Parenting - looking after your own and your children's mental health

Lots of parents and carers have to balance work and parenting. Some may be looking after their children alone or co-parenting between two households.

Whatever the circumstances, parenting can be hard on our mental health and relationships. We can face challenges with our children around routines, social lives, and behaviour. Still, there are opportunities to get to know our children better, learn new things, and be together as a family.

Parenting is about doing the best we can with what we have.

Here are some ideas and resources for further advice and help.

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Spend quality time together and by yourself

It can sometimes seem like there is only one setting for family – everyone together.

However, there are many ways to make the time you spend with everyone in the household as good as can be and with yourself.

It’s OK to have alone time as a parent

All parents need time for themselves, and it’s OK to find and have it. If there are other adults in the household, helping each other to have personal time is a huge gift.

It sometimes feels impossible to have time to yourself, but with some creative thinking, for example, could a grandparent read a book to your child over video chat so you can get on with something else? Could you give your children some screen time to free up time to relax? Could you keep some time in the evenings after the children have gone to bed – when you don’t do any housework, but do whatever you want? If you have a baby or toddler, try to use their nap times to recharge rather than clean or work.

Help children build their own spaces

Children also need time on their own. Having more than one child in the house can be great fun when they spend time together – but each child also needs personal space.

See if you can help your children identify and make a space of their own. This is hard to do in small flats, but they could build a den on their beds, for example.

Try to keep connected with friends and family

Phone or video calls and online games with friends and relatives can be a good way to keep in touch – and letter writing for children and adults could be a nice way to surprise someone you’re missing.

Activities for the whole family as well as ourselves 

Finding a balance between different types of activity is a good idea.

Reading together, playing games, making a meal together, keeping active or doing something creative are all opportunities to have family time.

Trying to eat at least one meal together with time to think and talk about the day can also give everyone a chance to connect.

Think about relaxing rules on screen time

Screen time might cause arguments or tension if you’re unhappy about it.

It’s impossible for anyone to be a perfect parent. It's ok to relax the rules on screen time sometimes so you can have more time to work, rest or exercise.

There are lots of free, quality content on television and online, from virtual museum tours and theatre, shows to new content on streaming platforms and new games. Search on YouTube or visit the websites of your favourite museums or theatres, for example, to see what they’re offering.

It’s always good to know what your kids are watching and doing online and to keep talking about it. Read our guide on talking to children about healthy internet use.

Routines and structure

Whether it’s during school time, the weekend or holidays, it can be helpful to plan the day and the week.

If we’re at home all the time, it’s easy to lose track of time or end up doing the same old things and feeling bored.

Try and plan your day

Think about having a time to start the day together – even if it's just having breakfast together.

Nobody is saying you need a colour-coded timetable for every hour and minute – though if you like that kind of thing, it certainly passes the time.

Try and keep mealtime and bedtime routines consistent

Keeping mealtimes and bedtime routines in place gives a sense of consistency.

A weekly meal planner can help plan your shopping and give you all something to look forward to. It’s even better if everyone gets a chance to have their favourite meal and the kids help prepare food.

Children show stress differently, so they may take longer to fall asleep or find it hard to settle into activities they usually enjoy.

Sleep is important for teenagers, and allowing them to sleep in a little, if possible, may help them cope with their challenges.

Allocating chores and rewarding them for doing them can help with children’s boredom, give them a sense of achievement, and take some of the burdens from us. Even very young children can help if you turn it into a game – teaching them about helping and responsibility.

Helping children with schoolwork at home

There will be times when your children have to study at home, for example, if their school closes. Schooling at home is hard. You may not be a teacher, but you’re a parent doing your best to keep your children’s brains active.

Although schools set work, you might also want to get your children going with projects related to their interests. If you work at home, you’ll know that the rhythm of each day is different, what you can achieve varies, and that sometimes you have to give yourself the time to do something else. Let your children know this and reassure them that we all find it hard to stay motivated sometimes.

Try and define a couple of schoolwork sessions in the day for primary-age children. For secondary-age children, you can encourage them to study for longer – perhaps sharing some tips if you’re working from home too. Look for useful resources such as videos and quizzes on BBC Bitesize.

