I remember caring for four young kids. Days were full of driving carpools, changing diapers, buying groceries, doing laundry, overseeing homework, interruptions, conversations, decisions and stress. Life felt crowded.
Now that my kids are grown, my life is busy in other ways. My husband and I work for our own nonprofit, mostly from home. I have list after list of things to do, email in-boxes that continually refill, and unclear boundaries between work time and time off. Life is still busy, and often stressful.
But one lesson I learned when my children were little that still helps me today is how important it is to practice healthy self-care. When I look back on the years I spent raising children, I see clearly how vitally important it is for parents to take care of themselves. Practicing healthy self-care is crucial for being a good parent, because our emotional state is a key factor in parenting.
The Still Face Experiment
This short video (less than three minutes long) powerfully illustrates the importance of a caregiver’s emotional state. Notice what happens when the child in this video no longer feels connected to her mom, and how deeply that lack of connection impacts her.
In the video, Dr. Tronick points out that when the mother became unresponsive, her daughter immediately tried to get her mom’s attention, to reconnect. The child pointed, vocalized, screeched, fussed, and ultimately burst into tears. Mom’s emotional absence had a HUGE impact on the child!
Consistent Disconnection is Harmful
Disconnections between parent and child happen — that’s a normal part of life. As long as there is a reconnection afterwards, those times of disconnection aren’t necessarily harmful for the child. When the parent and child disconnect and then reconnect, a child experiences that even though sometimes I feel alone, I will be okay. My mom (or dad) will come back. They will re-engage with me and I will be soothed.
But what if a caregiver was almost always like the mom during the “Still Face Experiment” — unresponsive, distant, present physically but not emotionally? How might it affect a child to grow up in a home where he is consistently unable to connect with a parent?
Perhaps the child would give up and go numb, shut down. Withdraw.
Or perhaps the child would start to act out — throw toys, have a temper tantrum, or cling and wail. Attachment researchers tell us that when people are hungry for connection, even negative attention is better than no attention, and kids can usually find ways to get negative attention!
Practice Self-Care in Order to Connect
Kids tune in to our emotional state. They notice if we’re emotionally absent, even if we’re physically in the room. If I’m depressed, anxious, fearful or stressed, I’ll probably have a harder time connecting with my child. If I’m busy, irritable and exhausted, then I’ll be less responsive to my child. I’ll be less emotionally present. Less engaged.
We need to take care of ourselves so that we will be able to be emotionally present and engaged with our children. For me, when my kids were little, this meant taking time each morning to journal, read and pray. Then I could start the day feeling centered and ready to engage with my family.
Connect in the Midst of Life
My fear in writing these words is that parents will start to feel guilty about any and every time that they are not fully happy and engaged with their children. We don’t have to be perfect, just present. Even with healthy self-care, there will still be times when we are sad, tired or upset. Good self-care involves noticing those feelings and finding ways to cope. Don’t let those feelings escalate to the point where you are overwhelmed and consistently unable to be emotionally present with your kids.
Let’s connect with our kids in the midst of our messy, imperfect real life. Let’s take care of ourselves so that we can connect with them. Let’s not neglect the crying needs of our own soul to the point that we are physically present, but emotionally shut down, distracted or numb.
Even today, I notice that I connect with the people in my life better when I take the time to care for myself.
So take a deep breath. Ask yourself what you need to do today to take care of your soul, and do it.
And then look your loved ones in the eye and engage with them. Interact with your kids. Be emotionally present. You won’t regret it.
This post is fourth in a series on Self-Care. For Part 1, “The Importance of Self-Care,” click here. For Part 2, “Self-Care and the Unexpected,” click here. For Part 3, “The Case for Self-Care,” click here.
Question: What do you think? How have you noticed that taking care of yourself helps you connect with others? You can leave a comment by clicking here.