Helping Our Children To Understand Self-Care

Self-care is something that most of us naturally do in our lives to some extent. On top of that, many of us consciously make sure that we build extra self-care time into our days, too. We might want to explain self-care to our children and encourage them to build it into their lives as well. Explaining the concept of self-care to our children can be tricky, whether they be our own children, a more extended family member such as a niece, nephew, cousin or grandchild, or children we look after as a nanny, babysitter or childminder.

Helping Our Children To Understand Self-Care

What Is Self-Care?

At a basic level, self-care is about caring for ourselves. It’s about all the things we do each day to look after our bodies and our minds. Some of these things are quite basic – things that most people do each day such as cleaning our teeth. Others are things that we have to do a little more consciously such as getting enough sleep or booking a doctor’s appointment when we need one.

Putting It In Child-Friendly Language

Children are often more understanding of emotional and mental health than we expect. Many of them understand some of the things they need to do to look after their physical health. They know about eating their fruit and vegetables, getting some exercise, and wearing suncream when it’s hot outside.

Often they will have some understanding of self-care but might not use the same language as we do. They might know that they need some quiet time sometimes, might tell us when they need a hug or might say that they want to go and watch TV when they get tired. They might cry when their feelings are hurt or life feels overwhelming. Often children will naturally respond to their needs more intuitively than adults do because they haven’t learned to filter them.

It can help to take the lead from our children sometimes. If they don’t have the words to label their emotions, we could ask them to explain it differently – for example, they might say that they have a tangle in their tummy, or their head is fuzzy. We could develop a way for them to say that they’re not okay without having to go into lots and lots of detail or find the right words if they don’t want to – for example, they could take themselves to a designated quiet spot when they need some time out.

We could try talking about self-care in a similar way to the way we speak about looking after our physical health. In the same way that we keep our body healthy, we also have to make sure we do things to keep our mind healthy. Children often know that our bodies need rest, but they might not know that our minds need rest, too. Many of us are careful about what we eat and take care to notice the things we feed our body with. We also have to think about how we feed our mind – do we feed it with kind, encouraging things, or are we mean to ourselves?

Different children will have different levels of understanding depending on their age and ability. They don’t necessarily need to understand the ins and outs of self-care and why they’re doing it, particularly if they’re very young. It’s just about teaching them ways to look after their mind and to cope when things get tricky.

The Dripping Tap

We could try to explain our emotional capacity and why it sometimes feels ‘all too much’ using the dripping tap and bucket analogy.

Our bucket is our emotional capacity. The water coming into our bucket is the ‘stuff’ that happens in our lives, for example our friend falling out with us at breaktime, or having a really bad nights sleep.

When our bucket doesn’t have much water in, drips from the tap don’t matter too much. They fill the bucket up a little more, but the bucket can easily hold it. It can cope with it without any problems. But when our buckets are full, the tiniest of drips, the smallest problem in our life, can cause it to overflow. When it overflows we feel like we can’t cope with it any more. This might mean that we feel frustrated or angry. We might feel hot and tearful and not be able to think straight.

One way to empty our bucket is to poke some holes in the side. These holes are the coping mechanisms that we use, such as self-care. Each self-care tool that we have in our toolkit can act as a hole helping to stop our bucket from overflowing. The more coping mechanisms we have, the more we’re able to cope with before feeling overwhelmed.

Growth Mindset

Growth mindset is all about the way we think and the way we respond to problems and challenges.

Instead of responding to a mistake by trying to hide it and viewing ourselves as a failure, it’s about seeing mistakes as learning opportunities. ‘Yet’ is a great ‘growth mindset’ word. When we start seeing things we ‘can’t do’ as things we ‘can’t do yet’, they stop being an impossible and frustrating failure and become a challenge.

Growth mindset isn’t something that we can learn and develop overnight, but it is something that we can nurture and work on both in ourselves and with our children. It’s okay to struggle and it’s okay to make mistakes – we can all learn from our mistakes, and the more we practice something, the better we can become at it. This mindset can help our children to feel more resilient, and to be kinder to themselves when things go wrong.

Self-Care Jar

Having a jar containing some self-care ideas can help our children when they don’t know what to do.

These ideas could be things like ‘sit down and read my favourite book quietly for ten minutes’ or ‘go into the garden and count how many bugs I can find’. It’s a good idea to come up with these ideas with our children, as opposed to doing it for them because it can help them to engage with it, it should ensure that the ideas are things that they actually want to do, and they often have more creative ideas than we do!

We could then decorate the jar and pop the ideas in. These ideas could be written on lollipop sticks or could be something as simple as being written on folded strips of paper. We can be as creative as we like!

Utilise Apps

Many of our children now own mobile phones, and if they don’t have one of their own, they will often be able to use our phones and tablets better than we can. Though we probably spend a lot of our lives trying to get them to stop looking at screens, there are some apps we can use that can help our children to manage their emotions, and to learn about and prioritise their wellbeing.

There are so many different apps out there that it can be hard to pick through them and find ones that are helpful and appropriate. The NHS has a directory of loads of different apps, and we can filter them to those which are most appropriate for our needs, for example, those which are about mental health, child health, and sleep. This list isn’t exhaustive but can be a good starting point.

Be Open To Your Own Needs

We can’t pour from an empty cup. If we’re feeling depleted, run-down, and worn out, we’re unlikely to be able to give our best to our children. Our needs and our mental health are important. Being open to the things we need – whether it be an early night, a day without the neighbour’s kids running through the house, a GP appointment, or something else, can help to show our children that we’re also looking after our mental health and prioritising our self-care. This can help to normalise it within our family and to open the lines of communication between us and our child. It may help them to feel more able to speak to us about their own self-care needs.

Give Them Space

We all need space sometimes. Whether we’re 2 or 102, there are times when everything feels too much and we don’t know how to cope with the weight and intensity of emotion that we feel.

At a young age, we often don’t know how to manage or communicate it. This can lead to tantrums, break downs, arguments, or closing ourselves off, turning inwards and becoming silent.

Giving our child some tools and space to process things at times like these can help them to learn how to manage their feelings. They might find it helpful to have a space at home where they can go for some ‘time out’ such as a beanbag or pillow corner. There might be certain tools they use such as self-soothing or fiddling with fiddle toys. Perhaps they find writing it down or painting it out can help – making a notebook and pen or some paint available at these times can help them to communicate these feelings in different ways.

Sometimes it won’t work. Sometimes however many tools we give them, they still do something which we class as unacceptable behaviour. Rather than rising to it in the moment, it might be helpful to give them space to calm down a little and then discuss it afterwards. We can talk about the things that did and didn’t help; then work to add in some new ideas.

It can be horrible to watch our children struggle, but sometimes we have to let them work things out for themselves. We can support and guide them, but if we’re constantly swooping in to save them then they won’t develop the self-care skills they need to manage life when it gets tricky.

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