Parents who teach their kids self-care can make a huge impact on their lifetime health and wellness. Kids who have eating disorders, disordered eating, and body hate often struggle with poor self-care habits. Unless parents step up and teach these kids self-care, it’s very possible that they will struggle with mental health issues for life.
What is self-care?
Self-care is a way for someone to recognize and respond to their personal emotional state (feelings). The pop-psychology articles and books are targeted at adults who struggle to care for themselves. Which in itself is a strange state of affairs. How is it that we have a culture in which so many people fail to care for their own needs?
A lot of current literature about self-care focuses on bubble baths, massages, and glasses of wine. But any external form of self-care will fall flat if the person doing it is unable to reach inside and feel a sense of being inherently lovable. Self-care is only effective if it’s built on a platform of self-worth and acceptance. Otherwise it’s just consumerism.
A parent who teaches their child self-care when they are young will raise a child who never needs to read a book about caring for themself.
Why is self-care important for our kids?
We are currently facing terrifying increases in suicide, self-harm, eating disorders, substance abuse, and mental conditions such as anxiety and depression. Our children are entering a society that is clearly emotionally compromised.
This is a huge public health crisis. There are many societal and structural changes that need to take place to make our culture safer for our kids. But for now, as parents, we simply need to do our very best to help our kids be resilient against the mental health challenges they face.
One of the recognized methods for protecting children from mental health issues is to develop self-care routines that promote health and wellbeing. Self-care is essential if we want our kids to thrive despite increasing rates of poor mental health in our society.
How do we learn self-care?
Self-care begins with the word “self,” but it’s not something that needs to be developed alone. Human beings are finely attuned to social groups, particularly their parents. As a result, loving oneself often requires a sense of being loved in their critical relationships. This is why self-care is often best when learned in partnership with a loving parent.
People can strive to learn to love themselves as adults. But it’s far easier if children are taught by their parents that they are deeply loved and accepted as children. It’s also helpful if parents show their kids some effective methods of self-care rather than just expect them to develop it for themselves. When parents teach self-care to kids, it is easier for them to tap into self-love and personal caregiving any time they are struggling emotionally.
Feeling loved is the first pillar of self-care
Feeling loved is the very first pillar of self-care. Without a sense of being loved, self-care efforts feel empty and fail to achieve the goal of emotional regulation.
While we can learn to love ourselves, it’s much faster if we learn that we are loved when we are young children. Almost all parents do love their children deeply and want only what’s best for them. But it’s surprisingly common for adult children to report that they did not feel loved by their parents. As a result, they have a hard time tapping into an innate sense of worthiness and acceptance, which is a foundation of self-care.
Parents can teach self-care to kids by helping them feel deeply loved. Parents need to give love in a way that children recognize in the moment. Giving love to our children will give them a lifetime of self-care techniques and improved health and happiness for life.
How parents can teach self-care to kids
You already love your child. That goes without saying. But how do you let them know they are loved? Are you able to tap into methods of showing more love to them when emotions are challenging? Parents can teach self-care to kids by showing them more love in the most difficult situations.
We teach our kids self-care by showing them we love them. We can’t assume our kids know we love them. Feeling love for our kids is not enough. Telling our kids we love them as they leave for school doesn’t cut it. Driving carpool, making three meals a day, and keeping a roof over their head is not showing love, it’s just expected from us as their parents.
Instead, we must show our kids we love them. Our love actions are how they learn self-care practices that will keep them healthy for life.
6 ways parents can teach self-care to their kids
A parent’s demonstrated love actions build a powerful foundation for self-care and self-love. These six ways to show love will help you raise a child who knows how to take care of themselves.
1. Sit with them
Often when our children become emotionally aroused, we want to make it all better and/or go away. This is natural and normal, but to show our kids love and teach them self-care, we need to sit with them when they are in distress and not try to fix it or make it go away. We need to accept their emotional state – whatever it is – and stay by their side.
This action models self-care by showing our kids that they don’t need to repress how they feel in order to be loved by us. If we can love them in any state (which is simply shown by sitting without fixing), then we teach them to accept themselves. Acceptance is virtually indistinguishable from love, so accepting our child is one of the very best ways we can show them we love them.
2. Feed them
One of the very first caregiving acts of a parent is providing food. Over the first 10 years of life, most parents provide almost all of the food that goes into their child’s mouth. As a result, feeding is intricately linked to feeling loved.
Before you freak out about raising an “emotional eater,” relax. We are all emotional eaters. We all link food with love. And that’s OK. Eating is part of self-care, and there is nothing wrong with reaching for food to help us regulate.
Also, you’ve probably heard of the dangers of getting “hangry.” Many times, a difficult emotional state is based on a lack of calories in the body. You may remember when your child was little that they almost always had a breakdown when they went too long between eating. That never changes – we always need to fuel our bodies to support our emotional state.
When your child is upset, offer to get them something. If possible, find something that you can hand-feed them. Break a cookie into pieces and offer it to them one piece at a time. Or bring a hot beverage and hold it for them in between sips. Be the provider of food, and your child will feel cared for in a deep and primal way.
