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Acceptance and Self-Care for Caregivers

Learn to accept yourself and your child during the hectic back-to-school season.

Key points

  • Many caregivers fall into the trap of comparing themselves to other caregivers.
  • Caregivers are often too hard on themselves and their children, and can overvalue certain achievements to the detriment of others.
  • Caregivers can be more present and energized with their children when they prioritize self-care.

The back-to-school season can bring up a host of emotions for both caregivers and children. Often, caregivers are so focused on their children’s needs, emotions, and behaviors, that they forget to take care of their own needs. Many well-meaning caregivers have unrealistically high expectations for both themselves and their kids, which can lead to feelings of frustration and disappointment. Here are some helpful cognitive (thinking) and behavioral (doing) skills that can help caregivers and kids cope with this transitional time.

"Judgment" is a common theme that I hear echoed by my clients with kids. Some caregivers compare themselves to other parents and find themselves coming up short. They feel pressure to be 'perfect.' The carefully curated images of behaved, stylishly dressed children presented on social media create the illusion that other caregivers are doing it 'right' and they are doing it 'wrong.' To those caregivers, I usually say that no one is a perfect parent, and if you know someone who is, you don’t know them well enough. Taking care of kids is hard work; it’s complex and exhausting and it’s just not possible for anyone to do it perfectly all the time. The good news is that you don’t have to.

Children can actually benefit from facing some of their challenges head-on. This is how they learn to cope with difficulties. When we try to shield our children from negative experiences, we may inadvertently teach them that experiencing negative emotions is bad. This can lead them to avoid experiencing negative emotions, as opposed to accepting them as a regular part of life. Of course, there will always be situations where you will need to protect your children from harm. But you don’t need to be hard on yourself if your child experiences some challenges.

Self-acceptance is a part of acceptance—but so is accepting your child. You might worry that your child is struggling in one or more areas. Let’s say your child has experienced some struggles academically. You can put their struggles into perspective with a simple exercise that you can do by yourself or with a partner or friend: Make a pie chart by drawing a circle on a piece of paper. Now, block off the portion of the circle that represents how important you feel friendship is. How about being a good family member? How about being a good community member? How important is physical health? Emotional health? Spirituality? Creativity? Athletics? Any other areas that are important to you and your family? Finally, block off the portion that represents how important academics are.

Are you surprised at how important you feel other areas of potential are for your child? Maybe this exercise has demonstrated to you some important non-academic values you hold. Maybe you’re realizing that academics aren’t as important as you initially thought. Recognizing your child’s non-academic strengths can also help you accept your child for who they are, let go of unrealistic expectations, and avoid overvaluing just one of your child’s many potentials to the detriment of others.

Another strategy that I try to teach my clients is the concept of under-scheduling. Many caregivers make the mistake of scheduling too much and then being hard on themselves when things don’t go exactly as planned. Planning around their children’s many activities and social engagements also leaves little time for themselves. I like to use the old analogy of the oxygen mask on the airplane. There’s a reason why passengers are instructed to put their own oxygen mask on before assisting those around them. You can’t help others when you’re struggling yourself. The same goes for caregivers. Self-care activities can help caregivers feel more connected to friends and family, more fulfilled, energized, and better able to meet the needs of their children.

Take out a calendar, and write in weekly or monthly activities, but start with self-care activities. Most things don’t happen unless you plan for them, so write in times that you plan to go for a walk, attend religious services, call family and friends, or whatever else you need to do to live your life more in line with your core values. Then schedule family activities, with an eye to which activities are absolutely necessary and which can be scaled back or eliminated. When families are over-extended, caregivers can miss out on small moments worth celebrating. Be fully present with your children, catch them when they are doing something right, and comment on it. This will not only help your child build confidence but will also help you appreciate and value your child’s strengths.

Finally, if you or your child are struggling, don’t hesitate to seek help, either in the form of support from friends, family, or other caregivers in your community, or from a qualified therapist.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.