When faced with a child’s substance use or other unwanted behaviors, many parents and caregivers can think only about what to do to make it stop. This is at the expense of their own well-being. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with negative emotions. Parents may feel fear, anger, resentment, guilt and shame. Some people isolate, avoiding family and friends, as well as conversations about what is happening with their child.
Physical problems often arise. You may have tension headaches, insomnia and stomach upsets. One mom shared that she used food as a source of comfort, gaining unwanted pounds by eating sleeves of cookies. Another shared that she found herself drinking an extra glass of wine, putting it in a teacup so that her family wouldn’t know she was drinking more to cope. The situation saps emotional and physical energy, often leaving you feeling helpless and hopeless.
“Everyone keeps telling me to ‘take care of myself’ while my child is struggling with substance use. But how can I put myself first, before helping my own child?” Helpline Specialist Karla Castro-Soto, M.S. in Marriage & Family Therapy, answers some of parents’ most commonly asked questions about their child’s substance use.
So what is the antidote? Self-care, which means taking the time to make sure you are at your best. This can mean eating and sleeping well, socializing, engaging in hobbies and exercise, spending time with other family members, and mindfulness practices like meditating and yoga. It may include setting more boundaries with your child and others, for instance, being able to say “no” when you are feeling exhausted or infringed upon. In some cases, engaging in therapy can help to develop an action plan and stay on track.
While some readers will embrace the notion of taking care of your personal needs, others, with eyes rolling, will think, “You want me to do something enjoyable for myself when my world is crumbling around me?!” The answer is “Yes” for several reasons, not the least of which is that you will personally feel better and develop more resiliency.
According to Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, principal investigator of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of North Carolina, self-care to increase positive emotions like joy, gratitude, hope and serenity helps people in multiple ways:
“When people increase their daily diets of positive emotions, they find more meaning and purpose in life. They also find that they receive more social support — or perhaps they just notice it more, because they’re more attuned to the give-and-take between people. They report fewer aches and pains, headaches and other physical symptoms. They show mindful awareness of the present moment and increased positive relations with others. They feel more effective at what they do. They’re better able to savor the good things in life and can see more possible solutions to problems. And they sleep better.”
As Dr. Fredrickson indicates, not only do people feel healthier, but they are better able to problem solve. The importance of this cannot be overstated as when we are feeling depleted from this struggle, it’s easy to react and make snap decisions, rather than taking the time to think through the situation at hand. Your best judgment and problem-solving skills are needed to address your child’s unwanted behaviors.
The other significant benefit to self-care is that it allows you to model healthy behavior and coping skills for your child. For example, if you come home from work, tell your child that it was a really stressful day and then go for a walk or take a hot shower to relax, you are modeling a healthy way to deal with life’s ups and downs.
Self-care is not a spectator sport. While it may seem difficult, try infusing your life with something positive on a daily basis for the next week. Treat yourself to a cup of coffee with a friend, buy some fresh flowers, light a candle, take a walk in nature, spend ten minutes doing a puzzle. Whatever it is, take some time to nourish yourself and see how you feel. It will be a gift not only to yourself, but also for your child and other loved ones.