plan to be outdoors or to allow for physical activity indoors. Even simple games like Simon Says or a home-made obstacle course in a hallway can help kids get the wiggles out. If the time around dinner prep tends to be stressful, maybe chopping veggies or prepping something the night before would ease the burden.

Strategy #3: Make a DONE List

As parents, our “to-do” lists are endless. It often feels like there are not enough hours in the day and we feel discouraged because it didn’t all get done. Even when we’ve planned ahead, life has a way of throwing a wrench in our plans… maybe a meeting ran late, someone needed extra help with her school work, or maybe you had a splitting headache all day…. This means that at the end of every day, it’s inevitable that there will be things left on our “to-do” lists. This is absolutely 100% ok. At the end of the day, wouldn’t it be wonderful to feel empowered by what we’ve accomplished? Wouldn’t it be fantastic to feel like we’ve been productive, and to remember that every small accomplishment is valid? Rather than focusing on what is left to do on your “to-do list,” try drafting a “done” list at the end of the day. There is no doubt you did some important things today, and that is worth celebrating! Give it a go – grab a piece of paper and list 3 things you accomplished today. If you want a challenge, go ahead and write down as many things as you can. Here are some examples to help get you started: breathing through a difficult moment, getting a lunch made (bonus points if it’s a lunch for yourself!), calling a loved one, taking a shower, finding that overdue library book, reading a book to your child… it can be anything at all!

Strategy #4: Prioritize and Outsource

We tend to get bogged down with tasks because, as we’ve already discussed, they are endless! It helps to prioritize and to let things go that aren’t absolutely essential. Perhaps the kitchen floor is dirtier than we’d like this week, perhaps the laundry is washed but not folded and put away, perhaps we relax standards or expectations for meals a few times a week… Technology is giving us a lot more options as well, such as curbside pickup for grocery stores which can save families the time and stress of taking children grocery shopping.

Strategy #5: Seek Support

Seeking emotional and physical support can help to lessen the burden and keep us feeling more connected.

  • Time with friends or extended family
  • Individual psychotherapy
  • Online support
  • Psychoeducation in the form of media, workshops, trainings, and conferences
  • Support groups
  • Educational advocates and/or parent advocates to help navigate the intervention system
  • Alternative child-care or respite care to free up time for yourself. College students in the fields of special education, psychology, or social work can be great for this purpose, or young teens and adolescents acting as an extra set of hands while you’re also at home. Additionally, DCF voluntary services has a respite care program.

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Pottie, C. G., & Ingram, K. M. (2008). Daily stress, coping, and well-being in parents of children with autism: A multilevel modeling approach. Journal of Family Psychology, 22(6), 855-864. doi:10.1037/a0013604

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Stuart, M., & Mcgrew, J. H. (2009). Caregiver burden after receiving a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 3(1), 86-97. doi:10.1016/j.rasd.2008.04.006

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Submitted by Gitta Selva on January 05, 2024