My Quest Hub

Looking After Yourself When Your Child Is Struggling – Self-Care for Parents

You are here:
Sarah Roberts is a QCH therapist, an AMDR practitioner and Autoimmune Protocol certified coach. Sarah supports parents and carers who, like herself, are caring for children and young people with medical conditions and other needs. If you’d like to know more, please visit or email
Sarah works with clients one to one and offers short courses, including Looking After Yourself as a Parent/Carer of Children with Health/Additional Needs, and Coping Well with Medical Appointments, Decisions and Treatments.
Looking After Yourself When Your Child Is Struggling - Self-Care for Parents

Are you the parent of a child or young person who is struggling?

Perhaps your teenager has mental health difficulties, or is living with challenging medical conditions.

Perhaps your child is neurodivergent and exhausted by the endless effort of coping and masking in a harsh environment.

Maybe your young person is too unwell to attend school.

Maybe you’re trying to access medical treatment, or get an EHCP.

Perhaps all the above apply, or something else entirely. 

If any of this sounds familiar, this article is for you.

On this World Self Care Day, I want to recognise everything YOU are doing as a parent. I acknowledge you and all your efforts. I know how exhausting it is and how lonely it can feel, especially when others around you haven’t had that experience and don’t get it.

I understand how desperate and heart breaking it can be to see your children struggle and not get the support they need.

And I want to remind you that, with all the massive efforts you are making to care for your child, it’s really important that you also look after yourself. 

Why it’s important to look after yourself

You need to keep going so your child can keep going. You may well be balancing numerous different needs within the whole family. You are very likely the glue that is holding things together. You may be the only safe place your child has. This is an enormous responsibility and it can feel super intense when your child is really struggling. And because this is such a responsibility, it’s vital that you take time for your own needs so that you can keep going for everyone else. 

There are many ways we see our children struggle, and they can all be painful. It’s a normal part of life to have to see our kids discover that the world isn’t perfect, and that life can be cruel and hard. It’s a fundamental part of being a parent to give so much of yourself and want the best for your children. But when you’re supporting a child who is struggling, this is even more intensely the case. We see they are in pain, and we are driven to want to stop their pain. It’s our job to help them, right? And now we can’t. We can’t make this difficulty go away. That can be incredibly painful. 

And in addition to supporting your child, you’re likely to find yourself advocating for them with schools, doctors and other professionals. You may experience being blamed and told that your parenting is at the root of your child’s difficulties. You may be dismissed and told your child is ‘fine’, and you’re seeing things that aren’t really there, or that wouldn’t be there if you’d just do your job and get your child to ‘try harder’.

You may be turned away when you ask for help, by chronically overstretched public services. Or you may be told yes, your child does need help, but there’s nothing available for the next few years. 

It can feel like you’re pushing against a brick wall, again and again. And yet, because you love your child, you keep going. You worry about them and devote yourself to helping them get better. You keep knocking on doors and looking for answers. You persist even when you’re shattered. 

I know that parents endure huge amounts of stress and persevere in quietly heroic ways in their efforts to get their child’s needs met. It’s what parents do.

Let’s just pause for a moment though and take a breath. If you break yourself in the process, who will take this role for your child? It’s vital you care for yourself, so you can keep caring for everyone else. And every parent I know living in this sort of situation puts themselves right at the bottom of the list of priorities. 

So today we’re going to put you at the very top of the list.

You are amazing. You are important. And you are human.

The relentlessness of these situations is enough to break anyone, and it’s no good to anyone if you break. So I’m going to suggest a few things that can help you keep going.

We’ll look at how you treat yourself, and ways to add some fuel in your own tank.  This is what I mean by “self-care“ for you amazing parents on this World Self Care Day.

Start with the basics

We don’t function well if our basic needs are not met. Have a think about yours. Are they being met?

  • When did you last sleep well and wake feeling rested?
  • Do you eat food that makes you feel good? Are you always eating what others prefer, or feeding yourself with the children’s leftovers, or from hospital vending machines?
  • Are you hydrated?
  • Are you relying on alcohol or drugs?
  • Do you feel calm and safe at home, or is home cluttered, chaotic or associated with your child’s struggles, so it doesn’t feel ‘safe’ and relaxing? 
  • Do you feel safe in your close relationships?

If your answers to the above highlight some issues, identify actions you can take to address them. Meeting your basic needs for safety, shelter, rest, food and drink will help you cope better with your child’s needs.

Take a breath

When we’re stressed we don’t really think about our breathing. We often breathe more shallowly, into the top of our lungs, so we’re not oxygenating our bodies well. This increases tension in the body, affects our immune system and can contribute to anxiety and feelings of panic.

Deep or ‘diaphragmatic’ breathing lowers blood pressure and heart rate, reduces stress, relaxes our muscles and increases our energy levels – which all helps us cope better with demanding situations.

Get into the habit of noticing your breathing – you could start right now, while you’re reading this. Are you only breathing into the top of your chest, or lower down, into your belly?

Place your hands on your belly so you can feel your hands move out as you inhale more deeply. Then try putting your hands on your ribs and focus on breathing into your hands and expanding your ribs out to the side as you inhale slowly and deeply.

