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9 ways to prioritize your mental health as a child care provider

When you’re a nanny, babysitter or other child care professional, self-care is more than taking a walk. Here’s how to bolster your unique mental health needs.

9 ways to prioritize your mental health as a child care provider

Between the long work weeks, pay that leaves something to be desired and responsibilities that include “keeping kids safe” and “shaping young minds” (no pressure!), being a child care provider is a job that takes its toll. 

“Child caregiving is an emotionally taxing job with huge responsibilities, and the impact is often felt when the workday is done,” says Shontel Cargill, a licensed marriage and family therapist and regional clinical director with Thriveworks in Cumming, Georgia. “And because these jobs require giving so much of one’s self, it often leads to the deprioritization of a person’s own needs. Engaging in self-care and finding a solid work-life balance is paramount to mental wellness when you’re a child care provider.”

However, as professional nanny of over 30 years Stella Reid, aka Nanny Stella, puts it: When you work in child care, “self care is bigger than taking a walk or doing yoga.”

“Child caregiving is an emotionally taxing job with huge responsibilities, and the impact is often felt when the workday is done.”

—Shontel Cargill, licensed marriage and family therapist

Why being a child care provider is so taxing

Historically speaking, the child care industry has always had its issues, but despite them, it’s chugged along. The pandemic, however, was the proverbial black light that exposed the industry’s flaws; the main one, as one Washington Post article put it, pay that’s “absolute crap.” 

The result: A child care shortage. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4,500 jobs were eliminated between September of 2021 through November, and since then, thousands more. In September of 2021, the White House released a report that called the current system “unworkable.” (The irony in word choice isn’t lost, being that, due to the current shortage, many parents [mostly women] can’t go to work.)

But it’s more than the broken system. It’s the nature of the job. “The mental agility and selflessness required for strong, nurturing child care can be taxing,” says Heather Dugan, author of “The Friendship Upgrade” and founder of Cabernet Coaches, a group for women that fosters self-betterment. “Between competing areas of interest, short attention spans and varying logic and cognitive development levels, child care providers need to be unusually flexible and creative.”

“The mental resets and balancing that’s essential for maintaining emotional equilibrium can be harder to squeeze in with less adult interaction and private personal space,” Dugan continues. “In settings with multiple ages or younger kids that require more attention, it’s especially easy to lose sight of the mental effort exerted by simply pivoting from question to question or activity to activity while prioritizing the emotional needs of the child or children.”

All together now: Can we get an amen?

“The mental resets and balancing that’s essential for maintaining emotional equilibrium can be harder to squeeze in with less adult interaction and private personal space.”

— Heather Dugan, author

Job satisfaction and mental health: An iconic duo

Since the dawn of time, researchers have found a strong correlation between job satisfaction and mental health. One almost can’t exist without the other. And while you may not necessarily be able to change some of the fundamentals that come with being a child care provider (like, say, being told about a child’s Minecraft mob in painstaking detail once an hour), you can advocate for yourself as an employee, and take steps to take care of yourself in a way that’s specific to your job and your needs. As Reid says: This is bigger than a few down dogs. 

Actionable tips for child care providers that can improve mental health

1. Maintain social connections

Dr. Ariana Hoet, clinical director of On Our Sleeves and pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, notes that one of the biggest combators of stress is connecting with others. “Over and over, social connections are shown to be a protective factor for stress,” she explains. “Positive relationships with friends, family, colleagues or community members are critical for child care providers’ mental well-being.” Put another way: While it may be tempting to cancel plans with friends after work in order to zone out in front of the TV, don’t. 

Hoet also notes that it can be especially helpful to find and connect with people who are going through similar experiences as you.  

Looking to connect with other child care providers? Check out: 7 Ways to Meet Other Caregivers

2. Have a post-work decompression ritual

When you’re a child care provider — especially when you have kids of your own — it may not be easy to transition from one part of your day (work life) to the next (home life). This is why having a small routine or ritual is important. It helps you definitively end your work day. 

“Child caregivers should be diligent in establishing and maintaining a post-work decompression routine to facilitate that important transition back into personal life,” Dugan says. “Visualizing an ‘off’ switch and creating space for the brain to wander — with music, a walk or any other form of relaxation — can be helpful in making the switch.”

“Child caregivers should be diligent in establishing and maintaining a post-work decompression routine to facilitate that important transition back into personal life.”

—Heather Dugan, author

3. Make sure you have a work agreement or contract

According to Reid, one of the most important things you can do as a child care provider is to make sure your job is treated with respect by your employer. “Up front, make sure you have a work agreement,” she says. “This should cover things like fair pay, overtime, sick days and vacation days.”

A work agreement will, according to Dugan, “mitigate potential stressors by establishing crystal clear expectations on details such as your availability for emergencies, any times that you will be unreachable and how unforeseen delays and events will be handled.”

Wondering what to include in your agreement? Start here: 

4. Make sure you earn fair pay 

Yes, this should be included in your work agreement, but it’s worth its own tip because it’s essential. (This is one of the main causes of the child care shortage, remember?!) While the old adage may claim “money can’t buy happiness,” a 2021 study from the University of Pennsylvania found that, to a degree, it kinda can. The reason: It allows people to feel they have more control over their lives.  

“Caregivers should make sure they’re receiving adequate pay,” Cargill says. “They have an important role in children’s lives, and they should be compensated.”

Not sure what’s “adequate”? Check out: 

5. Don’t make your profession your life  

“When you’re a nanny, you have a front row seat to someone else’s life, but remember, it’s where you go, do your best and then go home to your family, friends and life,” Reid says, adding that it’s important child care providers have “outside interests, not just work.”

“When you’re a nanny, you have a front row seat to someone else’s life, but remember, it’s where you go, do your best and then go home to your family, friends and life.”

— Stella Reid, professional nanny

6. Take time away

Just as it’s important to not just go to work and come home every day, it’s also important to take a break, full-stop. 

“Take the necessary time needed away from caregiving to ensure there is work-life balance,” Cargill says. “This can include, but is not limited to, traveling, having a spa day or just taking a much-needed few days off from work.” 

7. Do a values assessment

According to Hoet, caregivers can also benefit from doing a values assessment. “This means reflecting on what areas of your life you value — friends, family, community, work, education — and then assessing if the time you spend in each of those areas matches your level of value to them.”

Hoet continues: “If, for example, I value family 10/10 and work 8/10, but I am spending more time at work than with family, this means I need to make changes in how I spend my time and the boundaries I’m setting.”

8. Take care of yourself

When you’re a child care provider, you need more of the run-of-the-mill self-care tactics, but that doesn’t mean you should altogether shirk the O.G.s.

“Participating in self-care activities, such as meditation and exercise, and keeping a healthy diet is not only important for caregivers’ mental health, but also with your overall health,” Cargill says. “I would imagine it being quite difficult to show up in the way you would like to when your health is not in a good place.” 

9. Get professional help

If feelings of stress, anxiety, depression or any others are overwhelming your ability to maintain your job duties or everyday well-being, put your mental health first and seek the help of a trained professional. Not sure where to go? Start with your doctor, or visit SAMHSA’s Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator, which is a confidential and anonymous resource for anyone seeking mental health treatment.