Go easy, and encourage them to share worries and disappointments they have about school, exams and next steps.

Helping your children stay in touch with friends

Find ways for your children to stay in touch with their friends. Video calls can be fun, but supervise young kids closely, ideally, be in the room or nearby.

For older children and teens, check in with them on how they keep in touch with friends.

If your children are anxious about meeting up with friends or classmates after being apart, let them know they can take their time. They don’t have to rush back into playing – reassure them that they will soon feel comfortable, but it’s ok if they want to stay close to you for a bit before joining in again.

Recognising and managing stress

It’s important we recognise and do something about any stress we’re feeling – about parenting, work, family and other challenges.  

Try and make time for yourself

It can seem impossible to make time for yourself or have some time for self-care, but this is when you need it most – even if it’s just for a few minutes.

Try not to judge or compare yourself to others

It’s easy to judge yourself as a parent based on what other people are doing, what they’re posting on social media, or what we don’t have or can’t offer.

It’s important to give yourself some time. You’re giving your best to your kids – and hopefully, there’s enough left for you. If there isn’t, you need to find a way to recharge yourself.

Resources for our mental health 

In our tips about looking after your mental health, we suggest various ways of looking after yourself. You can also make a plan for looking after your mental health at NHS Every Mind Matters.

Celebrating success and staying positive

Celebrating the small things and remembering what’s going well can help boost your self-esteem and mental well-being.

Praise your children when they do well

Take care to praise your children when they do well. Be specific. Tell them what they did that you were pleased or proud of and why. This lets them know you’re noticing and interested in their actions.

Praise the effort and work they put into things more than the outcome. It helps them feel confident about taking on other challenges.

How to set expectations with your children

Set realistic expectations. It’s unlikely a younger child can stay quiet for a whole day if you're working from home, but they might be able to let you take a call or answer an email without interruption.

Being specific can help – ‘I need 20 minutes for this call, then we can play’ is easier to understand than ‘I need to work’. Give children short tasks they can get stuck into independently while you’re busy doing other things.

Talk about what you have been grateful for

At the end of the day, talk about the things you’ve been grateful for. You could do this at the dinner table, during bath time or as part of the bedtime routine.

You could write these down too. It can quickly become a habit that can remind you of the good things that went well, even on those difficult days.

If you can sit with your partner or talk to a friend or relative about what’s going well at the moment, you will probably find that you’re doing better than you think.

Helping together

Volunteering is great for your mental health. Teenagers might be able to volunteer, and there may be community volunteering projects you can do with your younger children.

The BBC has ideas on how to volunteer as a family or look at our random acts of kindness for more ideas. Drawing pictures or writing notes for your neighbours can be a simple way for young children to help people smile.

Managing difficult behaviour and conflict

Children often misbehave when stressed, and we may find it hard to respond calmly and rationally.

There are bound to be occasions when you lose your temper and shout. It’s important that you say sorry. If you model apologising to your children when you’ve lost your temper, they can do the same to you. For older children, you can accept apologies with a thank you and remind them that they hurt your feelings, but you can move on.

Talking about scary world news

It’s important to talk with your children about things going on in the world that might be worrying them. We’ve produced advice about talking to your children about scary world news.

Be as honest as you can at an age-appropriate level and answer questions when they happen.

If your circumstances have changed – for example, if you’ve lost your job or have fewer hours – it’s important to be open about that with older children. This allows them to understand the situation without guessing and share their feelings.

Ask for help

If you are struggling with parenting, you're not alone. Every Mind Matters has advice on looking after your child’s mental health.

It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help. You could speak to a friend, relative or another parent with a child the same age as yours. You might have an online parents’ group or forum like Mumsnet to call on.

Being a single parent can be particularly challenging - organisations like Gingerbread have advice for lone parents.

You might also be able to use a local mutual aid or volunteer group. They can help with shopping, for example. Anyone can ask for help, whether or not they can offer help to others, now or in the future.

Finally, there are a number of helplines available if you want advice or support with parenting.

In England and Wales, contact Family Lives
In Scotland, contact Children 1st Parentline
In Northern Ireland, contact Parentline NI
Across the UK, you can contact Family Action’s Family Line – they specialise in supporting parents facing complex issues

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