Mental health experts offer strategies for handling negative thoughts, even when kids are around.

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Being a parent with negative thoughts is totally normal, but it's easy to feel guilty about them and not know how to handle them. Experts weigh in on six strategies that can help ease the mind during those overwhelming times.

An image of a woman reading on her couch.
Credit: Getty Images.

Try Sensory Activities

When depressive symptoms spiral or if you're stuck in an anxious thought, take off your shoes and walk barefoot outside. Or splash cold water on your face. Or squeeze your daughter's stuffed narwhal. These sensory activities "take you out of your thoughts and bring you back into your body," says Dr. Pooja Lakshmin.

Show Yourself Compassion

Ask yourself: Would I let someone treat my kids the way I'm treating myself? Imagine the mama-bear roar you'd let out if someone told your son he was stupid or called your daughter a loser. Try to show yourself the same consideration, says therapist Kristen Granchalek. "It helps build self-compassion, and then we start to act with that compassion in mind."

Normalize Your Feelings

Remind yourself that it's OK to want a break from your child or look forward to their bedtime or miss your old life. It doesn't mean you love them any less. Baby-step toward healing by normalizing thoughts like these. "The reduction of guilt you'll feel can be life-altering," says Dr. Sarah Oreck.

Phone a Friend

Chances are, you know someone who has felt what you're feeling now. Ask them to share a strategy that worked for them, or just vent. (Texting works too.)

Find or Create a Peaceful Spot

Anxiety is stimulating; add the cacophony of noise that comes with children and it can feel overwhelming. Vanna Winters, 36, of Naples, Florida, wears AirPods when the volume generated by her three kids threatens to flare up her anxiety or depression symptoms. "My kids understand the benefit to them; a chill mom is better to hang out with than a freaking out mom."

Other ideas: a meditation app or five minutes of reading, even if you need to hide in the laundry room to do it.

Take 10 Deep Breaths

You hear this one a lot for a reason—it really does help. Slow, deep breaths with exhalations that are twice as long as the inhalations calm the nervous system, bring your heart rate down, and ease muscle tension. Exhaling (not inhaling) through a straw can help. Dr. Lakshmin notes that if these techniques don't work, it may be time to seek help.

If you're having thoughts of hurting yourself or others, go to the emergency room or try the following numbers:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (open 24/7): 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also chat online (suicidepreventionlifeline.org), where there are resources tailored for LGBTQ+ and Spanish-speaking communities.
  • Samaritans 24/7 Helpline (open 24/7, call or text): 877-870-4673.

A version of this article originally appeared in Parents magazine's May 2021 issue as "6 Ways to Cope in the Moment." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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