Coping with a mental illness is a challenge. It’s one that 25% of Americans face every day. I am part of that statistic with diagnoses of Major Depression and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Tackling everyday tasks like working, cooking and maintaining a home while also trying to keep my mental illness under control feels like two full time jobs. The amount of time and effort it requires to manage both of those areas of our lives is often daunting for anyone with mental illness.
When you add parenting into that mix, it can feel impossible to be successful in all three arenas. There doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day or emotional energy inside us to be a good employee, a good parent and a master of our mental illness. We struggle to make sure none of those areas gets shortchanged.
As a parent, therapist, and person with mental illness, I want to offer you five strategies you can implement today to make parenting a less stressful and more enjoyable part of your life.
Play with your children every day:
When we’re children we revel in playing. It is typically the most enjoyable part of our daily lives. When we become adults we leave all of that behind. Life becomes so serious. But play is a wonderful, healthy behavior and we need to bring it back into our lives. Find something to do with your children that stimulates your imagination, makes you laugh, and takes you out of your head. Choose something to do that you and your children enjoy doing. The strategy backfires if playtime feels like a chore or a burden.
My son and I play video games together. I never played video games as a child. And frankly, when he first got his Xbox and wanted me to play with him, I thought it would be one more chore to add to my To Do List. But he loved it and I wanted to spend time with him doing something he enjoyed. He taught me how to play a series of Mario games and it was ridiculously fun and funny. I fell into lava pits, captured stars, and mastered mini games that required me to mow my lawn faster than anyone else. We have a blast, and both of us benefit from the time we spend playing together.
Get active with your children every day:
Only 15 minutes of cardio activity causes our brain to release chemicals that increase our mood. So get up and get moving with your children every day. Again, it’s important that you do something that everyone enjoys. It can be outside shooting hoops, jumping on your trampoline or riding bicycles. Make it fun, silly and rewarding. Hand out a stick of gum to each person who makes a three point shot. Have everyone write their favorite physical activity on a piece of paper. Each week draw out a new one and that becomes the activity for the week. It doesn’t have to be more than thirty minutes a day, but it certainly can be.
On days that I’m feeling low on energy or like going out of the house is more than I can muster, my son and I fire up our Wii Sports game system. We do some dancing to Michael Jackson songs or even play virtual tennis. It might start out feeling like a chore, but once we have played for a few minutes together, I forget that I didn’t want to do it in the first place.
When we have a mental illness our tolerance for stress and chaos is often very low. Simplicity reigns supreme! Streamline every process that you can in your daily lives. If school mornings are chaotic and stressful, implement night time routines that address that. Lay out clothes, make school lunches, and set out the food and dishes for breakfast the night before.
Also, reduce the number of after school and weekend commitments you have. While it may be tempting to sign yourself and your children up for every class or activity that grabs your or their attention, too many of them will leave you feeling stressed and overwhelmed as you run from club to event. Place your priority on family activities and a peaceful, simple schedule.
Have something to look forward to each week:
We all need things to look forward to in our lives. It gives us incentive to tackle each day in front of us and motivation to keep moving when we want nothing more than to crawl back into bed for the rest of the week. Your whole family should have a special activity, that everyone enjoys, set up to do together once a week. It doesn’t have to be something expensive or elaborate. It can be as simple as a Build Your Own Ice Cream Sundae Night or a Family Movie Night.
Teach your children the value of self-care:
One of the most powerful tools anyone with mental illness can use is good self-care. These are things like meditation, visualization, self-talk, writing in a journal and therapy. We use them to manage our symptoms and prevent our illness from worsening. Those without mental illness can use self-care as well, to help reduce their stress levels and cope with anxiety and worry.
As a parent, teach your children about self-care. Let them know how important it is and help them learn a few simple self-care activities like deep breathing and taking a time out to calm down when they’re angry or upset. When you do these things you establish a common language and understanding about self-care. If you tell your children that you need a five-minute time out to let your anger go, they will understand what you mean and how doing that will help you. Making self-care a common language in your family will be helpful not just for you, but your children as well.