Self-care is extremely important to everything from our mental wellbeing to our productivity, from our self-esteem to our physical health. Although taking time to rest and relax, as well as to reflect and process, can seem like an indulgence, it’s actually a vital part of doing good work and leading a happy, healthy life.
“When it comes to self-care, the analogy that I relate to most is breathing in and breathing out,” says Kati Morton, a licensed therapist and popular YouTube mental health content creator. “Just as our physical body can’t breathe out without breathing in, every time we give energy out, that’s a breath out — whether you’re taking care of a child, or whether you spend energy at your job. We have to find a way to breathe in that fills you up again, and it’s by doing things that bring us contentment and joy.”
While “breathing in and out” sounds easy enough, it’s important to understand that self-care looks different for everyone, depending on a lot of factors, including age, profession, lifestyle and personality.
Introverts and extroverts require different types of self-care, for example — while self-care for one person might involve going to a party or talking with a friend, self-care for someone else might involve reading a good novel or going for a solo hike.
Just as self-care differs by personality type, it’s also different for different members of your family. Below, Morton helps us understand how people of all ages and positions can best care for their mental health and wellbeing.
Self-care for kids: Stories and time to be free
Even without jobs, bills and the bigger worries of the world, kids need self-care just as much as the rest of us. And unlike adults, who can be more self-judgemental and less intuitive, kids have a really good idea of how to play, unwind and relax.
Mostly, what kids need is the time and opportunity to engage in self-care. You can help them by making sure big blocks of time exist outside of school, lessons and chores, and also by noting what they enjoy most and giving them tools to engage in those activities. For example, if your kid really relaxes and focuses while drawing, make sure they have paper and crayons.
Another way to help kids engage in self-care is simply by talking with them and asking them how they feel.
“Children heal through narratives,” says Morton. “They process events through stories, and then they can put them away. Ask them about their day so that they can tell another person, get validation and move on.”
Self-care for teens: Embracing and processing emotion
Developmentally, Morton says, teens are in a place of deep emotion and self-discovery. Teenage self-care reflects that: Many teenagers might need less processing with their parents (unlike younger kids) and more time processing alone or with peers, perhaps through listening to music, journaling, making art or making music.
Parents can help them by giving them more space to be alone or with friends, and just checking in with a simple, “Is there anything that you need from me?”
Teens can help themselves by starting to understand how to process what they’re feeling and how to engage in acts of self-care until they feel soothed, healthy, calm and content.
Another important aspect of teen self-care is making sure they are meeting their most basic self-nurturing needs — Morton uses the acronym HALT.
“To make sure your basics needs are met, ask yourself if you’re Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired,” she says. “You can be extra irritable if one of those needs isn’t being met — it can be difficult to concentrate, and it can be hard for our brains and bodies to grow.”
Especially because teens might stay up too late trying to get alone time (or trying to connect socially online), one great self-care step for teens can be limiting nighttime screen time, creating a bedtime routine or scheduling a short after-school nap to recharge.
Self-care for busy middle-aged adults: Knowing yourself and finding time
For those of us in our 30s and 40s, life is at its busiest, with many of us juggling an important time in our careers with raising kids, taking care of aging family members, and chasing after our dreams. In many cases, the biggest barrier to self-care is finding the time and the focus.
Here, Morton suggests a few strategies that don’t take huge blocks of our day to complete.
“When you’re in the car, if you’re headed to pick up your child, or going to the grocery store, or visiting the nursing home, just talk nicely to yourself,” she suggests. “Shut off the radio and engage in positive self-talk, to appreciate yourself and everything you have. You’d be surprised at how much better you feel — it can turn your day into something completely different.”
Micro-journaling can also fit into a busy adult’s schedule, especially right before bed.
“At the end of the night, when you have your own time, just write a few things about what happened and how you felt,” she says. “Pick one emotion that you felt that day, and write two sentences about it. You’re giving yourself time to care for yourself and process your day, and it takes 10–15 minutes.”
If journaling isn’t for you, 15 minutes of any activity that you enjoy before bed can be buoying: Read, work on a puzzle, put on a face mask — anything that makes you feel calm and content.
Self-care for seniors: Reaching out and structure
The Baby Boomer generation may have the opposite problem of the middle-aged population: They might have too little structure and too much isolation in their lives after their kids leave the nest and after retirement. In these cases, self-care can revolve around finding people to connect with and ways to stay engaged with the world around you.
Here, Morton suggests scheduling at least a few things each week to look forward to connected to things you enjoy and people you love. These don’t have to be hard and fast engagements, and they shouldn’t feel stressful. They can be as easy as going to lunch, playing cards with a friend, or taking an exercise class.
For some seniors, finding activities might be the biggest challenge. Morton suggests starting at church (if you’re religious), senior centers and resource centers.
In addition, nursing homes may have groups and activities that you can join for a small fee (even if you don’t live there), and Facebook and other social media sites can be a great place to find groups.
Morton also stresses that seniors shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to younger family members.
“Call people and make plans, and then we can do things we want to do,” she says. “If you want to go see the zoo holiday lights, call your granddaughter and see if they’ll take you. Don’t feel like you’re putting people out, because if you think about it generationally, the generation is crazy busy, and they forget to call as often. You can make the calls and set some plans.”
Is there anything that everyone in your family needs when it comes to self-care? Morton has one big suggestion: moving your body. You don’t have to enter a triathlon — just moving your body until you sweat for 30 minutes three times a week is enough to help your mental and physical health.