“I love my kids, but I just need a break.” This is the refrain I hear from dedicated, loving parents over and over again this past year. It’s often said with a hint of shame for feeling so frustrated and fed up with the constant demands of parenting. We live in a society that says we should love our kids unconditionally, and if we’re frustrated or annoyed by them, then we’re bad parents. Yet it’s amazing how much parents can simultaneously love their children wholeheartedly while also desperately needing a break from the role of parenting.
Parents are experiencing high levels of stress these days with inadequate resources to cope with it, according to a review by the American Psychological Association. The previous blog post in this series highlights some of the many reasons parents are grappling with sustained stress over the past 18 months.
Stages of burnout
Psychologists have identified three stages of burnout. First there is the sense of overwhelming exhaustion. Exhaustion comes in many forms. Parents of younger children tend to describe the physical fatigue resulting from endless caretaking and lack of sleep. Parents of older children describe the emotional fatigue of managing the conflicts and worries of the adolescent world.
The next phase is characterized by a drive to disengage. Parents want to distance themselves from their kids to preserve their energy, often fantasizing about escape. They feel so overwhelmed and incapable of meeting the needs of the family that parents find themselves emotionally protecting themselves.
This leads to the final stage which is a lack of fulfillment. Parents no longer find joy in parenting. They go through the motions of keeping the family going while feeling empty inside. They often describe feeling distressed, shame, and guilt about not being the engaged, enthusiastic parents they wish to be.
No matter which stage of parental burnout you may be experiencing right now, it’s possible to take steps to manage the stress and exhaustion of parenting. Each effort we make to care for ourselves will benefit the family system.
Strategies to Manage Burnout
Acknowledge the Suffering. Managing a painful situation always begins by honoring the experience. We must first own the fact that we are in a burnout state and recognize the full range of consequences we’re experiencing. We need to identify the feelings of frustration, overwhelm, exhaustion, hopelessness. Naming the feeling helps us find compassion for ourselves. Take time to sit with these feelings when they arise rather than judging or denying them. This may result in tears or a sense of heaviness. Know that this is not permanent. Emotions pass more quickly when we allow them to flow through us rather than avoiding, minimizing, or denying them. Be gentle with yourself. The link below has more on sitting with difficult feelings.
Reach Out for Support. Loneliness and shame only increase the suffering of burnout. It’s important to talk with people about your experience and ask for help when possible. Don’t wait until you’re already at your wit’s end. Try to connect with a network of understanding, compassionate friends to lift one another up and navigate the challenges together. Ask for practical help to share the burdens of parenting. This may mean coordinating carpools and childcare swapping in ways that still feel safe with COVID-19 risks. Often parents can help one another out in ways that benefit each family.
Many people struggle to feel safe enough to ask friends or family for help, particularly those who have felt abandoned or let down in the past. It can feel vulnerable to ask for help. This is when it may be wise to seek professional help from a licensed therapist who can personalize a plan for you to manage your stress and process your feelings.
Take Micro Breaks. Parents must prioritize creating time for meaningful breaks from the labor of parenting. While your fantasy of a month-long beach vacation may not be realistic, this does not mean you should continue plowing through your days with no respite. Every job requires breaks because it improves our performance. This often means doing less of the many responsibilities and chores of parenting in order to offer more to yourself. Imagine creating a steady practice of arranging your daily life to include time reserved to replenish yourself.
What this looks like will be different for each of us. Think about how you renew your energy. This could look like taking a walk outside, reading a few chapters of a book, catching up with a friend, working up a sweat, mediating, baking, dancing to fun music. The options are endless, and your choice may vary from day to day. The point is that we cannot pour from an empty cup. And parents must refill their emotional, mental, and physical cups on a regular basis. Trust that children benefit from the modeling of parents who practice good self-care.
Repair Your Relationships. Burnout often results in parents either lashing out at the people we love or neglecting our relationships from sheer exhaustion. Be compassionate and forgiving with yourself when this happens. It does not mean you’re a bad person or a bad parent or a bad spouse. You’re simply responding from a place of depletion and helplessness. Beating yourself up for these mistakes is not only harmful to your well-being but also prevents the opportunity for repair.
Know that the work of repairing these relationships is meaningful. It makes relationships stronger, closer. Take responsibility for your actions that feel inconsistent with your values. You may need to apologize for something you said or how you raised your voice. Maybe you overinflated a small moment and threw a big fit. Own it. Then make amends. Do the work of reconnecting and finding common ground again. Focus on being fully present with your loved ones without distractions, even for just 10 minutes each day. This effort will build a sense of connection and safety.
Let Go of Perfectionist Goals. Much of parental stress comes from all the “shoulds” in our minds…all the messages from our culture and media about how parents should act and feel. We hold ourselves up to unrealistic standards to be perfectly nurturing, present, encouraging, and positive. In the end, our inner critic tells us we always come up short. We feel like failures. And this only compounds burnout.
Reframing how we speak to ourselves in our minds can help us have more compassion for ourselves so we can more effectively utilize the resources we still have. One way to do this involves swapping out the “should” in our minds. Rather than saying “I should be playing with my kids more,” while feeling exhausted and wracked with guilt, try swapping out the language and saying, “It would be great to have more energy to play with my kids.” This language allows us to acknowledge our current situation without shame so we can focus our attention on our good intentions.
Allow yourself to let go of expectations that involve meeting others’ approval or keeping up appearances. You don’t need to parent the way anyone else does. You don’t need to do it all, all the time. You can make choices that prioritize your wellness as a way of caring deeply for your family. This often means cutting back and saying no. This means giving yourself grace to be messy and authentic. Eventually, it means loving our imperfect selves. And this is a beautiful message for children to learn.
Find Meaning Through Gratitude. In the daily grind of life, we can lose track of what we most love about being a parent. We often ruminate on the tough moments, playing out in our minds how things went sideways over and over again. We beat ourselves up and feel even more exhausted and disappointed. But we can refocus our minds. We can make a conscious effort to spend time thinking about the highlights in each day. Notice the moments when your children are kind, funny, sweet, helpful. Notice what you love about them. Notice the moments when you are connecting with them, reminding them they are loved, safe, and understood. Notice when you have fun. Notice the moments when others are there to support you. Notice when you make a choice to take care of yourself.
Finding one moment a day that fills your heart with gratitude will help reconnect you with the joy of parenting again. The more we recognize and spend energy on what is going well in our families, the better we feel about ourselves and our lives.
Written by Suzanne J. Smith, Ph.D. for Lakefront Psychology Blog. If you are interested in more original articles about mental health, wellness, perinatal mood, relationships, or parenting, please subscribe to the blog using the button below. If you are interested in scheduling a consultation for an appointment with Dr. Smith, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or use the contact form.