How Therapy Can Help Parents With Mental Health And Stress

You prioritize your children's health, but don't forget about yourself, too.

Traci Pirri is a trauma counselor, so you might assume she inherently knows how to prioritize mental health. But, while she is a therapist in her work, her struggles as a parent are the same as those many others deal with.

“We have extremely limited time, spend all our money and resources on the kids, and feel selfish (or weak) about needing a reboot,” Pirri told HuffPost Canada.

Finding that time is important, she said via email, because it’s hard for parents to be present with their children when they are overly stressed, not sleeping well, or not mentally healthy. Therapy can be an important part of dealing with that, Pirri said, especially when there’s a lot to unpack.

“Addressing our mental health is critical to being a good parent,” she said.

It’s vital for parents to check in with themselves.

Some mental health conditions are specific to parents — for example, postpartum depression and related maternal mental health conditions. Others, like depression and anxiety, can affect parents at any point in their lives, just as they can for all of us. A study published in 2018 found that parental burnout ― characterized by physical and emotional exhaustion, emotional distance from your children and a sense of incompetency as a parent ― can affect up to 14% of parents.

Even for parents who aren’t specifically experiencing mental illness, their mental health can suffer. It’s common: An Ipsos MORI/Movember Foundation survey published earlier this year found that 70% of fathers said their stress levels went up in the first year of their children’s lives, and more than half experience at least one new negative health behavior, like excess drinking or weight gain.

Another study showed that mental health for parents improved with the first child, but University of Melbourne research found that having a second child had a negative effect on mothers’ mental wellness.

The result can be a lack of patience or energy for our kids, no energy (mental or physical) for taking care of our own needs, and a lot of anxiety about how we’re doing as parents.

“If you find yourself questioning your thoughts and behaviors, if you feel like you aren’t good enough as a parent, if you find yourself wishing you didn’t have to wake up in the morning, or even having intrusive thoughts that seem to come right out of nowhere,” Carla Buck, a clinical mental health therapist, told HuffPost Canada by email, “then it’s time you speak to someone who is trained to help you figure that out.”

Sometimes, it takes someone else in our lives to help us realize that we are struggling. But whether you have a specific mental health diagnosis or are just having a hard time, a check-in with yourself and your feelings can help you realize when it’s time to call in extra resources, Buck said.

How can you find time to take care of your mental health?

But, who has the time to check in on our feelings? Finding a bit of space for yourself can be hard for any parent, but it’s important — especially if you are struggling.

“You cannot pour from an empty cup,” Buck said. “And when you try to, your ability to cope and make rational choices suffers. It’s just not worth it.”

Reach out to others to get that time, whether it’s by asking your partner to take on more, requesting help from friends and family, or relying on paid child care if you’re able.

Even short periods of time taken for yourself are valuable. Shauna Stewart Douglas, a business consultant and the founder of Mommble social community, realized the importance of that time when she recently had a cancer scare.

“In order to be able to weather the unknown during this period, while continuing to be there for my kids — ages 7 years and 4 years — and my husband and my business, finding a way to protect and nurture my mental health became a top priority,” Stewart Douglas said.

For her, taking that time comes through meditation, 10 minutes in the morning and evening. On some evenings, her older child joins her meditation session. Setting boundaries with children who are old enough to understand that you need time for yourself can help you get that time, and show your children that it matters for all of us.

“For the first week or so, the kids would come into my room and ask questions and sit with me (or sit on me!), but eventually they learned that this was 10 minutes of quiet for Mom,” she told HuffPost Canada by email. “They are welcome to sit with me, but they understand this isn’t a time for talking.”

Here’s how to find therapy and therapy alternatives.

If you are struggling, speak with a mental health professional and ask for their advice and perhaps a recommendation. Many employers offer an employee assistance program (EAP) that offers telephone counseling, information about mental wellness, and access to therapists. Local parent support groups and community centers often offer support groups and counselors. There are mental health hotlines available as well. All of these resources can help you determine if additional help is warranted.

There are many kinds of therapists available, of all different training levels, approaches and specialties. Psychology Today runs a database of therapists in Canada and the United States, complete with contact information. You can also ask your doctor for referrals or, again, an EAP can also help you find a therapist.

If choosing someone feels overwhelming, ask someone you trust to help you review options or even make phone calls to set up an appointment ― that’s often the hardest step for people.

You can also seek out online options, said Buck. Many therapists offer sessions via telephone or Skype, and apps like BetterHelp put a therapist at your fingertips.

“This is a huge time-saver for parents, and all it requires is five to 10 minutes to turn on your laptop/mobile phone and click a link provided to you by your therapist,” she said.

In addition to meditation and online therapy, Pirri suggests exercise, which has been proven to help with depression, or joining a social group centered around your faith, a volunteer activity, or a hobby or interest.

“Regular connection with a group that lines up with your morals and values helps you to step outside the parenthood grind and reconnect with things that feel bigger,” she said. “It helps keep things in perspective.”

Finally, if you are experiencing a mental health crisis or are experiencing suicidal ideation, call an emergency hotline or seek help from a doctor. Just as a heart attack or broken bone warrants immediate medical care, so does a serious mental health issue.

You Should See Someone is a HuffPost Life series that will teach you everything you need to know about doing therapy. We’re giving you informative, no-B.S. stories on seeking mental health help: how to do it, what to expect, and why it matters. Because taking care of your mind is just as important as taking care of your body. Find all of our coverage here and share your stories on social with the hashtag #DoingTherapy.

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.