Expert Opinion

Nurturing your own mental health to support your toddler’s mental health

No matter where you are in the world, looking after your mental health as a parent is a priority – particularly as we emerge from, and learn to live with, a global pandemic. In Australia, around a quarter of parents experience some sort of psychological distress. Children of parents who have experienced moderate or high levels of psychological distress can be more likely to experience social-emotional difficulties over time. While genetics can play a part, it’s likely that these genetic factors interact with environmental factors to impact a child’s mental health.
For example, have you noticed that in the times when you feel stressed and anxious, your child tends to be even harder to handle? Or, the nights when you’re exhausted and overthinking an argument often coincide with the nights that your toddler won’t go to bed? This is not a coincidence! Toddlers pick up on subtle signs in our verbal and nonverbal communication, making it very hard for us to ‘fake it’. Kids are often tuned in to the emotional state of their parents, so when they notice that you’re a little emotionally absent, your mind is elsewhere, or you’re stressed about something, it can make them concerned, worried, or anxious.
Research shows that parents living with a diagnosed mental illness might be less likely to use positive parenting practices. However, this does not necessarily lead to poor parenting. This is very important to distinguish, because with the right support for their parents, children can absolutely thrive when they’re raised by a parent with a mental illness. The ‘right support’ is different for everyone, and varies by circumstance. I always recommend getting in touch with a psychologist to discuss your mental health concerns and individualised treatment options. Whether a diagnosed condition like anxiety or depression or less clinical symptoms of stress and tiredness, we make parenting much harder when we don’t prioritise our own mental health! 
But, how do you find the time to prioritise your mental health, regardless of whether your challenges are clinically diagnosable or a little more context-specific and controllable? 

I agree that it is incredibly hard for some parents to find the time to learn about and implement strategies that support mental health. So, in the instance of stressed-out parents who don’t require high-level clinical support, I like to help them find ways to use proactive strategies to nurture their mental health incidentally throughout each day.

I often start with suggesting parents jot down some of the experiences that make them feel nurtured and then find ways to embed these into their daily life. This is about taking evidence-based strategies (like mindfulness and reframing) and utilising them incidentally.

For example, using a lovely handwash and focusing on the scent and the sensation of the water running over your hands is being mindful. You’re stopping your mind from making that mental shopping list, or ruminating on a negative encounter at work, and you’re forcing it to think about what your body is experiencing in that particular moment as you wash your hands.

Here are some of the ideas that have worked for parents over the years:

  • Practice mindfulness with your children and enjoy the calming benefits yourself
  • Include meditation as a part of your child’s bedtime routine so you can get a couple of minutes of meditation in at the same time
  • Give yourself a hand massage while you put hand lotion on, paying attention to the sensory aspects of the lotion (how it feels, looks, smells etc.)
  • Pick an exercise activity like yoga that inherently encourages mindfulness
  • When you take your toddler for a walk in the pram, focus on 3 things you can see, hear, smell, taste (hopefully you have a coffee!), and touch
  • Taking the washing out of the machine can be reframed to a mindfulness experience if you focus on the smell of the laundry detergent
  • Make your cup of tea a ritual with a nice teacup and a special tea
  • Have a diffuser or humidifier going with an essential oil that you love, and when you occasionally get a whiff of it, it will remind you that you’re doing something for yourself

This list is not exhaustive and is not intended to trivialise the experience of mental illness, but rather provide inspiration for generating some creative ideas for embedding mindfulness and self-care into your daily routine. Please speak to a psychologist or your GP as soon as you can if you think you’re struggling with your mental health. The sooner it can be addressed, the better and you can help manage it. Check out the AAPi and the APS for a register of psychologists.

About the author

Amanda Abel is a paediatric psychologist, mum, and founder of Northern Centre for Child Development (NCCD) and Hawthorn Centre for Child Development (HCCD) – multidisciplinary paediatric practices in Melbourne. Working directly and indirectly with hundreds of clients each year, Amanda’s mission is for every child to achieve their best outcomes by equipping families and educators with the tools they need to help kids thrive.
Amanda draws on her own experiences of being a parent along with her extensive training and well-honed skill set to get families thriving. Having worked with families for almost two decades, as a psychologist for the past 11 years in a variety of settings, and a valued board member of the Autism Behavioural Intervention Association, Amanda loves building the confidence of the adults in the lives of children so that they can connect meaningfully, help them reach their full potential, and live a life that reflects their values.
Often appearing on Channel 7 and 9 News and regularly featuring in print media, Amanda is on a mission to make the world better for kids through her clinical work, consulting to some of the biggest global toy manufacturers and educating the digital media industry about making the internet safer for kids.
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