What is parental self-care?
Parental self-care is anything parents intentionally do to look after their own health or wellbeing. It includes doing things like eating well and staying active. It also includes taking time to relax and recharge. Examples might include taking a break outdoors, chatting with a supportive friend, or watching a movie. Another important part of parental self-care is self-compassion. Those who are self-compassionate show self-kindness, understand that making mistakes is part of being human, and are less likely to be self-critical (Neff, 2003).
The Parenting Today in Victoria study conducted by the Parenting Research Centre has provided insights into the experiences and support needs of Victorian parents. Data was collected from representative samples of Australian parents in 2016 and 2019 (Parenting Research Centre 2017; Parenting Research Centre 2020). In each year of the study, 2,600 parents (including over 1,000 fathers) of children aged 0–18 years were surveyed, giving good insights into the strengths, needs and experiences of parents. In the 2019 survey, self-care was measured by asking parents whether they regularly did something to help themselves relax and re-energise. The self-kindness/self-criticism dimension of self-compassion was measured by asking parents whether they were hard on themselves for not being the kind of parent they really wanted to be.
Are parents finding time for self-care and self-compassion?
Many parents stated that they are finding time for regular self-care – however, there is a large proportion of parents who are not. The 2019 study found that only about half the parents surveyed (55%) reported that they regularly practised self-care by doing something to help themselves relax and re-energise. Of concern, a considerable proportion of parents – almost a quarter – did not regularly practise self-care. Furthermore, the findings on self-criticism suggest an area where support is needed: while many parents (39%) felt they were not hard on themselves as parents, just over one-third (37%) felt they were. Research needs to build on this finding to identify barriers to self-care and ways to support parents in reducing self-criticism.
Is there a relationship between self-care, self-criticism, and parent health?
The survey results show a relationship between self-care, self-criticism, and parent health. Parents who were high on self-care tended to be low on self-criticism. Parents higher on self-care had better physical and mental health, whereas parents high on self-criticism had poorer physical and mental health. These findings are consistent with studies that have reported on the relationship between self-compassion and mental health in parents of children with autism spectrum disorder. For example, one study found that high levels of self-compassion were associated with lower levels of parental depression and parenting stress (Neff & Faso, 2015); while another found that lower levels of self-compassion were associated with higher levels of parent distress (Bohadana, Morrisey, & Paynter, 2019).
High self-care and low self-criticism were also associated with reduced fatigue in parents. This important finding illuminates the relationship between fatigue, self-care, and self-compassion in parents. The study also found that fatigue is related to current distress and poorer physical and mental health, while other research has highlighted the potential impact of fatigue on parenting behaviours (Chau & Giallo, 2015). Together, these findings suggest that encouraging self-care and self-compassion in parents is likely to improve the health of parents and their children.
Is there a relationship between self-care, self-criticism, and parenting?
From a health promotion perspective, an improvement in parent health and wellbeing is enough reason to justify focusing on parental self-care and self-compassion. Importantly, findings from the survey suggest that parental self-care is also associated with parenting confidence, and parent perceptions of their interactions with their children, highlighting the importance of self-care and self-compassion for child mental health outcomes. In our survey, parents who were hard on themselves felt less skilled and confident as parents and less able to focus on parenting tasks. They were also less likely to report that they enjoyed parenting and were more likely to find it demanding and frustrating. Those who were harder on themselves were also more likely to report being hard on their children, and more likely to argue with or yell at their child. They were also more likely to report that they wished they were less impatient and less critical of their child.
Conversely, parents who said that they regularly engage in self-care were more likely to feel skilled and confident as parents and more able to focus on parenting tasks, even during stressful times. They were more likely to report that they enjoyed parenting, and were less likely to find it demanding and frustrating. These findings are consistent with findings from other studies. For example, in one study of parents with depression, mothers with high levels of self-compassion were less likely to be critical of their children than mothers with low self-compassion. The same study found that mothers and fathers high on self-compassion were less likely to react with distress to their children’s negative emotions. Parents with more self-compassion were also more likely to explain challenging child behaviours as responses to situational demands, rather than to the child’s character (Psychogiou et al., 2016). These findings are important, as we know that parenting confidence and positive parent-child interactions lead to positive mental health outcomes for children.
