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Why Self-Care Is Necessary for Parents

If you've been feeling burned out during the pandemic, you're not alone. Many of us have been primal screaming into pillows, in desperate need of a reset. How can we take care of ourselves in the face of overwhelm? Savvy Psychologist interviews parenting therapist Dr. Nanika Coor to find out. 

By
Jade Wu, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #350
The Quick And Dirty
  • Self-care is more important than ever because we need to take good care of ourselves in order to be better parents.
  • Self-care does not have to cost money. It includes anything that makes us feel good, including building boundaries (e.g., putting a lock on your bedroom door).
  • One important principle of self-care is radical acceptance, which means to accept things as they are, however difficult, instead of struggling with how you wish they were. 
  • Remember that you are doing your best. There is no such thing as perfection, so put self-compassion front and center. 

Not too long ago, I was emptying my lungs in a primal scream into my pillow. It was the middle of a Wednesday, and I was once again working while also taking care of my toddler because daycare was closed. I was covered in sweat and whatever those greasy little hands had put in my hair. Nobody had slept well in days. There were tantrums erupting every hour. I had a pounding headache, there was a work deadline coming up, I couldn’t hear myself think…I could barely remember my own name. Screaming into the pillow seemed like the only viable option.

I’m not the only one burning out 16 months into a pandemic. People are feeling pent up, over-loaded, lonely, stifled…and even with vaccines and society opening up, the collective stress of the pandemic continues to weigh heavily. No wonder there have been headlines like, “The Agony of Pandemic Parenting” and “I cry on Tuesdays and Fridays." There’s even a hotline you can call that will let you scream into the void, if you need something a little more interactive than a pillow.

So, now more than ever, it seems that parents - and everyone else - need to practice self-care. What exactly does this mean? How do I add one more thing to the to-do list when I’m already swamped? To find out, I talked to an expert.

Dr. Nanika Coor is a clinical psychologist and respectful parenting therapist based in Brooklyn, New York. In her private practice she offers therapy to parents whose childhood experiences are intruding on their relationship with their children, and who want to do better as parents and as people. Her work centers around processing, healing from, and breaking intergenerational cycles of painful relationships, in the service of shifting to a more respectful, collaborative, and empathy-based approach. She is also the host of the new Project Parenthood podcast from the Quick and Dirty Tips network.

Today, I asked her to share her wisdom with a focus on how parents can take care of themselves. Her tips are down-to-earth and applicable to everyone, including non-parents. Here is an abbreviated version of our conversation. Click the audio player above to hear the entire interview:

Savvy Psychologist: So many parents have experienced burnout in the past year and a half. What have you heard from your patients? How have they been coping?

Dr. Nanika Coor: It’s been a rollercoaster for parents, from confusion and fear, to hunkering down and trying to be safe. Then there was a long period of melancholy and sameness and irritability and listlessness before things began to be hopeful again with vaccines and things opening up. Some parents were able to find ways to have more fun as a family, some were really having a hard time with all of the togetherness and the constraints on daily life.

Savvy Psychologist: What does self-care mean? Are there any myths about self-care that you’d like to debunk?

Dr. Nanika Coor: Self-care in parenting is about being your authentic self, focusing on collaboration rather than control, holding your boundaries and setting clear limits, taking short breaks when you need to recharge, speaking to yourself kindly instead of critically, being mindful, practicing radical acceptance, prioritizing connection in your life. All of that is self-care.

Self-care in parenting is about being your authentic self, focusing on collaboration rather than control, holding your boundaries and setting clear limits.

In terms of debunking myths about self-care: First of all, it doesn’t always cost money, or involve a bubble bath (though it can). I’ve been encouraging all of my clients to do things that make them feel good even if it’s only 5-10 minutes a day. Read an article, get outside, drink a whole cup of tea without getting up, get a waterproof speaker for the shower and listen to music or podcasts every time you’re in the bathroom. Even putting a lock on a door is self-care at this point!

Savvy Psychologist: Why is self-care important for parents in general? How does it affect parents’ mental health, and how does it affect their parenting?

Dr. Nanika Coor: You can’t pour from an empty cup. If we’re not taking care of ourselves as parents, if we’re burned out, if we feel unheard, unseen, uncared for ,and unacknowledged ourselves, we don’t have a very good chance of being able to give that to our children.

And it’s a vicious cycle - we give ourselves a hard time for not being the parents we hoped to be, which makes us feel worse, and then we parent from that place of feeling terrible about ourselves. The better we feel emotionally and interpersonally, the better we’re going to do as parents. So prioritizing the self-care that provides healing, well-being, and connection is going to set us up to do that.

Savvy Psychologist: Do you have any overarching self-care principles?

Dr. Nanika Coor: Radical acceptance, self-compassion and tuning into our bodies, our emotions, and our needs. That’s where we’re going to find what’s authentic for us as parents. 

Radical acceptance means to not fight with reality. When you truly accept what's going on, instead of thinking about what you wish was going on, suffering becomes optional. It might be painful right now, but you don't have to have the extra layer of struggle on top of the pain. 

Radical acceptance means to not fight with reality. When you truly accept what's going on, instead of thinking about what you wish was going on, suffering becomes optional.

Savvy Psychologist: What are your favorite tips for parents trying to enact self-care?

Dr. Nanika Coor: My favourite self-care tip is really simple - Extended Exhaling. Breathe in through your nose for four counts, letting your belly and lower lungs fill with air. Then exhale through your mouth for eight counts or longer, letting your belly button pull toward your spine as you let as much air out as you can. Repeat three times.

This is great to practice at bedtime or first thing in the morning before getting out of bed to ground yourself. But it’s even better when you’re in fight/flight/freeze mode - when you're angry, anxious, or feeling hopeless. This helps us get ourselves back to equilibrium where we have access to good decision making.

My message to parents, caregivers, or anyone who plays a significant role in a child’s life is that we’re all doing the best we can in any given moment, and we all want the best for our kids. But even if we know all the science and all the parenting advice and have the best plans, the fact is, we’re still going to fall short. There’s no such thing as perfect parenting. I just encourage us all to be intentional and mindful about parenting - and to hold self-compassion front and center. We’ll be talking about all this and more on the Project Parenthood podcast - I hope folks will join us!

To hear more from Dr. Nanika Coor, follow Project Parenthood on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you have a question you'd like her to answer, you can email Dr. Coor at parenthood@quickanddirtytips.com. You can also leave her a message at (646) 926-3243. Be sure to let her know if it's okay to use your voice on the show.

Find out more about Dr. Coor’s work with parents at www.brooklynparenttherapy.com and on Instagram @BKPARENTS.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Jade Wu, PhD

Dr. Jade Wu is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine. Do you have a psychology question? Call the Savvy Psychologist listener line at 919-533-9122. Your question could be featured on the show.