Me first: Parents need to fill their tank |

Me first: Parents need to fill their tank

Annie Keeling

School is back in session for many families. As any seasoned parent knows, the time between a school day’s start and end go by very quickly. Even as parents use that time to juggle work, kids, house, relationships, and meals, it’s essential to carve out “me” time.

Many parenting strategies focus on the needs of the child in order to address behavioral issues or chaotic home life. But what about the needs of the parents?


Parenting is filled with unmet needs, unmet expectations, and the pushing of boundaries by observant children who know effective triggers. If adults are triggered or their needs are not met, it can lead to resentment, bottled emotions, and reactive fight, flight, or freeze behaviors.

Let’s debunk the myth that it is selfish to put yourself first.

Parents will tell me that they don’t want to yell, they promise not to yell, yet find themselves yelling. They are tired and their fuse is short, especially in the evening. Children light these fuses with their needs and behaviors.

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The only way to ensure that an adult is operating from the pre-frontal cortex (more logical, rational, and responsive) is to deal with the root cause of the triggers, minimize expectations, set effective limits, and prioritize self-care.


No one else can meet our needs, yet it is common to expect our children to meet our needs – to make us feel loved, to listen to what we say, to comply with our requests, to be the well-behaved children we want them to be.

Do you have ridiculous expectations for your children? It’s easy to blame our kids for our own frustration and impatience. It’s also easy to hold them to a higher standard than we do for ourselves. We expect a young child not to tantrum or have big emotions, yet when pushed to our edge, we have the adult version of a tantrum by lashing out at those around us.

Heads up: We are the only ones who can meet our needs. When we take care of our needs, it fuels us to be able to meet the needs of others.


Cultural conditioning encourages parents to set their needs aside in response to the needs of their children. I have heard mothers talk about this as if it is a badge of honor and admirable to suffer or diminish one’s needs until the children are grown and out of the house. But what if the opposite were actually more helpful in improving parenting and home life?

According to Louise Clark in her eBook, Parenting the Modern Teen, there are five important needs: to be seen, to be heard, to be understood, to feel worthy and to feel like one belongs. It’s easy to see the correlation between children’s intense behaviors and these needs. As adults, we have the same needs.

We also have biological and emotional needs. Sooner or later, you must rest. You must eat. And you have to consider your feelings before your child’s. Why? Because nobody else is going to. Nobody else is going to make sure you’re cared for and loved. The more you put yourself first, the more you are available to parent with calm and loving responses.

You’ve heard the flight attendant tell parents to put on the oxygen mask first. I also like the analogy that if you don’t fill your gas tank, you can’t carry passengers.

So, fill up.


One of the most difficult issues I work on with parents is setting boundaries and holding limits. When you set a boundary, it is out of respect for you and your child.

Many parents are indignant when their child is disrespectful. They may even feel hurt. The child, though, is really showing the parent what they haven’t yet learned.

Parents get to keep their self-respect intact by setting the boundary or limit and then make it clear what’s OK and not OK within the family. Instead of relying on our child’s respect in order to feel respected, we can give that self-respect to ourselves.

Satisfying our needs requires us to know what we need. For parenting, this goes beyond bubble baths or lunch with a friend. Go deeper. What are the absolute essentials you need to survive?

Each person will have a different list. Some parents need more sleep than others. (Rest isn’t an option – it’s a requirement.) Some need time in nature, silence, daily exercise, meditation, a healthy diet. What do you need to take care of yourself?

Here are my non-negotiables:

7-8 hours of sleep a night

Yoga/mediation each morning

Nature once a day – dog walk, swim, run, etc.

Eating lots of plants and little sugar

Not watching the news or using my phone before bed

Boundaries aren’t just for kids. They are for you, too. You need to set up healthy boundaries in all areas of your life so that you have the energy and enthusiasm to parent well even when things get rough.

Creative Solutions

I have talked to many stressed-out parents who feel that there is too much to do, they don’t have any help, and their kids require all their time. They agree that lack of time to meet their needs leads to over-reactive parenting.

While it may not be easy, there are creative solutions. A few suggestions:

Share parenting duties and brainstorm strategies with another parenting partner. This could be a spouse, friend, relative, roommate, professional, etc.

Take turns watching someone else’s kids in return for some free time without your own

Keep a change jar and use it to pay for babysitting (there are lots of teens in Nevada County)

Set and hold healthy limits and boundaries for yourself and your kids

Simplify where you can, including less activities outside the home

Learn to say no to things that are not yours to do

Prioritize what’s most important

Provide self-compassion and know you are doing your best

Let’s debunk the myth that it is selfish to put yourself first. In fact, it just might be the path to better parenting, greater service, closer connection with your kids, and a family dynamic of kindness, ease, and love.

Annie Keeling, MFA, of Grass Valley provides local and distance parent coaching. Connect with Keeling at or 530-210-1100.

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