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Modeling self-care: Let your children see you recharge

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Mother with eyes closed and hands behind her head resting on a couch.

In this article, you’ll find answers to questions like:

1. Can my children absorb my stress?
2. What are ways to set an example?
3. How can I explain this is important?

What qualifies as self-care? Quite a bit, actually.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness categorizes self-care habits as physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, social and professional. So anything from walking to watching your favorite movie qualifies.

Modeling self-care teaches your children how to establish boundaries, tune into themselves and take action to remain healthy. Their best role model is you, even while you’re taking a much-needed nap.


Children are sponges who respond to their caregivers’ stress instinctively. If your child has tried to console you when you’re upset, they were reacting to your stress, which triggers the fight/flee/freeze response, says Joan Kieffer, director of Center for Child Counseling’s School-Based Mental Health Program. In contrast, older children may withdraw from the parent’s stress.

“Stress is contagious, regardless of the source. Children learn with their senses as their brains develop. They attune to what they hear, see, feel, smell, touch, taste, and how they sense danger,” she says. “Children take it all in as they develop and then later learn to tune certain things out, based in large part on their experiences.”


You may feel guilty for taking time for yourself. However, the benefits of self-care multiply when your children watch your habits. A self-care inventory by the National Alliance on Mental Illness can help you understand different ways to model behaviors.

Self-care is another way of describing health and wellness in action, and children learn more from action than from words, says Pablo del Real, director of mindfulness education at The Way in Delray Beach.

These actions can include setting limits and boundaries, such as learning how to say no, practicing good sleep habits and speaking positive self-affirmations, Kieffer says.

A boundary can mean saying, “I need a minute” versus “leave me alone,” when a parent needs time to calm their nerves, she says.


Use nature to explain why rest is critical, del Real suggests.

“Every living thing goes through a rhythm and cycle of renewal. Nature is rhythmic, and humans are part of nature,” he says. “Rest is a part of renewal, whether you practice a weekly day of rest, such as the Sabbath, or simply stopping the internal chatter and negative bias in the mind. Daily rest can mean meditation; a movement practice, such as yoga; or a deep awareness of the breath, like during running. We all need rest to renew and restore.”

Self-care also lends itself to explaining why bedtimes and time-outs are necessary.

“Children require structure to help them develop their own self-care. Time-outs, bedtime routines and mealtimes are grossly underestimated as teaching mechanisms,” Kieffer says.  “Kids might not totally understand the concept of self-care, as they depend to be cared for by others. That’s not to say they won’t learn a lot from watching those who are important to them. Modeling will pay off, so be mindful of the message that you are sending, which may or may not be congruent with your intentions.”


• Joan Kieffer, director of School-Based Mental Health Program, Center for Child Counseling
• Pablo del Real, director of mindfulness education, The Way
National Alliance on Mental Illness 


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