Techniques for Building Resilience in the NICU

July 29, 2015

Being an NICU parent has an incredible impact on your mental and emotional health. With the 5 NICU myths debunked, let’s look at skills and techniques that can help you through the hospitalization and after discharge.

NICU mental health professionals know that having a baby in the NICU is very stressful and often traumatic for not only the parents, but all family members. Families often express feelings of powerlessness, anger, guilt and loss. These are all normal and valid emotions.  They can overwhelm you and make it difficult for you to parent your child and be a member of the NICU team.

nicu guilt building resilienceCertain skills and techniques support dealing with these emotions in a manner that is mentally and emotionally healthy for the parent.  The most important process or skill is resilience.  Resilience is the ability to adapt not only in positive situations, but most importantly when the situation is stressful or difficult.  Resilience means being able to “bounce back” from stressful and/or traumatic experiences.  Resilience is a skill, with behaviors, thoughts and activities that anyone can learn.

Research (Siegel, 2012) has shown that resilience develops when a person has caring and supportive relationships both in their family and with others in the world around them. Look within your family, friends, and the NICU team for someone with whom you feel comfortable sharing your feelings, concerns and fears. Be open and honest with them and tell them how they can help and support you.

Resilience is a series of built skills anyone can develop on their own.  But resilience also takes time to build. The following techniques are foundational to the process.

Techniques to build resilience

  • Make plans that are workable and can be accomplished, then determine what steps you need to take to carry out the plans successfully.
  • See yourself as capable and confident in your abilities and your strengths.  Write these strengths and abilities down somewhere that you can see them every day.
  • Learn to talk about your thoughts, feelings and concerns. Identify unsolved problems, then work on how to solve those problems. Determine workable solutions, and put together a plan to implement those solutions. We all need help with problem solving. That’s where those people we trust and love are important in helping us put our solutions into practice.
  • Practice self-regulation and learn how to manage your strong emotions and impulses. Yelling, screaming, hitting and throwing things are behaviors that reflect a lack of self-regulation. Learn to talk about these feelings, and “take a break” when you feel your emotions running high.
  • Maintain healthy sleeping and eating habits and avoid using drugs or alcohol to deal with your emotions. Be confident in your strengths and abilities and reach out to the people who can support you.

The more you problem solve, confront your emotions, thoughts, fears and concerns, and gain more knowledge about your child’s needs and wants, the more resilient you will be. If you feel like you are not making progress, talk to a mental health professional. They can help you with the resilience process, skill development and problem solving.

Taking time for yourself is essential to your mental and emotional health. If you don’t take care of yourself, you cannot take care of your baby and family. Do not feel guilty for needing time away from your baby and other people in your life. Each of us needs to finds a way to nourish ourselves mentally as well as physically. Exercise, meditation and hobbies all are restorative activities. Sometimes, just sitting in a quiet place and concentrating on your breathing will help you clear your mind and relax.

The NICU experience is a major change and remaining flexible and optimistic can help you with its challenges.  Often flexibility and optimism are developed by gratitude. I heard a psychologist at a conference say finding three things a day to be grateful for in your life was a prescription for happiness.  Having done it for several years, I find that is true. It is also helpful accepting change, developing flexibility and becoming more optimistic. Ask yourself: What are you grateful for in your life?

Your new life

NICU guilt building resilienceYou have been through a stressful and probably traumatic experience with your child. Myths are barriers to your relationships with family, friends and your NICU team, and letting go of them is the first step to resilience. If there are other myths (these are the most common) you have heard, talk to the NICU team or Parent Support staff. Learning to problem solve and ask for help are so important for moving into your new life with your beautiful new child.  You are strong, you are capable and you are a wonderful parent; please always remember that.

There will be difficult and emotionally challenging times again in the future. With the skills and techniques discussed here, it is my hope that they will help you deal with these times in a manner that is mentally and emotionally healthy for you and the people in your life.

Finally, using the gratitude technique, I would like to share my gratitude for today: I am grateful to the families I have worked with over the years who taught me many of the things I have shared with you.  I am grateful to the incredible NICU professionals I work with who teach me every day about dedication, caring and team work. Finally, I am grateful for the opportunity to share my knowledge and experiences with you.

I wish you much joy and many wonderful adventures with your child. Enjoy parenthood. It is the greatest experience of all.

Seigel, D.J. (2012). The Developing Mind: How Relationships, and the Brain Interact to
Shape Who We Are. Second Edition. New York: The Guildford Press.

About the Author

Cheryl A. Milford, Ed.S. has been a practicing educational psychologist for 35 years. Cheryl has spent the last 31 years of her career providing psychological, neurodevelopmental and infant mental health services in neonatal intensive care units and developmental follow-up clinics through her company, Cheryl Milford Consulting.