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The best gift you can give your child is your own mental health.

Not long ago, I was going through a rough time, feeling very stressed and overwhelmed, and feeling like I was inadequate in every way, especially at being a parent.

All of a sudden, a thought entered my mind that at once felt like it was the first time I’d ever thought it, and simultaneously felt like it had always been there, like a truth I had always known.

The thought was:

The best gift you can give your child is your own mental health.

Then I realized why it probably felt familiar yet new at the same time. It was advice I was already giving to others (albeit caregivers of adults rather than caregivers/parents of children), but hadn’t really applied to myself as a parent!

Let me explain. In my work as a neuropsychologist, I frequently provide consultation to care partners and loved ones of individuals with dementia. A spouse will come to me in an extremely stressed and emotionally overwhelmed state, wanting any nuggets of wisdom I can give in order for them to be better caregivers to their loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. My #1 piece of advice is that they must attend to their own health first. They must continuously care for themselves in order to be the best caregiver possible for their loved one. This is crucial because, if a caregiver is not healthy (mentally, physically, emotionally), they will – best case scenario – not be able to give their best to their loved one, or – worst case scenario but occurring all too often – they will become depleted and ill themselves and therefore will be unable to provide care to their loved one.

Here I was giving this advice to other caregivers but not to myself as a caregiver of a 2-year-old. I immediately saw that my self-care, my own mental health, had not been a priority. I was not exercising or getting regular movement. I was not sleeping well. I was not eating well. I was living on frantic auto-pilot, responding to what I felt like were urgent to-do’s instead of living purposefully and intentionally. I was not nurturing important relationships with friends and family. I didn’t think I had enough time or energy to do any of these things that I truly believe are not just valuable but completely necessary for my own mental health.

Once I shifted my perspective and thoughts, and started taking my own advice, I was blown away by the positive changes in my parenting, my relationships, and my own personal wellbeing. It’s a work in progress, and I’m not saying I’m doing this perfectly (although I don’t think there is such a thing), but it is making a huge difference.

There are thousands of parenting books, blogs, groups and programs out there focused on how to be a better parent, but as this article from The Atlantic showed, this deluge of “expert advice” often ends up causing parents to feel even more inadequate, stressed and overwhelmed.

Inherent in my “advice” to myself and anyone else out there who wants to take it is this:

You are enough.

There isn’t a skill you are lacking, a piece of knowledge you don’t have, a technique you need to learn. Those might be helpful tools, and I’m not persuading against them, but being a good parent (and a good person, really) starts with taking care of yourself. You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of anyone else. You need to foster your own wellbeing and health in order to foster that same thing for your children.

"Secure your own mask first": A helpful analogy

When traveling on a flight, we’ve all heard the flight attendant spiel before take-off, advising us what to do if the cabin experiences sudden pressure loss. “Oxygen masks will drop from above your seat. Place the mask over your mouth and nose. Pull the strap to tighten it. If you are traveling with a child, secure your own mask first, before assisting your child.

Are they encouraging you to be selfish? Are they suggesting you are more important than your child?

No, they are reminding you that if you don’t secure your own oxygen mask first, your effectiveness in helping other people is severely compromised and will likely result in none of you surviving. You have to have oxygen flowing first so that you can assist your child to get their oxygen flowing. If you lose oxygen to your brain as you’re trying to help them get oxygen to theirs, you won’t be able to function to help them, or yourself.

I think it might be the same with parenting in general.

When you focus on your own mental health, you will function at your best. You will be at your best, and be able to give your best.

Alternatively, think about what happens when our mental health is lacking. We can read all the parenting books and blogs in the world, see all the parenting specialists, do all the things that are recommended … but if we are stressed, overwhelmed, anxious, spread too thin, exhausted, depleted emotionally and physically, or feeling alone, discouraged, resentful, guilty, inept, ashamed … how effective are we, really?

Finally, if we completely neglect ourselves in service of our children, we could inadvertently end up doing them the ultimate disservice.

As parents, maintaining our own mental health and wellbeing allows us to be a model to our children for how to live and how to have control of one’s life.

Also, our children look to us for safety and stability. If we don’t demonstrate good mental health, it makes them feel less safe and stable.

Finally, and perhaps worst of all, our children may feel responsible for our lack of health and stability. They may blame themselves, thinking they or their behavior is what influences or creates our happiness and wellbeing.

A final note

If you are a parent, or a caregiver of any kind, who has struggled with self-care, please know you’re not alone. And please, please don’t use this struggle to beat yourself up! (Beating yourself up for not caring for yourself kind of defeats the purpose!) Instead, I hope you’ll use this reminder to examine your own life and mental health right now and, from a place of love and self-compassion, consider any changes you might make that will serve you and – as a result – those you provide care for.

Thoughts? Questions? Reactions? Need support?

You can always email me here.


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