It is important to note that the survey results suggest that parental self-care makes a relatively small contribution to parenting, and that a range of other factors may be more important, including parental fatigue, self-criticism, psychological distress, physical health, and having sufficient time to do everything that needs to be done. However, even when the influences of fatigue, self-care, psychological distress, physical health and having sufficient time are considered, the association between self-criticism and parenting outcomes remains strong. Of the potential influences on parenting confidence and parenting satisfaction that were measured, self-criticism remained the strongest influence. So it seems that the internal messages that parents send themselves about how good or bad their parenting is, do make a difference … and that some parents may need help to change this messaging.
The 2019 Parenting Today in Victoria data doesn’t provide any indication of the direction of the association between parental self-care, parental self-criticism, parental health and parenting, so no causal relationship can be established. For example, we don’t know if finding time for self-care impacts mental health, or if parents with poor mental health are less likely to find time for self-care. Similarly, it is unclear whether self-criticism leads to parenting challenges, or if challenges lead to self-criticism. It is likely the relationships are bidirectional. Importantly, other research shows that mental health improves following interventions which target self-compassion (Ferrari et al., 2019) – suggesting that encouraging parental self-compassion is likely to lead to improved outcomes for parents and children.
What can professionals do?
The 2019 Parenting Today in Victoria survey found parents often turn to accessible and familiar avenues for parenting information and support, such as GPs (56.7%), other health professionals (55.6%) and educators (72.3%). Therefore, professionals can have a vital role in supporting parents.
Professionals can support child development by supporting parents in the following ways:
- Encourage parents to seek support so that they can find time to look after themselves
Children do well when their parents are supported. Professionals can encourage these connections by talking with parents about the importance of seeking emotional and practical support, and checking whether they have someone that they can turn to (e.g. ‘We all need support from time to time. Do you have friends or family that you can turn to?‘). Many parents do have family and friends they can rely on for support; however, some parents may need encouragement to ask for help. Other parents may not have friends and family to turn to, and may need help to establish stronger links within their community.
- Encourage parents to look after themselves
Children learn from those around them: if they see adults caring for their own health and wellbeing, they’re likely to see it as important for themselves too. Professionals can encourage parents to look after themselves, while being mindful of life circumstances that might be getting in the way of self-care (e.g. childcare, financial concerns, work demands). It is important not to add self-care to the list of things for parents to feel stressed and guilty about. With this in mind, a professional might ask, ‘Sounds like things have been really busy. What might be getting in the way of you looking after yourself?’ Survey findings showed that that some groups of parents may need more support to regularly practise self-care. This includes mothers, parents of young children, parents who are time-poor or self-critical, and parents with fatigue, or mental or physical health concerns.
- Normalise parenting concerns and challenge parent self-criticism
Professionals should acknowledge that parental self-criticism is common, but usually unhelpful. In conversations with parents, professionals can discuss how self-criticism can get in the way of moving forward, and that being more accepting creates headspace for parents to consider solutions, rather than dwelling on the negatives. Professionals can also explain that it can be helpful to notice and challenge self-critical statements. For example, if a toddler has a tantrum in the supermarket, a parent might notice the thought, ‘I’m a bad parent’. It can be helpful to challenge this thought by asking, ‘Would I judge a friend in this way?’ This can help parents to think through whether they are being too hard on themselves. Survey findings showed that some groups of parents may be more likely to be hard on themselves, particularly parents of children with complex needs. Parents from these groups may need additional support to practise self-kindness.
- Model and encourage self-kindness
Children learn from those around them: if parents are kind to themselves, their children are likely to be kind to themselves too. Professionals can respond to parent self-criticism with kindness, while prompting self-kindness (e.g. ‘Sounds like you’ve been doing a great job and deserve a break. Is there a way you can find the time to do something nice for yourself?’). In conversations with parents, professionals can explain how practising self-kindness is a helpful way of counteracting self-criticism, and how we can encourage ourselves in the same way we would a friend in the same situation. It can be helpful to encourage parents to say things like, ‘It’s been a busy day … I’m going to take a few minutes to unwind.’
- If parents need support to increase self-care or reduce self-criticism, offer reassurance and information, and referral to specialist support if needed
Before providing information about formal support and advice, it can be helpful to ask whether parents are feeling supported by family and friends – and to let parents know that other sources of information and support are available. Professionals can provide resources and tips to promote self-care and self-compassion (e.g. relaxation techniques, finding time for friends, mindfulness).
The Raising Children website provides credible information on all aspects of parenting – including information on parental self-care and self-compassion that professionals can share with parents, or refer parents to if they’d like to do their own information gathering. If it is challenging for a parent to practise self-care or reduce self-criticism, professional support is available. Family GPs are a good starting point, as they can refer to suitable mental health professionals such as psychologists or local counsellors.