Can you personally serve your child a nourishing meal or snack once per day? Try serving a food that has cultural relevance for your family. For me, Marmite is the ultimate comfort food because it was a culturally unique way my mother cared for me. The simple foods that come from your hands may become comfort foods your child reaches for as an adult.
This action models self-care by showing your child that when they feel bad, they should tune into their hunger state and consider feeding themselves.
3. Tuck them into bed
When they were little, we tucked our children into bed to help them feel safe and loved. As they grow, we increasingly lose this opportunity to connect with them as their parents.
If your child is distraught, walk with them to their room and make their bed soft and comfortable for them. Add more blankets and pillows, and help them snuggle into a cloud of comfort. Turn on an aromatherapy diffuser with a calming scent. Light a candle and turn on some soothing music or a fairy tale audiobook. Even better, read them one of their favorite childhood books.
If this sounds impossible, take baby steps. Make no mistake: your child wants to be loved and cared for by you. But if you have grown apart, it may take time for them to trust that you still respect them as an autonomous individual vs. a “baby” or a weakling.
In times of calm, can you find a way to say goodnight to your child in-person, in their room every night or a few times per week?
This action models self-care by showing your child that sometimes what they need is a calm, soothing environment. Using props like snuggly bedding, music, and scent, all help to create a good place for emotions to calm down.
4. Touch them
While self-care listicles often provide “things” to feel better, most people automatically self-soothe with touch. You may notice that when you feel upset you play with your hair, stroke your arm, or rub your thigh. These are not accidental habits – they are a way that our subconscious is trying to soothe you in the most primal way possible: touch.
A parent’s touch is the very first caregiving activity. And most of us touch our children constantly … until we don’t anymore. At some point, our kids grow too big for our laps, or their younger sibling takes precedence, or something else happens to put physical space between us.
When your child is anxious and upset, offer to give them a simple hand massage. This takes no skill whatsoever, but it is a powerful way to tap into their primal need to be loved by you physically.
You can also try a foot massage, rubbing their back, or brushing their hair. Some children may accept a hug or cuddle. But even if all you can do in the beginning is briefly reach out and touch their hand or cheek, start with that. Be sure that the physical touch is enjoyable for the child, and don’t persist unless you sense that they consent to your touch.
This action models self-care by showing our child that using touch to feel better works really well and is often the fastest and easiest method of self-care.
5. Move together
You know how when your baby was crying it often helped to walk around the house holding them? Or perhaps they calmed down in the car? So many parents hold their infants against their bodies in chest carriers, which is deeply comforting. Movement is a powerful soothing activity, and it can defuse tension and anxiety.
When your child is emotionally triggered, see if you can take a walk together or go for a drive together. When tensions are high at home and you’re having a hard time communicating, movement can often help to literally shake things up a little bit.
It can also help open the floodgates to actually talk to each other. Most of us have noticed that when communication can be hard face-to-face, it often opens up when we are side-by-side. But don’t pressure verbal communication. Try to just be content being moving together.
This action models self-care by showing your child that sometimes moving the body can help offload tension and create a calmer emotional state.
6. Don’t force verbal communication
We are a very verbal society, but when a person is feeling emotionally upset, their powers of language are often limited. Don’t force verbal communication by asking a lot of questions or demanding an explanation for why they feel how they feel.
You’ll notice that all of the first five recommendations are physical, not verbal. This is because they are tapping into a pre-verbal communication that you had when your child was an infant. Remember when they literally couldn’t talk to you? When they are emotionally riled up, they return to a pre-verbal state.
Don’t jump to find out what’s “really wrong” or solve any problems with your ideas until you have connected with your child physically. Soothe their emotional state physically before you go into problem-solving mode.
This action models self-care by showing your child that it’s OK not to talk all the time. We don’t have to analyze and explain ourselves when we are upset. We can simply be upset and still be worthy of love and affection.
Tools and props for self-care
It can be really helpful to have a few tools and props on-hand to help you provide care to your child. The tools you use to care for your child will become a way to signal to them that you are available to care for them and show them love. These tools will very likely become a part of their lifelong self-care toolbox. Here are just a few ideas:
- The Calm App, or something similar, which provides soothing music, calming stories, and visual prompts to help calm the nervous system.
- An aromatherapy diffuser with calming essential oils. Or get a handy on-the go aromatherapy inhaler (this can usually get a laugh, which is a bonus!)
- A soft blanket, snuggly stuffed animal, or weighted blanket for tactile soothing.
- A fidget spinner, slime, or putty to create movement and ease tension.
- Scented lotion to use when giving a hand massage.
- Two yoga mats so you can do a few poses together.
The care you give your child will help them develop self-care actions that will serve them for life. The hardest part about parents teaching self-care to kids is often learning to tolerate difficult emotional states. It’s uncomfortable to be with someone who is freaking out. Which is why you need to work on your own self-care routines, too!
We have some tips to help: A Self-Care Guide for Parents Who Have Absolutely No Time for Self-Care
Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ginny is also a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.