As Jada sat in the college’s health services office, wheezing deeply and trying to catch her breath, she pulled out her cell phone. “Dad, I’m really not feeling well,” she said when he answered. “My asthma is really bad. Can I come home for a while?”
Also, for the first time in her life, Jada reported to her dad that she felt depressed and anxious. Her parents lived in the same town, so her dad was able to meet Jada at her dorm room. When he arrived, what he saw shocked him. His daughter was sitting in a corner of the room, surrounded by dirty dishes, eating a tiny salad.
“The room looked like a crack house,” he recalled. “There was garbage all over the floor—and I mean garbage—chicken bones and that kind of thing. It stunk.” When he started questioning his daughter that day, she tried to explain.
“I’ve been trying to keep the place clean,” she said, “but my roommates don’t take care of anything. I just got tired of being the only one making an effort. Everything is so dirty, and I was doing all the cleaning of the dishes for the longest time. I just got tired of doing it, so now I just grab a snack for lunch.” Her roommates had smoked in the room, and one day brought a cat home, even though pets weren’t allowed. The garbage, the smoke, and the pet dander all made Jada wheeze. The mess influenced how well she was caring for herself—even how she ate and slept. And all of that influenced how she felt.
Her dad took Jada home for a week, where she was able to get hydrated, avoid the toxic environment, eat good food, and get good sleep. Her breathing returned to normal.
A former college counseling director, Joannie DeBrito, reports that self-care issues are common for college-age students who are out on their own for the first time. “I instructed my counseling staff to assess every kid’s level of self-care,” she says, “because almost always if someone was feeling depressed or anxious, at least part of that was due to poor sleep, poor nutrition, poor environment, and not taking care of themselves. Sleep deprivation is probably the number one thing for young people because they are so tied to technology.
“I saw people who were in those kind of environments and were neglecting self-care get to the point of not only being depressed and anxious, but suicidal,” DeBrito explains. “When self-care suffers, things just get worse and worse. The more stress kids have, the less they sleep. And the less sleep they have, the bigger their stresses feel—it’s just a snowball going downhill.”
Self-care is important for our kids to learn, and for us as parents to practice. Think about it: raising well-adjusted, well-connected kids depends on the strength of our relationships. And relationships or connections can only be as strong and healthy as the individuals involved. You can’t connect meaningfully with others if you don’t bring your best self to the table. The implication is clear: good relationships begin with good self-care.
What Is Self-Care?
Did you ever drive your car until the gas tank was empty? If you did, you know that fretting, fuming, and shouting didn’t help the situation. Engines won’t run without fuel, no matter how many times you wish or pray. In cases like this there’s only one thing to do: fill up the tank again.
It’s exactly the same where your capacity for life and relationship is concerned. Like your car, you’re what we call a “closed system.” Your energy levels are limited. If more goes out than comes back in, you’ll end up empty. If you neglect preventative maintenance (what we call self-care), the physical, mental, and emotional machine that is you will eventually break down. When that happens, you won’t be of much use to anybody. You can’t give what you don’t have—it’s as simple as that.
Self-care is the process of keeping your physical and emotional tank full. It’s a program for ongoing re-creation. It’s about keeping yourself in good working order so you won’t collapse, like a dilapidated bridge, when others need your support.
We know this is easier said than done.
Self-Care: Why Is It Important?
Jesus Himself knew self-care was an issue of great importance. That’s why He regularly took time out to refill His pitcher with Living Water. You need to do the same.
Believe it or not, there are a lot of dedicated Christ-followers who don’t seem to take Jesus’ example seriously. Some even believe that selfcare has no place in the Christian life. Discipleship, in their estimation, calls for the complete sacrifice of one’s own wants and needs. In their view, self-care is “selfish.”
So let’s compare self-care with selfishness.
|Aims at indulgence||Invests in self in order to re-invest in others|
|For me (only)||For me and then for others|
|At others’ expense||No serious negative impact on others|
See the difference? Selfishness is wrong; self-care is wise. There are at least five reasons to make self-care a priority for you and your family:
Self-care enables you to love. You can’t love others if you don’t love yourself. Jesus told us so when He said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39; Leviticus 19:18). People who don’t love themselves have no way of gauging the meaning of love for others. They have no overflow from which to share.
Self-care maintains healthy bodies and minds. We belong to God, body and soul (1 Corinthians 6:19). As a result, we have a responsibility to be good stewards of the physical and mental resources God has entrusted to our care. Self-care provides a buffer against illness and disease. The best defense is a good offense. A healthy immune system helps you ward off disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, healthy body benefits extend to mood elevation and greater mental alertness, as well as reduced chronic disease risk. This is especially true for young children and teenagers.
Self-care provides stress relief. Stress, which is the great enemy of physical, mental, and emotional health, has a tendency to increase if you don’t keep your mind and body in good condition. According to Dr. Don Colbert, “If left unchecked, the perpetual release of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol can sear the body in a way that is similar to acid searing metal.”1
Self-care enables you to follow God’s commandments and do His work. In Ephesians 2:10 we’re told that the Lord has created us in Christ Jesus “for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” The healthier you are, the more energy you will have to play your part in God’s plan.
