How can I look after my child when I'm feeling worn down?

Liat Blog Jan 2024

It can be hard to help your child when you're feeling low yourself. In honour of Parent Mental Health Day, parenting journalist and author Liat Hughes Joshi shares her advice for what do to when you're feeling worn down.

When your child is having a tough time, it’s natural to want to focus entirely on them, putting all your energy into providing support. But there’s a pitfall here: it’s easy to end up exhausted yourself. Possibly so exhausted or stressed out that you can’t help them as you’d like to.

With this in mind, it’s not at all selfish to focus on looking after yourself too.

An analogy that I often mention around this is how adults are told to put their own oxygen mask on before assisting children in the event of an emergency on a flight.

The key point here is to not feel guilt about taking some time out for some ‘self-care’, or asking others for support. It’s absolutely in your child’s best interests that you’re in a good state to ‘parent’.

Here are a few ideas that can help you to help your child.

Stay connected

When feeling tired and overwhelmed, the temptation to stay at home and hide away from friends or family can be a strong one (that “I just can’t face it feeling”). You might lack the energy to spend time with others, or you might be too upset to face anyone and the potential for tricky feeling-questions, or sympathy you can’t cope with.

But, if possible, do try not to shut yourself away at home – virtually or physically. Sometimes, if you can, it really is better to force yourself ‘out there’ - to meet friends, or experience something you normally enjoy which could be a ray of light, even if it doesn’t appeal initially.

It could be just going for a walk somewhere pretty, going to the cinema to watch an uplifting film, or a coffee with a friend who will understand - and be understanding - if you do want to talk about your child’s situation. Start with familiar, more comfortable things that you know you can manage and build up from there, but do make an effort to make little steps back towards your ‘normal’.

Make time for some ‘me-time’

Yes it’s a challenge with family and work commitments, but if you can, do prioritise taking a break – even just a few minutes - for yourself. It’ll help you relax and leave space for you to think, reflect on and process the situation you and your child are in.

It could be after the kids go to bed or before they wake up if needs be – ten minutes of quiet, pondering what’s going on or meditation. Not looking likely if you’ve got young children? Can you pop the TV on for them and go and sit in an adjacent room, or in the same room with headphones and relaxing music on but where you can still keep an eye on them? Get a neighbour or friend to babysit for an hour or two?

Overcome overwhelm

When you’re child’s struggling – with bullying or something else, if it all feels like “too much” to cope with:

  • Manage just one day at a time - if even everyday tasks seem overwhelming, shift from thinking too far ahead or seeking to ‘fix’ everything now to focusing on taking each day at a time.
  • You only have to get through today (or even this morning/ afternoon), and then another day will start, get through that, repeat and chances are, things will feel a little different before long.
  • If you’re overwhelmed with worry or panic, once you are sufficiently calm, ask yourself ‘what exactly am I worried about here’ and write a list. Then assess how big an issue each item really is, how likely it is to happen and what you might be able to do to ease it. Use a score out of ten if that works for you.
  • If you simply have too much to do, focus on prioritising your list and accept that you can only do your best in the time available.

Know you are not alone

You might feel that as a parent you have to be the strong one who looks after everybody else or, at times, that you’re alone and nobody cares, but there’s always support out there if you look for it. You really don’t have to sit alone and struggle unnecessarily.

The most obvious option is calling upon your nearest and dearest for a shoulder to cry on or a hug. You might feel like you don’t want to ‘trouble’ anyone else but any close friend or relative worth their salt will be there to support you as best they can – it really is what friends are for.

Beyond that inner circle, it can be hugely valuable to find others in a similar situation to yours, who will understand first-hand what you’re going through and can share experiences. Reach out on the internet – if we’re talking bullying here, and you’re reading this, you’re already on the right website.

The charity Mind provides mental health information and advice.

For professional help, counsellors and psychotherapists can be extremely valuable, although unfortunately sometimes these services can be difficult to access through the NHS, and are expensive to pay for privately. If you’re employed, check whether your company provides free or subsidised counselling services. Note too that some therapists work at reduced rates for clients who would otherwise not be able to afford their services.

Liat Hughes Joshi is a parenting journalist and the author of six parenting books including 'Help your Child Cope with Change', and 'Five-Minute Parenting Fixes', both published by Summersdale/Vie. This article is based on a chapter in Liat’s book ‘Help your child cope with change’.

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