This month's feature article discusses the importance of self care as a parent and caregiver. Parents often put their child first, but self-care is one of the most selfless acts. Try adding self-care to your to-do list as this new year begins! Read the full article below.
By Jessica Pappagianopoulos

Parenting is a wonderful gift, but also inherently stressful. As a parent of a child or teen on the autism spectrum, you are consistently wearing many hats. Simultaneously, you are a strong voice advocating for appropriate supports, a calming presence after a challenging day, and a chauffeur driving to appointments and activities. Adding an additional item to your to-do list that revolves around nurturing yourself may feel indulgent or even impossible. Therefore, you may be consistently sacrificing your own needs for those of your children. However, neglecting personal needs can be detrimental to your physical and emotional health. Reflect on the last time you were on an airplane and you heard the flight attendant instruct everyone to put on their own oxygen mask prior to assisting others. It is impossible to successfully fulfill our role of supporting our loved ones if we are not first helping ourselves. Therefore, the concept of self-care must be reframed such that it not a luxury item sitting at the bottom of a to-do list that you may get to one day, but rather a critical necessity interwoven into your daily routine. Everyone recharges differently. Below find some tips for incorporating self-care strategies into your day-to-day life.

First Things First: Ensure Physical Needs Are Adequately Met  

Are you familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? The base of his pyramid includes foundational, physiological needs (i.e., food, water, sleep, etc.). Reflect on how well you are meeting these needs. How frequently do you attain the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per night? How often do you eat a well-balanced breakfast? One step further - how regularly do you incorporate movement into your daily routine? If you answered, “not often,” select one and challenge yourself to modify your schedule for a week and assess the impact. Maybe this means disconnecting from your phone at night by leaving it across the room to avoid checking emails while trying to fall asleep. Perhaps it includes packing sneakers, so you can walk during your teen’s social group. If your schedule allows, add some excitement to your exercise! Go to a yoga class with a friend, buy a new workout outfit that increases your motivation to embark on that morning jog, or set a goal of training for a race.

Power of Saying “No”

Imagine holding a pile of heavy textbooks. But, each book symbolizes a responsibility: your job, important appointments, and those household chores that never cease. You finally have your books under control without falling. Then, you are asked to volunteer at a fundraiser and you instinctively say yes. Boom. The textbooks come toppling down. This would have been a good opportunity to practice saying that two-letter word that has the potency to change your life: “No.” Setting boundaries may be challenging; but doing so will provide you with more time to devote to your passions. When asked to do something, pause to reflect on whether you are saying yes because you can and want to fulfill a favor or because you are seeking to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. If the sole reason is fear of impending guilt, put yourself first. If hesitant to refuse in the moment, start by providing yourself time (i.e., state that you need to assess your schedule before committing) or say no to one request, but yes to another (e.g., “I can’t volunteer on Saturday, but I can…”). Others will likely understand and even respect your advocacy.

Get by with a Little Help from Your Friends

Are there adults in your life with whom you can openly share your thoughts and process your emotions? This may involve formal and/or informal social support. For example, support groups (online or in-person) provide the opportunity to interact with others who may have shared experiences or can provide insight. While support groups may be immensely beneficial, they are often still focused on your child or teen. It is valuable to also incorporate time with your partner (maybe plan a date night) or friends (and challenge yourself to spend the night talking about topics unrelated to your child). Further, you can lean on this support network; it is crucial to ask others for support when necessary.

Your Personal Break Space

In our summer teen program, we designed a break space teeming with comfortable pillows and blankets. This was a highly sought-after space that our teens advocated to utilize when their stress was building. After spending a short time within this space, teens expressed a noticeable decrease in stress and were recharged and ready to rejoin the group. Having a special place of one’s own to take space is beneficial for individuals of all ages. I invite you to find this place within your own home. This may be an entire room or simply a cozy chair in the corner. Regardless of where it is, have a place that you can retreat to when you have endured an arduous day.

Recharge Yourself

Judy Berry, a psychology professor at Tulsa University, illustrates being in tune with your body and responding with appropriate self-care by utilizing the metaphor of charging your phone. Do you typically recharge your phone when the battery is dead? Beeping with low battery notifications? Or, do you consistently charge it so that it always has power? Apply that to self-care. Some individuals wait to recharge until their energy is diminished and they are running on no power; others only take a break when their body starts yelling at them. As it is beneficial to consistently keep a charged phone, your mind and body will appreciate you preemptively interweaving self-care into your daily schedule such that you are regularly charged. However, the question remains of how to recharge? It may involve self-reflection, drinking a cup of tea, or writing in a (bullet) journal about what you are grateful for and emphasizing the small wins. It may be hiking a challenging trail or surfing in the ocean. A parent during our summer program discussed how implementing meditation into her routine significantly increased her overall well-being. The activity can vary substantially; it is simply important that you are carving out time to do something for yourself. At MGH Aspire, we utilize the metaphor of “charges” when discussing stress management. Make a list of the “charges” in your life (i.e., activities, people, or places within your life that boost your mental energy and invigorate you). Actively incorporate more charges in your life.

Looking Ahead

During this upcoming week, I invite you to choose one self-care strategy to integrate into your regular routine. Maybe it will be saying no to a request to cover a carpool shift or perhaps it will be downloading a new phone app (Headspace, for example) to incorporate a few minutes of mindfulness into your morning. Did you choose your strategy? Good. Now, strap on that oxygen mask, keep your cell phone consistently charged, and remember that, as Audre Lorde eloquently stated, “self-care is not about self-indulgence, it is about self-preservation.”