As you exhale, gradually suck in your belly button and imagine you’re aiming to pull it right back against your spine. This helps to empty the lungs and push out a deep exhale, so the next breath in is nice and deep.

Exhaling for slightly longer than you inhale helps increase feelings of calmness.

Set a timer on your phone at intervals during the day to remind you to stop and take 10 deep breaths.


When a young person is struggling, lots of other people and agencies can get involved – school staff, medics, CAMHS, local authority staff, social workers, family and friends, and more. It’s easy to feel you’re being put under a microscope. Don’t add to this by judging yourself harshly. You’re in a very hard situation. You’re doing the best you can in very difficult circumstances. Treat yourself kindly.

Being kind to ourselves is a key element of self-compassion. 

Practising self-compassion means recognising that we are having a hard time right now, and that’s not because there’s anything wrong with us. It’s because we are human, and being human is messy and difficult for all of us. Acknowledging this can help us show ourselves kindness, rather than berating ourselves. 

How this might look in practice is in how you think about it and what you say to yourself.

Instead of thinking things like, “Why did I do it like that? Why didn’t I say this? That was really stupid…” you can say to yourself something like:

 “This is a really tough situation. I am doing a really hard job the best I can. I am good enough. I am enough for my children. I am doing the best I can. I am going to be kind, supportive and comforting to myself, in this moment right now, and in this situation. Well done me for keeping going. I appreciate everything I’m doing and all the efforts I know I’m making.”


When other people get involved because your child is in difficulty, you might feel you’re losing some privacy around your family life and decisions. There can also be a blurring of expectations about your role as a parent.

It’s easy to lose a clear sense of our boundaries in these very challenging situations, so it’s important to give some thought to strengthening these.

A boundary is an imaginary line that separates us from others. Having healthy boundaries is part of respecting yourself. Knowing where the line is that separates you from others allows you to value your own needs, views and feelings. It means we are clear about what we will and won’t tolerate, and what is and is not our responsibility.

Boundaries remind us that we’re not responsible for how others behave or what they think or feel. This is really important when your kids are struggling because your desire to help them feel better can blur the line between what you expect yourself to be able to ‘fix’, and recognising that some things are out of your control.

Here are four practical ways to establish healthier boundaries:

i. Distinguish between what is and is not in your control

Divide a piece of paper in two columns. Title one column ‘Things I can control’ and the other ‘Things I cannot control’. Then make a list under each. Here’s an example of how this might look:

Things I can control Things I cannot control
How I communicate with hospital staff
When the NHS will give my child a treatment date
How I look after my child and myself
Whether the treatment will work
How I behave
What school staff think about me and my child
Getting my child to hospital at the right time when treatment does begin
Whether other parents gossip about us
Caring for my child
Whether my child is left out by other children
Listening to my child
What the school does
Advocating for my child
Government decisions
Communicating with school/ local authority and requesting support
What the neighbours/ relatives/ colleagues think because my child is not able to go to school
Requesting a plan to adapt education to my child’s needs
Whether the local authority will fund special educational arrangements
Doing necessary paperwork and meetings
Hospital and school staff going on strike
When I go to bed, what I eat, whether I look after myself
Other people’s opinions about how I live
Asking for help when I need it
People being unkind or unhelpful
Saying no to things I can’t take on
Whether other people understand
Researching options and taking action
Ignorant people judging me
What I say to other people
What other people say about me

Hopefully you can see from this list that we only have control over our own actions. There is no point wasting energy on the things we can’t control. Focus on things within your control and take action on those.

ii. Set a boundary around what information you share

Decide who needs to know what.  Remember you don’t have to tell everyone everything, just because they ask. Have some pre-planned phrases ready to go when people ask something you’re not willing to share, along the lines of ‘thank you for asking, I’m not going to get into that right now.’ Change the subject or say something bland that deflects attention.

Remember you do not have to explain yourself to other people, and they don’t have a right to an answer just because they asked a question. What’s going on for you and your family is your business, and it’s up to you who you confide in. Choose who you want to share information with, what you want to share, and when.

iii. Respect your own limits

We need to say no to some things, because we are not limitless. We cannot do everything or meet everybody’s needs, especially when we’re carrying more than usual already. It’s okay to say no, even if we know this might disappoint other people.

This can include saying no, or not now, to our family and children. It is okay to say “no, today I cannot do that because I need to rest/ I have a headache/ I have other things to do” etc. You are a human too.

iv. Communicate your boundaries to others involved

When a child is in crisis, it can feel like suddenly lots of people are intruding into your privacy and making assessments of what is going on in your family. It is perfectly valid for you to set some boundaries around what you’ll accept, including with those working with your child. Treat your own needs as valid and expect others to do so.

If people want to come to your house to see you or your child, and that doesn’t work for either of you, you can say so. Request a different arrangement. If students want to sit in on medical appointments and this makes you or your child uncomfortable, you can say you prefer to not have students in the room. If you need a break during education meetings about your child so you can process your thoughts, you can state that you need a break. If you don’t want to discuss medical details standing at a reception desk, ask to speak in a private area.

