Put Your Own Oxygen Mask First
By Susan Badeau
Parenting can be stressful.
Caring for our children can be difficult, draining, and exhausting. So, as the flight attendants on planes always remind us – we need to put our own oxygen masks on first if we expect to be able to help anyone else. Taking good care of ourselves is one of the most important skills we can develop as parents or caregivers. Yet, it is easy to let that slip to the bottom of our priority list in the face of the immediate demands facing us every hour, every day. When we neglect our own “internal thermometer” we often will find ourselves over or under reacting to situations in ways which come back to haunt us later on. Scientists teach us that the mind (brain), emotions, and body are all involved when we experience or respond to trauma or stress.
Sometimes, stress causes us to feel “hot and bothered” – our personal thermometer is totally out of whack and when that happens, we may become distracted, or respond out of the “heat of the moment” rather than out of rational thinking. Good self-care strategies can help prevent these meltdowns.
I am convinced that all parents, regardless of how their family came together, experience certain amounts of stress, and that self-care is a necessary component of all good parenting. Yet, I am also aware that parenting in the foster, adoptive, or kinship family brings with it additional and unique stressors that need special attention. Think about a “typical” family life cycle in the modern-day United States. Starting with a single “unattached” adult who eventually joins with a partner and becomes a couple. Children are added and the couple goes through many adjustments during the early years of parenting. Eventually, everyone is in the rhythm of their work-home-school lives for a number of years until the child moves through the teen years and starts to feel that “itch” for independence. Soon, the parents are “launching” their young adult children out into the world – perhaps to college, the military, jobs, independent single life, or marriage. The parents and their children develop a new level of relationship now that they are all adults.
Many of us may have experienced this cycle in our own relationships with our parents and siblings, and with some of our children. But we know that the circumstances that brought us into the world of foster, adoptive, or kinship care represent a variation on this cycle which can cause some shifting of expectations and transitions in roles. We don’t typically get our children at the moment of birth. We don’t always get to parent them through all the developmental stages through to adulthood. We have not experienced, with them, the developmental stages that came before their entry into our home. Their lives, and ours with them, are a constant swirl of change, and every change brings the possibility of added stress.
Throughout the years, I have identified the following six ways that people typically react to significant changes and stressors in their lives. These are not mutually exclusive, many times people will do two or more of these things in the face of a single change – in fact most of us will mix up our own personal recipe blending several of these possible “change reactions.”.
Do nothing: Sometimes changes seem so overwhelming or beyond our control, that we simply cannot or do not react. Or some people have a laid back personality and take a “go with the flow” approach to change.
Rebel or protest: Some of us just don’t like change. Period. We dig in our heels, get mad, refuse to budge and say “No way, not me, I’m not going there.” – We spend a lot of energy protesting the change at hand.
Seek calming or comforting: It’s a very normal reaction during times of stress and change to need to be soothed, comforted. Why do we call certain foods “comfort foods?”
Ask for help: This is actually less common – it is often hard for people to ask for help until the situation becomes a crisis.
Try to fix the problem: Many of us have never met a problem we didn’t want to solve. Problem solving skills are essential to successful parenting in any family, including foster, adoptive and kinship families.
Adjust, internally: This is a high level skill and one that many of us struggle with. It goes beyond the external work of fixing the problem to some internal work and often means changing the way we think.
These varied approaches to coping with change and stress became real for me as we welcomed four school-age siblings, each a year apart into our home. Prior to joining our family, these children had experienced abuse and neglect during the years in their birth family home and then four years in more than seven foster care placements. They had multiple exposures to trauma during these years. When they arrived in our family, they each presented a different coping mechanism.
Franny, the youngest, was the soother. She sucked her thumb, twirled her hair, rocked and found other ways to soothe herself.
Geoff, next in line, was the rebel. He protested every chance he had – acting out at home and at school, even throwing a school desk out the window on one occasion.
Sylvia, the oldest girl, was the nurturer and fixer. She wanted everything to be better and everyone to be happy. She mediated arguments, did extra chores, braided her sister’s hair, got all A’s.
Marcus, the oldest, adjusted. He didn’t want to make waves. He settled in and fit into each new foster home and school and including our family like he was born there. He was a chameleon.
For their part, many of the adults around the children throughout the years were in the “do-nothing” category. Act like everything is normal and it will be so. But slowly, in our home, we decided to try the “ask for help” approach and as a result of this modeling, the children began to learn to ask for help too.
Learning to ask for help is an important part of what I will call the “Self-Care ToolKit.” I tend to think of each tool in this toolkit as a “stress buster” – and the toolkit needs a variety of types of tools – including those designed to prevent stress and emotional burnout, as well as those required to help with the healing from difficult emotions that accompany caring for our children and teens.
Our family has taken many road-trips and camping trips through out the years. One thing I have learned is that when you take a trip, you better take along a really good
toolkit. You know, when we set out to drive from the East Coast to the West, through hills and valleys, big cities and small towns, highways and dirt roads, we needed to learn that we would experience flat tires, we would get lost, the air conditioner would quit, and so on. We needed a good toolkit. So here are some of the tools that I have learned to put in my own personal “self-care” toolkit and maybe it will help you to think about what goes into yours.
Into my toolkit goes touch and affection, a whole box of different communication styles, a lot of anger management techniques and stress relievers, a set of advocacy weights to pump, a boatload of jokes, and laughter, a bottle to collect my tears, and friends to share the journey with – its my AAA plan – and all of these tools going into a “toolbox” provides the safety net I need to dare to set out, one more time, on a new leg of the journey.
When developing your own “self care toolkit,” don’t forget to think of multiple outlets that use your mind, body, and emotions. Sometimes it helps to be with other people in a social or supportive situation, other times a little time alone can be just what the doctor ordered. Know yourself and what situations require which kinds of supports. I have also noticed that sometimes the tools that work well for women are not the same as those that work for most men, or for people raised in different decades. Also, race, culture, ethnic and religious traditions may play a part in guiding what kinds of “stress busters” are most effective for each of us. So don’t let anyone else dictate what should or shouldn’t go in your personal toolkit. As long as your “tools” are not self-destructive or harmful to others, they can work for you even if they don’t make it on your friends – or pastor’s, or therapist’s, or caseworker’s lists of suggested tools.
A “self-care toolkit” should include some of the kinds of activities we can engage in as often as daily (walking the dog, reading, prayer, exercise), some that are less frequent but still regular like weekly or monthly (date night with our spouse or partner, book club, bowling night, getting nails done, etc), others that are reserved for special occasions (vacation, retreat, conference) and finally those few things we might have handy to employ “whenever” there is a need for a brief break (listening to favorite music, deep breathing, cup of tea, call a supportive friend, punch a punching bag). Don’t forget to nurture your own adult relationships and find opportunities for laughter and play.
By creating and then using our own self-care toolkit, we will not only be better equipped to care for our children, but we will also be modeling for them one of the most important strategies they will need in life as they continue their journey of healing and wholeness.
Susan Badeau has worked for 33 years in child welfare and human services. She has developed curricula on many topics used to train child welfare professionals, adoptive and foster parents, judges, attorneys, and youth. She writes extensively on topics related to children and speaks frequently at conferences. She serves on several national boards and advisory committees related to the well-being of children and families, particularly those with special needs and challenges.Sue and her husband, Hector, are the lifetime parents of 22 children, two by birth and 20 adopted. More information about Susan and her family can be found on the family website, created by their daughter Chelsea, at www.badeaufamily.com. This article originally appeared in The Foster Parenting Toolbox, © 2007 EMK Press, used with permission.