The 4 Laws For Taking Care of Yourself While Taking Care Of Your Parents

When you move abroad as an accompanying spouse, you face two issues at the same time:

Self-care for expats

You’re in 2 roles at the same time!

1. You feel like a child because you have to rely on your working partner to get a visa, open a bank account, rent a house, access a healthcare plan.

In a few hours flight you’ve lost in the blink of an eye your financial independence, your professional identity and the ability to communicate effectively.

2. You need to parent  …your parents. Especially if they’ve never been expatriates themselves.

They don’t relate to your new way of life.

They may disapprove of your choice: why uprooting the children? Why giving up your job while they had worked so hard to pay you a great education?

They can feel sad, resentful and disappointed.

They’re suffering (like you) from ambiguous loss because you’re not around any longer. They miss you.

They may also feel abandoned. When old age is approaching, they would have treasured your close presence to look after them.

They feel frustrated because they would have enjoyed sharing more family traditions with the grandchildren, passing on their knowledge and wisdom, attending significant events in their life.

But instead, they feel lonely.

And you’re struggling. Caught in the middle.

Add to this expatriate grief, culture shock, childrearing to the mix.

More than enough to feel stressed and overwhelmed.

So what can you do?

It’s widely acknowledged that the bond we form with our parents influences our relationships during our whole life.

In many cases, we try hard – consciously or unconsciously – to have others (partner, children, friends) make up for what we missed in our childhood. But it’s not their role.

To avoid burdening your loved ones with impossible demands – being the parents they will and can never be! -, the solution is to take care of yourself in relationship with your parents.

Alice Domar, renown self-care expert, in her book “Self-nurture” shares precious tips to get back on track and find a way to a better balance. There are 4 laws to pay attention to.

Law # 1  –  Nurturing the body

The physical distance between you and your parents means that you mainly interact through phone, Skype, Facebook or email. Face-to-face encounters are restricted to a few visits a year at most. Some interactions can be particularly challenging, especially when you need to announce a serious illness in the family, the loss of a job or to postpone the next visit back home.

Here are 2 tips to help you take care of your body and monitor your stress level.

Practice some relaxation or breathing exercises before and after each contact with your parents to soothe you of any tensions that are likely to arise. I’m not implying that you’re up to a fight each time you’re talking to them. Sometimes such a minor thing like the time difference can be a source of irritation! Your parents want to call in the evening for them (because morning is filled with doctor’s appointments) but it’s morning time for you, an essential moment for preparing the kids to school and to touch base as a family. These practices help to take a step back, gain clarity and choose the most effective attitude.

Another technique that I find particularly efficient is called guided imagery. Sit down and close your eyes. Picture yourself as a mountain. Solid, stable and imperturbable. Imagine that there are clouds (your parents’ hurtful words or deeds) passing above the mountain. Clouds can unleash rain, lightning or storm but the mountain stays there, unchanged. You feel grounded, breathing deeply and regularly, your belly moving in and out, your inner self safe and strong.

Law # 2  –  Nurturing the mind

Pay closer attention to your thoughts.

Do you feel bad when you can’t please your parents? Do you have the draining impression that whatever you do, whatever you say, it’s never good enough?

This can lead to great internal tension.

According to Carl Rogers, prominent psychologist, one of the founders of the humanistic approach, when you feel loved or not loved by significant others and thus your parents, you develop positive or negative feelings about yourself accordingly. The wider the gap between your real self and your image of the ideal self, the greater the anxiety. You‘re disappointed in yourself and you’re afraid that others will notice your shortcomings judging you inadequate or incompetent.

The solution is to work towards reducing the above mentioned gap. This can be achieved by creating conditions less threatening for the self and by sharing your experiences with a significant person in order to receive positive feedback acknowledging your worth as a valuable individual.

There’s another factor – albeit far less obvious – that can be harmful too. Suppose you got all the love, attention and care you deserved but that your mother always sacrificed her needs. Our parents are powerful role models, even if we’re not even conscious of it. We repeat what they  do, not what they say.

It’s time to become more independent emotionally from your parents. Your self-worth doesn’t depend on whether you are able or not to please them!

I’d like to underline one more point: the opposite is also true. Your parents’ worth doesn’t rely upon the fact that you’ve become (or not!) what they’d like you to be. They may need some guidance to accept it too!

Law # 3  –  Nurturing the emotions

It’s good practice to have a journal in order to help you vent off strong emotions and better monitor them.

Alice advises to write your deepest thoughts about your parents, paying especially attention to anger.

When are you angry? For what occasion? How often? What is the trigger? Is there a pattern? Do you allow yourself to be angry at your parents?

Another interesting point to explore is the way your parents expressed anger. Were they violent or was it cold anger? Did they repress it or did they burst out of anger?

It’s important to understand how we relate to anger because anger is a defence mechanism helping us to set boundaries, an essential element of self-care.

Law # 4  –  Nurturing the self

This step all has to do with healthy separation. Normally, this happens during adolescence, a time when we realize that our parents are not superheroes, that they’re not perfect, they have their flaws too. But separation is painful: you have to let go of the ideal image of your parents.

There are 2 possible defensive attitudes to protect you from suffering:

1/ Denial: you expect more of your parents that they can give and it’s difficult to separate from them.

2/ Detachment: you expect little to avoid being hurt. None of them are satisfactory.

The solution comes from nurturing yourself enough in order to be able to take a step back, recognize the situation and set boundaries in a compassionate but assertive way.

Ready for the challenge?

What’s your favorite nurturing step in the relationship with your parents?


Photo credit harold.lloyd via photopin cc and music credit Piano Society



  1. […] also reminded Sally of her own advice: she should take care of herself. And Mary gave her four laws to do exactly that while taking care of her parents. That came in […]

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