Recognise and respect your own needs, and ask for these to be respected by others. 

Widen your gaze

When our kids are suffering, it’s natural that our attention can get very narrowly focused on their needs and our efforts to support them. Literally widening our visual gaze can reduce our stress levels, because it sends a different message to the brain.

Concentrating on one specific issue is associated with what happens in a threat situation, when we’re fully focused on the danger at hand, so our brain filters out other information. Widening our gaze to consciously use our peripheral vision can help us relax and feel less anxious.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Look at a spot in front of you.
  • Without moving your head or your eyes, soften your gaze.
  • Become aware of what you can see to the sides.
  • Name what you can see in your peripheral vision, without turning your head.
Reset your filter

Things can feel very bleak when your child is struggling, and all aspects of life can be affected. We can begin to feel ‘everything is bad’. Here’s a simple way to help redress a pervasive negative feeling.

Every night, think back over your day and write down 3 good moments from your day.

These can be very simple, such as the sun shone, the bus came on time, the hospital receptionist was friendly.

I’m not suggesting this as some sort of toxically positive denial that some situations are truly awful, grief stricken and gut wrenching. But from experience, I can say that on even the most difficult days, this practice can help us pick out good elements in dire situations.

For instance, on a day when we didn’t know what the medical outcome was going to be for one of our children, my three things were: we have access to healthcare; we’re all still breathing; the radiologist was kind when we were both terrified. This helped me hold onto the fact that even though the situation was hard, there were things that helped me bear it.

Doing this helps because we notice what we give attention to. This simple, repeated act of noticing and writing down 3 good things a day prompts our brain to start noticing them more. This resets our ‘filter’, so that instead of focusing on negative or ‘bad’ things, our attention shifts to notice what is good.

Over time, this simple habit can have a profound impact on how we feel about our life and how positively we see it. This helps you have more resources within yourself, so you’re better equipped to support your children.

Value your own contribution

I’ve heard from parents whose self-esteem and sense of who they are has been damaged when agencies involved have criticised them, or denied that what they say about their child is true, or worse. Even without this, as parents we can often blame ourselves when things go wrong for our children, and believe their difficulties are our fault.

If this rings any bells, I suggest you do the exercise above and add an extra bit. Write down what difference it made today that you were here.  For instance, you might observe:

  • I provided a safe home for my child
  • I spoke up for my child’s needs
  • I was here and listened to my child.

Doing this builds your appreciation for everything you ARE doing that you might not notice.

We tend to get so used to living with the difficulties our child is experiencing and everything we’re doing around that, that the situation becomes normalised, and we don’t see the extent of how we’ve actually adapted, and how much we are actually doing to help, even if progress might not be immediately obvious. 

And you don’t have to ‘doing’ anything. Just existing is enough, and important – especially to your child.

Writing this down each day will give you a stronger sense of yourself and all you contribute and is a really effective way of building how much you value yourself.

When we do this for ourselves, we are much less affected by what others think about us and far better equipped to deal with criticism.

We recognise that we are doing the best we can, in a tough situation.

Do something fun

It’s exhausting and draining when your child is struggling, in whatever way. It’s common that things you do for fun may fall away because everything is focused on their problems. It’s really important that you find ways to replenish your energy so that you can keep going.

Think about how life was before this situation took over. What did you do for fun? What did you enjoy? What made you feel positive? How can you start to add this back in?

 If I have a client who has lost touch with what they enjoy, I ask what they loved to do as a child – ride a bike? Reading? Baking? Painting? Splashing in water? Shouting your head off?

Whatever it is, make it a priority to reconnect with an activity that gives you this same feeling of pleasure, so you don’t burn out.

If it’s hard to find time, start with ‘fun snacks’ throughout your day. Could you read for 2 minutes while you boil the kettle? Get outside and stretch for 5 minutes? Sing in the car, or call a friend while you walk the dog? Do some colouring while you’re waiting for an appointment?

It’s not selfish or frivolous to prioritise more fun in your life, and to look after yourself. It’s essential if you’re supporting your child, because you can’t pour from an empty jug. Doing things you enjoy even for a short time adds fuel to your own tank so you can continue being available for your child.


I hope this has given you some pointers for ways you can care for yourself better when you’re caring for everyone else. Well done for all you’re doing. You are doing a crucial job in tough circumstances. I hope implementing the ideas I’ve shared above will help you keep going. Hang in there, and I wish you and your children well.

How to get more help

If you want some help with any of this, please email

for more about how you can work with me. I support parents and carers who, like myself, are caring for children and young people with medical conditions and other needs.

I work with clients one to one and also offer short courses on

  • Looking After Yourself as a Parent/Carer of Children with Health/Additional Needs
  • Coping Well with Medical Appointments, Decisions and Treatments
  • Understanding Autoimmunity

Due to my own experience recovering from rheumatoid arthritis, I also work with adults with autoimmune conditions and other health challenges, using safe, evidence-based approaches to help them find ways to feel better and live well. Feel free to get in touch if you’d like to talk.

You can also find Sarah and other QCH practitioners using the therapist finder