The Best Strategies for Parents to Boost Their Mental Health
Feeling out of sorts? Mental health pros share their tips for simple changes with big benefits.
You know that caring for your mental health is vital. But, as a parent, you’re also limited on time and energy — resources that have only shrunk since the pandemic started.
And yet, with a bit of intention, you can absolutely tend to your mental health — even with a demanding career, little to no childcare, and 1,000 other tasks you need to complete.
Here are the best (and totally doable) mental health-boosting strategies, according to psychotherapists.
Care for your basic needs
These basics include eating regularly, eating nutrient-rich foods, and moving your body, says Laura Torres, LPC, a psychotherapist in Asheville, North Carolina.
To actually make this happen, she suggests carrying a snack and water bottle with you wherever you’re going and eating when you feed your kids. You can also participate in fun physical activities with your family, such as taking nature walks, playing an active game, and doing a yoga video, she says.
“Parents often treat their children’s bedtime routines with great respect but then neglect their own,” says Carlene MacMillan, MD, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and founder of Brooklyn Minds. Lack of sleep sinks our mood and “is a recipefor increased stress for everyone in the household,” she points out.
Creating a bedtime routine can be super simple:
Adjust the blue light emitted from all screens, as “blue light tells your brain it is time to be awake,” MacMillan says. You can do this in each device’s settings or download a blue-light filter app. “You can also get smart bulbs for your bedroom that eliminate blue light at night and emit more of it during the morning,” or wear blue light-blocking glasses in the evenings.
Stop using devices about 30 minutes before bedtime.
Engage in a relaxing activity or two, such as drinking chamomile tea and listening to a 10-minute guided meditation.
Set boundaries around energy zappers:
What tends to drain your emotional, physical, and mental energy on a daily basis? For example, you might limit news checking to 15 minutes each day and get to bed by 10 p.m.
You might put your phone in a drawer when you’re with your kids. You might swap your afternoon coffee with a huge glass of water. These small changes can make a big impact.
Take mental health breaks:
“Parents must find ways to take breaks,” says Rheeda Walker, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Houston, Texas, and author of “The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health.” One of these ways is to use screen time strategically.
“Thirty more minutes of screen time for the kiddos might ‘sound bad’ but if 30 minutes will keep a parent from losing control and yelling at someone they love over a small matter, that extra screen time is 100 percent worth it,” she says.
Think of those minutes as a mental health boost: Catch up with a friend, journal your feelings, listen to a funny podcast, make progress on a creative project, or do a high-intensity workout.
Stick to your treatment:
MacMillan stresses the importance of taking any prescribed psychiatric medication. If you’ve lost your insurance because of the pandemic, she suggests checking out websites like HoneybeeHealth.com for low-cost medication. Many pharmacies are also delivering medication and doctors are offering 90-day prescriptions to reduce travel, she adds.
Of course, if you feel like your medication isn’t working or you’re experiencing bothersome side effects, talk to your doctor. Always voice your questions and concerns.
Practice bite-sized behaviors:
Austin-based psychotherapist Kirsten Brunner, LPC, shared these suggestions for small but significantly beneficial activities:
step outside to savor some fresh air
sit in the car to catch your breath
take a hot bath
process your feelings with your partner
watch a funny or inspiring show
Every morning, Brunner likes to play soft classical music in her kitchen: “It has a calming effect on the whole family.”
Focus on activities that fill you up:
Do this when you’re by yourself and with your kids.
This might mean working on your novel and reading your favorite books to your child. It might mean teaching them to bake brownies while singing Disney songs — like you did with your mom. It might mean painting or learning a new language together, because that’s what you’re interested in, too.
Find creative ways to connect:
“It’s so tough for parents to line up their timelines with other parents’ busy schedules in order to connect,” said Torres. But that doesn’t mean connection is impossible. For example, Torres loves the app Marco Polo, which lets you send video messages to your friends that they can listen to at any time.
You also can start a two-person book club or schedule exercise dates: practice yoga over Zoom, meet for a bike ride, or call each other while taking a walk around the block.
Be gentle with yourself:
Self-compassion can be a boon to mental health, especially when you’re struggling and stressed out. On difficult days, acknowledge that you’re having a hard time and lower your expectations, says Torres — giving yourself shame-free permission to skip the chores, eat another frozen meal, and increase screen time for your kids.
Remind yourself that you’re doing the best you can, adds MacMillan. Let yourself feel your feelings — and cry when you need to.
If you feel selfish caring for your mental health, remember that you’re a human being who deserves to feel and be well — just like anyone else.
And if you still feel conflicted, consider this analogy from Brunner: Parenting “is the longest and most strenuous journey there is.”
So, just like you fill up your gas tank, check your oil, and add air to your tires for a long car trip, “you want to make sure you’re fueled up mentally and physically” for one of the best adventures you’ll ever experience.