Learn five small, achievable, and integrable actions to address parent burnout.
It is okay not to be okay right now. For many of us, this is the biggest emotional test we have faced. But parents can’t just stand in their front yard screaming “This is a disaster!” all day. They can’t escape to a spa retreat or mute the volume in their home (which now doubles as a classroom/office/restaurant/study hall). If you’re reading this and you’re not a parent, read on for ideas on how to support the parents in your life.
Parent Burnout – The Signs
If you are a parent, especially with a child under 18, you already know that you are among those most impacted by COVID-related stress. Severe and chronic parenting stress leads to what researchers call parental burnout. Parental burnout looks like exhaustion, emotional detachment, lost pleasure in parenting, and a sense of being an ineffective parent.1 Parental burnout is also associated with elevated levels of escape ideation and child maltreatment.2 If this sounds familiar to you, you are not alone.
What Is Contributing To Burnout
During COVID parents are more susceptible to burnout when there is an imbalance of risks and resources. When risks (unemployment, single parenthood, other life stressors) outnumber resources (access to child care, a strong social support network, coping strategies), burnout occurs and spirals.1 The research also shows that parental burnout is closely related to “self-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism” and results from “a chronic imbalance of parenting-related demands, including parents’ expectations of themselves…and the availability of resources to meet those demands”.3 Parents are also at greater risk if they lack emotional support from their co-parent or have a child with special needs.1 Lastly, stigma often deters parents from asking for help, leading to further isolation and shame.
The Importance of Recognizing Self-Care Is Child-Care
I’m a child therapist trained in psychodynamic attachment therapy. As my mentor used to say, “Children are excellent perceivers, and terrible interpreters.” They are constantly watching their caregivers, sensing and absorbing their emotional states. Oftentimes, children, lacking all the information, will interpret any negative emotional state in their caregiver as a negative appraisal of themself. I don’t share this to add to your stress. I share this to emphasize the importance of your emotional and psychological well-being. Taking your morning walk, calling a friend, working on a puzzle during five minutes of down-time; all of this is child care. When you are a parent, self-care is child care. Even tiny acts of self-care need to multiply along with the stressors to maintain balance.
5 Ways to Address Parent Burnout
1. Careful with your consumption
Be thoughtful about your social media consumption. Staying connected is paramount, feeding yourself demoralizing content is detrimental. So find the balance. Follow siblings and cousins and former teachers and the friends whose posts make you smile. If there are pages or posts that make you feel icky or less than, take a break from that feed.
Next time you are scrolling, intentionally reflect- how does each post make you feel in your body. Over-exposure to comparisons with others is not a productive nor nourishing use of your time. Your energy and capacity for self-compassion is limited, use it carefully.
2. ‘Child care’
Robyn Koslowitz said it best, “Let’s not call it self-care, let’s call it the highest form of child care- being present. Ironically, it’s that sense of a present parent, that connection, and that attachment, that is associated with the healthiest outcomes.” This can be small, tiny even. Ask yourself throughout the day, “What would make me feel just 10% better in this moment?” It could be a can of sparkling water, changing into sweats, texting a friend, or scrolling through pictures from a fun weekend. Taking care of you is taking care of your kids. And as a bonus, you model self-care and self-compassion for your kids, who, remember, are always watching. And it’s not just outward action that makes the difference, it also matters what happens internally, which is where self-compassion comes in.
Try some of these self-compassion exercises outlined in the article, “First things first: Parent psychological flexibility and self-compassion during COVID-19.“4
- Perspective-Taking: Think of the last time you felt truly comforted by someone you love. What did their voice sound like? What was their demeanor? How did they make you feel in that moment? Take time to bring yourself back to that place. This is the way you should be with yourself, every time you glance in the mirror, and after every tough conversation or interaction.
- Thought-Spotting: The next time you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, pause to notice your thoughts. Study them as if they were paintings in a museum. Notice them without judgement. Narrate them as they come as if you were an outside observer tuned into your inner thoughts. “Notice thoughts for what they are–impermanent mental phenomena that are sometimes useful and sometimes not,” says Lisa W. Coyne.
- Committing to Your Values: When faced with a challenge, a decision, or when you want to chuck something across the room- pause, notice, and choose. Every moment offers a choice. Slow down in order to reclaim control and harness your power of choice. Our own perception of control, in itself, is a protective factor.
4. Perceived Control
According to the authors of “Stress and parenting during the global COVID-19 pandemic.”5, during stressful events, perceived control acts as a buffer, decreases distress, and reduces the risk of child maltreatment. One way to increase perceived control is to take a broader perspective. Find stories of hope and resilience. Share stories with your kids about a heroic nurse, a selfless teacher, or a kid who raised money for a neighbor’s medical treatment; be sure they see this side of the story, too. Identify and focus on the things you can control. Like the content you expose yourself and your children to, and the ways you spend your time, both alone and as a family. This is where routines come in.
Routines contribute to stability and predictability during disasters. Take some time to think about what patterns in your day-to-day are serving you and which ones are not. Try on some daily routines and see how they feel. Perhaps a morning dance party in the living room before ‘school,’ or start a Marvel movie-night spree.
I recently installed a bird feeder outside my window. Now I spend my mornings watching them enjoy breakfast. And because I can’t have a dog in my apartment, I now have more plants than articles of clothing. They keep me busy, and are almost as fun to pet as a puppy. These additions are small, inexpensive, and add up to a lot, causing a genuine improvement in my mood overall.
Be selfish, parents and caregivers – focusing on you is good for your family, and integral to your child’s healthy development.
In conclusion, be gentle with yourself, allow negative emotions to come and go. Seek out and offer help. Take every opportunity to connect with others. Take enough time to pause and notice what you need, and prioritize getting that thing. Bring in what calms you, push aside what doesn’t. Be selfish, parents and caregivers – focusing on you is good for your family, and integral to your child’s healthy development.
References for this article.
If you enjoyed 5 Ways To Address Parent Burnout, Girls Leadership Educator Crystyn Wright shares more ideas for creating Wellness & Connection At Home. Our Girl & Grown-up workshops are also a great way to learn new skills you both can put into practice every day.