Self-Care: How to Do It
Self-care is going to look different from one person to the next. What works for others may not work for you. Caring for yourself can mean something as insignificant as taking an extra-long shower or as grand as planning a family vacation to Paris or Hawaii. The important point to bear in mind is that every little thing you do can be incorporated into your self-care program. And lots of little things have a way of adding up over time.
Self-care strategies or activities can be grouped under four major headings: spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical.
Prayer, Bible study, devotions, solitude, silence, and scriptural meditation all belong in this category. The goal of this type of activity is to find a place apart from the daily grind where you can get in touch with God and discover who you are within the context of His love.
Mental self-care—involving things like thinking, reading, journaling, and discussing important topics with others—supports psychological integrity by maintaining completeness, wholeness, and unwavering commitment to personal values and principles.
The idea here is to stay in touch with how you’re doing by listening to your feelings, identifying your emotions, and then coming to a conclusion about what they mean and what to do about them.
This is probably the area that comes most readily to mind when we think about self-care. It involves a healthy diet, regular exercise, adequate rest and sleep, and a conscious effort to reduce stress. Here are 10 steps to helping your family get better sleep.
Some self-care activities are multifunctional. They have the potential to satisfy the needs of two, three, or all four categories at once. For example, Bible study and prayer can have a huge impact on your mental and emotional life; physical exercise, by keeping the brain stimulated and promoting overall health, sharpens your mind. The specifics of your personal program are largely a matter of individual choice (and choice itself can have a renewing and reviving effect upon the soul). See the “Self-Care for Parents” sidebar for a few ideas to get started.
A Life without Self-Care
Rampant despair, depression, and suicide have their roots in a lack of self-care. That’s why it’s important to schedule times of self-care and model self-care for your children. When you don’t feel physically rested or mentally grounded to the “here and now,” you can resort to some extremely unhealthy coping mechanisms in an attempt to medicate your discomfort. Here are a few of those methods.
Anger. Chronic anger can be a sign that your basic need for love, rest, sanity, and connection isn’t being met.
Addiction. Addiction isn’t simply a behavioral problem involving alcohol, drugs, or sex, and it’s not related solely to substance abuse. Ultimately, addiction can be traced to unresolved issues and desires of your deepest human need.
Suicide. Suicide is the last resort. When other coping methods fail, you may decide that death is the only way out. Everything possible needs to be done to stop the train before it goes this far.
Self-Care: How to Teach It to Your Kids
Once you’ve figured out how to keep yourself on an even keel, it’s time to help your children do the same. Remember, the best defense against self-destructive behaviors and suicidal tendencies is a healthy, happy, well-connected family. For the most part, good self-care is caught rather than taught. If you live by the truth that ongoing self-renewal is a matter of high priority, your kids will probably follow suit. If you don’t, they may end up repeating your mistakes, no matter what you have to say on the subject.
Consider these tips as you teach good self-care to your children:
When you’re done, you’re done. Like adults, kids eventually run out of gas. As a parent, keep your eye out for telltale signs—crankiness, irritability, and fatigue—and tell your child when it’s time to take a breather.
Watch out for parental pride and ambition. Childhood overcommitment and exhaustion can often be traced to us as parents. If you’ve got your son involved in five different afterschool activities during the week, make sure you’re not trying to live vicariously through his achievements.
Do one thing at a time. Pick one activity each school term and make the most of it. If your daughter likes ballet and soccer, encourage her to work on her dance moves during the winter semester and get out on the playing field in the spring.
Just say no. Good self-care often involves eliminating certain things from your kids’ schedules—even good things. Teach and model the art of being selective and making wise choices. Too much of a good thing is still too much.
To maintain good self-care, set reasonable goals and find out what works for your family. And then try to keep the big picture in mind:
your child’s ability to carry out good self-care can help him be less vulnerable to suicide.
Let us stop you here. This is not a lecture on how you need to do more or add more to your already too-full daily list of chores. This is a reminder of how important maintaining your health and sanity is to you and your family. You give your car oil changes, tire rotations, and other regular maintenance—shouldn’t you give yourself even better care than your vehicle? You may be in a season of life where finding enough time to go to the bathroom is difficult. That’s understandable. Still, get creative and do what you can, even if it’s a little thing.
Choosing self-care now will cost you—that’s a fact. But it will cost you a lot more down the road if you don’t care for yourself now.
- Gather the family and tell each person to make a list of healthy activities that re-energize him or her. Set a timer for three minutes while everyone writes this list of things that they already do or would like to do.
- Ask each family member to share his or her list.
- Then ask each family member to choose one activity and commit to doing it at least once in the next seven days. Ask family members how they plan to actually fit that activity into their schedule.
Note: You can do this activity in thirty minutes or so, depending on the number of people in your family.
If you have time remaining, do a speed list. Take ninety seconds and list as many activities as you can that the entire family could do together in the next month. After the time is up, see if you can schedule one of the listed activities into everybody’s calendar.
- Don Colbert, Deadly Emotions, quoted by Gary Smalley in The DNA of Relationships (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2004), 104