05 Oct 2022

POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY: Being a parent isn't child's play, so you need to take care of yourself too

Julie O'Flaherty and Imelda Ferguson Offaly psychologists

Julie O'Flaherty and Imelda Ferguson Offaly psychologists

OVER 80% of the population will become parents at some point in their lives.

For many of us, having children is very rewarding and gives a sense of meaning to our lives. However studies show that being a parent is also one of the greatest challenges that we can take on and that the job of being a parent is often a very stressful one. Yet at times we may find it hard to acknowledge just how tough we are finding the job.

Why is being a parent so challenging and stressful? There are really a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, we generally do not get any training for the job. If you take on an office job you will most likely have trained for the role and will work under supervision for a while. Yet for most parents, our only training was our experience of being parented ourselves and many people feel that they would like to do a better job than their own parents did. The hours of being a parent are very long and often unsociable (as anyone who has gotten up at night to a crying baby or lain awake waiting for a teenager to return from a disco will know). In our paid jobs, we often work an eight-hour day, but being a parent is 24/7.

Another factor which adds to the stress of being a parent is the fact that the requirements of the job keep changing, without notice. So we may have figured out how to manage the needs of a newborn, only to find that the newborn becomes a toddler, the pre-schooler becomes a schoolgoer etc. And the rules of the game change without anyone asking our permission. So the eight-year-old who used to send us cards declaring that we are the “best Mummy (or Daddy) in the world” becomes the sullen teenager who thinks we are really bad parents indeed…

So the role of being a parent is a constantly changing one, which carries with it many inherent stresses and challenges. As such, we need to take steps to mind ourselves in this role. Support is important. Being able to talk honestly to trusted friends/family and other parents is useful in managing the stress. It often helps us to know that others are facing similar challenges. Talking to other parents is also a useful way of gauging what is reasonable for a particular age group (maybe all nine-year-olds do not have their own smartphones, despite what your child tells you).

As psychologists we often see parents go to great lengths to ensure that their children are eating well, getting exercise and a good night’s sleep. Yet the very same parents may be overlooking their own basic needs when life seems so rushed and busy. Self-care is hugely important for busy parents.

We often recommend the practice of any activity which engages the relaxation response (when we are tense this takes 20 minutes). Many people find mindful meditation and progressive muscular relaxation (which includes deep abdominal breathing) helpful. From a stress management perspective, it is worth remembering that the time we most need to relax is when we think we don’t have time to.

Getting a good night’s sleep is an important part of good stress management as a poor sleep pattern also increases stress. Having a relaxing wind-down time of around an hour before bedtime is important.

Many professionals now recommend an “electronic sundown”, that is, an hour before bedtime where all screens are turned off as the light from screens such as smartphones disrupts the production of melatonin which we need for drowsiness and sleep. Having a regular bedtime contributes to a good sleep pattern so for some parents it may be helpful to set an alarm to remind them to go to bed, in order to avoid working too late or falling asleep exhausted on the couch.

A common psychological source of stress for many parents is the tendency to worry incessantly about their children. We also see many parents who feel guilty in their role as parents, guilty for being a single parent, for being separated, for working long hours etc etc. Many parents put themselves under pressure to be the “perfect parent” and become self-critical when they feel they are not reaching certain unattainable standards. Learning and practising mindfulness skills such as acceptance, meditation and mindful compassion can be very helpful in reducing unnecessary worry, guilt and self-criticism.

The job of being a parent is a tough but potentially very rewarding one. We should endeavour to see self-care as one important part of the job. Minding ourselves as parents is also minding our children.

Imelda Ferguson and Julie O’Flaherty are chartered clinical psychologists, both based in private practice in Tullamore. Through Mind Your Self Midlands, they run courses on Positive Psychology and mindfulness throughout the year. They can be contacted through the Psychological Society of Ireland (Find A Psychologist section) or on their Facebook page, Mind Your Self Midlands.

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