A Guide to Self-Care for Parents: Why Making Time For Yourself Matters


Parenthood can be rewarding, but is it ever busy, too! Between taking children to school and managing other to-dos, some days it may feel like you don’t get a minute to yourself. And even when you hear about, self-care, you may dismiss it as frivolous, unnecessary, or even selfish.

But self-care has little to do with self-absorption and everything to do with health and wellness. In fact, self-care can be one of the best ways for parents to not only meet their own needs, but also their family responsibilities. Once you view self-care through the correct lens, it’s easy to see that it’s anything but selfish.

Read on to discover the difference between self-care and self-indulgence, as well as how proper self-care can enrich you and your family’s lives. Then, discover five engaging self-care activities for parents to help you improve your well-being one day at a time.

What Is Self-Care, Anyway?

Many people treat self-care as a synonym of self-indulgence. Images of eating bonbons in a bubble bath or taking walks on the beach might float through your head. But not only is this inaccurate, such assumptions can turn selfless or practical people away from practicing the self-care that could improve their physical and emotional well-being.

The difference between self-indulgence and self-care, essentially, is the outcome. Self-care habits help us stay healthy and at the top of our game. Self-indulgent habits, like binge watching TV or avoiding important responsibilities, tend to be short-term fixes rather than real solutions to health needs.[3] Self-care also tends to feel good over time, whereas self-indulgence is fun at first but can eat at our health.

The true definition of self-care is actually very broad. Self-care is any action that you do to improve your health. According to the National Institute of Mental Illness (NAMI), all self-care habits fall under the following six umbrella categories:[2]

  • Physical
  • Psychological
  • Emotional
  • Spiritual
  • Social
  • Professional

A few examples of self-care that you might not have considered are brushing your teeth, eating balanced meals, getting regular exercise, or taking medication for a physical or mental illness. All of these practices fall under one of the above categories and help you maintain a healthy lifestyle. These and other self-care activities can help you feel your best so you can accomplish everything you need to do.

Parents often focus so much on their children that they have no time for themselves.[10] Sometimes, it might be hard to carve in time for something as simple as getting dressed—let alone anything that improves social or professional health. But when you take time to care for yourself every day, you’re looking out for your loved ones just as much as you are caring for yourself.

Why Self-Care Is Important For Everyone, Including (and Especially) Parents

familyIf you broke your leg or came down with the flu, would you try to brush it off and deny yourself treatment? Of course not! Most of us would go to the doctor or treat minor injuries as they happen. Emotional and mental health, as well as everyday physical health practices, are just as important.[6] Self-care is a great way for caregivers to make sure their own needs are being met.

Any type of illness—physical or psychological—inhibits not only our well-being, but also the ability to take care of our responsibilities. That’s why practicing self-care techniques is as important to family’s needs as it is to your own. By eating well, sleeping enough, and find ways to meet your personal needs, you’ll be better able to care for your children and fulfill other personal duties.[5]

Because self-care and mental health are connected, neglecting one can have a negative impact on the other. Sometimes, parental stress or burnout may become severe enough that you can’t overcome it on your own.[1] In this case, one of the best self-care steps you can take is seek counseling or another form of professional help.[4] A professional can help you figure out how to practice self-care in manageable ways.

In many cases, a parent might be neglecting their needs because they worry that doing so is selfish or self-absorbed. Here are a few signs that you are stressed or overwhelmed and in serious need of self-care:[7]

  • Change in sleeping or eating habits
  • Headaches, dizziness, or stomach upset
  • Feeling unsafe, unhappy, guilty, vulnerable, anxious, or lonely
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Withdrawn or irritated, crying or anger outbursts

How to Teach Self-Care to Your Children (and Why It’s Important)

familyDid you know that the best way to teach your children about self-care is to model it yourself?[8] Self-care can have the same effects in maintaining your child’s mental and physical health as it does for you. Additionally, self-care can teach kids how to react to challenging situations and is shown to improve empathy development.[1,8]

Set self-care goals with your child to practice habits that cover all six elements of self-care outlined by NAMI. If you have the time, practice these habits alongside your child so that both of you maintain the benefits. If your child practices their chosen habits for a month (or other chosen amount of time), reward them with a larger self-care activity like a trip to the park or a family game night.

Try to incorporate activities into your everyday schedule that teach your child self-care, too. For example, you could make a healthy dinner as a family or encourage your child to take a nap after school.

Read-alouds can be a particularly helpful way to introduce self-care concepts to your child. Here are a few examples of picture books that can teach children about proper self-care:

  • Unstoppable Me! by Wane W. Dyer
  • Eating The Alphabet by Lois Elhert
  • The Pigeon Needs a Bath! by Mo Willems
  • Good Night Yoga: A Pose-by-Pose Bedtime Story by Mariam Gates
  • The Busy Body Book: A Kid’s Guide to Fitness by Lizzy Rockwell

5 Self-Care Tips and Ideas for Parents

Now that you’re aware of the benefits that self-care can bring to your life, it’s time to make a game plan! Try these five self-care tips and activities for adults so you don’t have to sacrifice your health to maintain your busy parenting schedule:

  • Sleep is a key component of both emotional and physical self-care, yet so many parents neglect it. Aim to get at least seven hours of sleep every night, if possible.[11]
  • Use this self-care assessment from NAMI to help you discover which elements of self-care you’re lacking and pinpoint how to improve.[6]
  • Try to do one thing every day that improves your mental or physical health in some way. You could, for example, go on a walk after dinner or call a loved one you haven’t seen in a while.
  • Check out this list of the best self-care apps that make a few minutes of well-being just a tap away.
  • Self-reflection is also a crucial part of self-care, so brainstorm what you’re currently missing and how to best take care of yourself.[8] Put together a self-care journal and reflect every day on how you took care of your health.


  1. Hubert, S., and Aujoulat, I. Parental Burnout: When Exhausted Mothers Open Up. Frontiers in Psychology, 2018, 9, 1021.
  2. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Self-Care Inventory. Retrieved from nami.org: https://www.nami.org/getattachment/Extranet/Education,-Training-and-Outreach-Programs/Signature-Classes/NAMI-Homefront/HF-Additional-Resources/HF15AR6SelfCare.pdf.
  3. MindPeace. Self-Care Guide. Retrieved from mindpeacecincinnati.org: http://mindpeacecincinnati.com/wp-content/uploads/SelfCareReportR13.pdf.
  4. Thomas, D.A., and Morris, M.H. Creative Counselor Self-Care. Vistas Online, 2017, pp. 1-11.
  5. Wei, M. Self-care for the caregiver. Retrieved from harvard.edu: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/self-care-for-the-caregiver-2018101715003.
  6. Department of Health and Human Services. Strategies for Self-Care and Resilience. Retrieved from foh4you.com: http://www.foh4you.com/media/1453994/self-care.pdf.
  7. The National Juvenile Defender Center. Self-Care. Retrieved from njdc.info: https://njdc.info/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Self-Care-handout.pdf.
  8. Jones, S., and Weissbourd, R. How Parents Can Cultivate Empathy in Children. Retrieved from digitalpto.com: https://woodbrookelementarypto.digitalpto.com/files/2017/10/empathy.pdf.
  9. Milojevich, H.M., and Lukowski, A.F. Sleep and Mental Health in Undergraduate Students with Generally Healthy Sleep Habits. PLoS One, June 2016, 11(6).
  10. Parent Blocks Staff. Self-Care for Parents. Parent Blocks Newsletter, 2017, 14(1), pp. 26-29.
  11. National Sleep Foundation. How Much Sleep Do We Really Need? Retrieved from sleepfoundation.org: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need.

More Resources articles