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Taking Care of a Child Starts with Taking Care of Ourselves

“In the case of a sudden change in case in cabin pressure, please put your oxygen mask on first before helping small children around you.” Most of us have heard these words many times right before our flight takes off. This instruction was developed because those in charge of designing safety on planes determined that as adults we need to be able to efficiently breathe before effectively taking care of a child in a challenging situation. Thankfully, few people will ever experience a real crisis on an airplane when the masks drop down. In parenting, a dramatic “change in cabin pressure” can happen far too often.

In my practice, I am seeing many stressed out parents whose demanding child might just be the tip of the iceberg. They come ready to learn all the strategies to more effectively understand and help their child. “Do we just need to be more consistent?” “Do we need more consequences?” and “Do we need to start one of those behavior charts?” are just some of the questions I receive in my first meeting. Some of the important things I am looking for are how parents are coping with stress and how they are taking care of themselves. In certain cases, helping parents take better care of themselves may be one of the best ways I can help their child and family.

Suggestions might include trying to get more sleep exercise and making sure they are getting a break for adult activities. Are the parents carving out time for the adults beyond just figuring out who is taking the child to the soccer game or driving carpool? If one parent is traveling, can the caretaker get a break? Remember, if we are out of patience, we may not be in the best place to come up with appropriate approaches to negative behavior.

When I suggest these things to some of the parents I have worked with, I am often told “Nice idea Dr. Dan, but it’s just not realistic for us.” I have full appreciation for where they are coming from, but nobody said change is easy. Especially in difficult times, resources become critical. In most cases, I am looking to identify human resources, trying to figure how I can get the parents more support or a break for one or both parents. Respite can come in the form of a relative, neighbor, school or even a low-cost mother’s helper.

I’m not suggesting that getting a little more adult time will be the answer to a child struggling with behavior or emotional difficulty. I believe parenting is one of the most exhausting jobs – and that is before throwing in added challenges. Taking better care of ourselves can make a difference. You might want to ask yourself, what sorts of things do you need to do to get you into a better place to take care of your child?