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  • Writer's pictureFamily & Child Therapy

Who Knew? Building Positive Communication Within the Family is as Simple as Spoons

Spoon Theory

If you have ever flown on a plane, you have heard a flight attendant say during his/her safety speech, “if the oxygen mask falls make sure you put a mask on yourself before putting a mask on your child.” In this situation, it would be bad if you passed out while putting the oxygen mask on your child, because who then would tend to your child’s needs?

This concept is important not just when riding on a plane, it is important in our everyday lives. Self-care is a key factor to good health, especially as a caregiver.

Sometimes it is hard to express our feelings. Finding the right words to describe our feelings to our loved ones can be just as frustrating as the feeling itself. Positive communication while promoting your own self-care can be as simple as ‘spoons’. Yes, ‘spoons’.

The Spoon Theory was originally created by Christine Miserandino, an award-winning writer, speaker, blogger, and lupus rights advocate, to help build understanding and empathy in friends and family of people suffering from chronic illness. Though The Spoon Theory was originated to describe the intentionality required in daily choices and the internal pain everyday tasks cause for someone suffering from a chronic illness, it translates well to mental health and can be adapted accordingly. It may not be physically apparent that a loved one is suffering from life stressors, anxiety, depression, etc. However, their body and energy levels are being majorly impacted. Someone who suffers from depression will require much more energy to get out of bed in the morning than someone who does not suffer from depression.

The Spoon Theory Christine Miserandino

If one spoon equates to a unit of energy, how many spoons does it take for you to complete your daily tasks? For example, if you work in a positive and supportive environment, work may only take two spoons. Whereas, work in a more stressful environment may take up to five spoons. If you are a morning person, your morning routine may only take one spoon of energy. Now, imagine you only have twelve spoons a day to complete all the tasks of the day. What happens when your day requires fifteen spoons instead of twelve? Then you must borrow three spoons from the next day, meaning you will start the next day with only nine spoons. After a couple of days, you will be out of spoons and exhausted!

So how can we get spoons back throughout the day? The answer is self-care. For some, cooking dinner helps them gain spoons back. For others, cooking dinner may take away spoons. Other self-care techniques include listening to music, taking a bath, going for a walk, exercise, spending time with friends, spending time with a pet, reading a book, listening to a podcast, etc. There is a misconception you need an hour or a whole day to be able to have effective self-care. However, that’s just not true. Sometimes all it takes is listening to your favorite song to gain a spoon of energy back. It is important to have a list of different self-care tasks, so when one is not readily available you have others to choose from.

One step in working toward mental and emotional health is being mindful of your emotions and how your body is being impacted by daily stressors. An easy way to start being mindful is to check in with yourself throughout the day. How many spoons do you have left? Did work take five spoons today instead of the normal three? If work took more spoons than usual, maybe you need to take a 10-minute walk before driving to pick up your kids from school.

Don’t have 10 minutes to spare, be more intentional on your drive to the school, listen to a happy playlist of music, listen to your favorite podcast, or book on tape. The key is to be intentional with your self-care to gain those spoons back. If unable to regain spoons before picking up the kids from school, be honest with your family. When the kids get in the car, complete a family spoons check-in. Have everyone, starting with yourself, rate how many spoons it took to get through the work day or school day. By being honest with your kids, you are modeling for them how to be mindful throughout the day. Take it one step further by completing a family self-care activity. Maybe you play a game on the car ride home, sing silly songs, or go for a walk together as a family when you get home. Giving everyone in the family more spoons before having to take on the next tasks of homework, sporting events, dinner, etc. ….

As adults, we often unintentionally undervalue and overlook the stress children suffer. We see their stress as minimal compared to our daily stressors of work, paying bills, making sure everyone is fed, etc. Checking in with your child daily about their spoons provides your child with a safe and easy way to communicate with you that they are stressed without having to provide the details of why (often children do not have the vocabulary to explain why). Have you ever asked your child, who seemingly appeared calm, to clean their room and they respond with a full-on meltdown? It’s possible they had a rough day at school, they have a test coming up, and other stressors on their mind. Though the task of doing the dishes is a simple task that takes minimal time, it is the final drop of water to their already full cup and that cup has now over flown. However, this meltdown may have been avoided by checking in with your child’s spoons immediately after school. When you check in with your child, and their school took six spoons today instead of the normal three, you then have the insight to know your child is struggling. So, asking them to put up the dishes as soon as they get home from school may not be the most appropriate timing.

Now consider the adult version of this scenario. Have you ever come home from work physically and emotionally exhausted and the next thing you know you and your partner are yelling at each other over something rather small? Could it be because you were out of spoons, hadn’t taken any time to replenish those spoons, and did not communicate this to your partner? Now think how you felt about this adult scenario versus the expectations and feelings you had when reading about the child’s meltdown over putting away the dishes. A child’s stressors are sometimes different than the stressors we experience as an adult but they are no less significant.

The Spoon Theory Christine Miserandino

Implementing The Spoon Theory within the whole family can bolster positive communication between family members and the overall health of the family unit.

More information regarding The Spoon Theory and Christine Miserandino may be found on her website,


Dysautonomia International (n.d.). The Spoon Theory. [image] Available at: [Accessed 6 Nov. 2019].

Miserandino, C. (2003). The Spoon Theory. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Nov. 2019].


Casey Beise is a licensed clinical social worker and certified marriage and family therapist at Family & Child Therapy, Vienna, VA. Casey started her career providing clinical, community care to families in crisis as an Intensive Family Intervention (IFI) team therapist. Over the past five years Casey has worked with diverse populations of children, adolescents, families, and adults experiencing symptoms of anxiety, emotion regulation issues, self-harming behaviors, trauma related issues, and other challenging life stressor. For more information, you can reach Casey at or (571) 758-3255.


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