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How to Revive from Parental Burnout

Tips for relieving parental burnout that won’t burn you out.

Key points

  • When you begin to feel burnout from parenting tasks, seek sensory deprivation and solitude.
  • Parents can allow themselves to prioritize sleep over getting things done.
  • Down-regulating with your kids, and getting them involved in your own interests, can also help relieve feelings of burnout.

A number of years ago a client told me about her “water bottle test” for parental burnout. She said that when cleaning her kids’ water bottles feels like too much, she knows she’s burned out. She doesn’t have the emotional or physical energy to face that extra step of getting out the long brush. Can you relate? What’s your water bottle test?

Like many parents during the prolonged pandemic, there have been days and weeks I haven’t passed the water bottle test. Parental burnout, first identified by Isabelle Roskam and Moïra Mikolajczak in the 1980s, is distinct from depression or anxiety, although they can overlap. In addition to having trouble keeping up with daily tasks, you may feel:

  • Physical exhaustion (fatigue, difficulty sleeping)
  • Emotional overwhelm (irritability, anxiety, difficulty regulating your emotions)
  • A sense of detachment from your kids (loss of interest and joy in parenting)

Parents of school-age children are one of the most impacted by the pandemic, according to the APA Stress in America Survey.

  • In 2020, almost half of parents of school-age children reported that their average stress level related to the pandemic was high compared to 28% of non-parents.
  • In 2021, 47% of parents reported that the pandemic made it difficult for them to make basic decisions, compared to 27% of adults without school-age children.

It has been a long haul for parents, and we are finding ourselves exhausted, disconnected, and feeling inadequate. If you aren’t passing the water bottle test, here are some strategies from behavioral psychology and ACT that don’t involve booking a spa treatment.

Tips for Parent Exhaustion

Parenting is exhausting. In addition to the emotional and physical demands of parenting, many parents’ sleep is disrupted by kids waking up or swapping sleep for alone time. Here are some ways to turn exhaustion around.

  • Seek serious breaks, however short they may be, in solitude. Reduce the overload of stimulation that parents get so much of (noise, demands, multi-tasking) . According to Elissa Epel, who researches mechanisms of stress and aging at UCSF, short time outs are an important way to get through a day with more resilience and less depletion and sensitization of anxiety. Find a closed door, simply close your eyes and focus on breathing, listening to calming music, or use a guided meditation. Or step into a nature, even if it’s one tree in an urban area, and be with it. This can have the calming ‘green’ effect on your nervous system. If you have 20 minutes, you can lie down and really let go of doing – possibly reaching “blue mind states," which are deeply restorative. You might try noise-canceling headphones while you cook dinner. Squeeze in solitude time where you can. Solitude can also mean hiding out in the bathroom for 5 minutes or car for for parents who are rarely alone. For some people, or at some times, calling or texting a supportive friend is more calming than being alone.
  • Prioritize sleep over getting things done. When you are a parent, you will never clear your task list. Even as you are checking things off, your kids are creating new tasks! Put sleep at the top of your task list. If you complete that task, then you can move down the list!
  • Down-regulate with your kids. If you are a parent of young children, taking a yoga class or getting a massage may feel impossible. Instead, include your kids in your downtime activities. Try stretching on the floor while playing monopoly with your kids, lie down and have your kids walk on your back for a playful massage, or put your legs up the wall in a restorative yoga pose when reading to them at night. It may not be the same as an hour of yoga, but it’s a move in the right direction!

Tips for Parent Detachment

One of the side effects of burnout is that you disengage from your kids. Parents can report “loving their kids” but not “finding joy” in parenting. Detachment is a vicious cycle because the more detached you feel, the more likely you are to pull away, which leads to more detachment. Here are some strategies to re-attach.

  • Focus on physical touch, hugs, and cuddling. Human touch can buffer stress, releases bonding neurohormones and is central in human attachment. Make an effort to hug, hold hands with, and cuddle with your kids regularly. Notice how it soothes you, and pay attention to the good feelings of connection.
  • Pick a hobby and include your kids! Parents often cart their kids to after school activities, neglecting their own interests. Try taking up knitting, gardening, art, cooking, whatever interests you, and include your kids in it! Bring some vitality back into your day by doing things that you love, not just activities that your kids love, and likely your kids will enjoy it too. Ultimately, your kids want to spend time with you, especially if it’s spending time with you when you are less stressed.
  • Mindfully observe your kids. When I had a newborn, a wise friend gave the parenting advice, “stop sweeping the floor and enjoy your baby.” Instead of using every minute of your day to “get something done,” sit down with your kids, mindfully observe them and savor the moment. Every day kids change and grow, take the time to be part of that growth.

Tips for Feelings of Inadequacy

A central part of burnout can be feeling like you are never doing enough and what you do is not good enough. Parents can be harsh self-critics and think that they need to do it alone. Instead of beating yourself up for not measuring up, try these instead.

  • Practice self-compassion. The key components of self-compassion are mindfulness, kindness, and common humanity. Parents who are self-compassionate may better be able to manage the stress of parenting. When you are struggling with the stress of parenting, try reminding yourself that you are not alone, every parent finds parenting hard sometimes, and ask yourself what you need emotionally and physically. Respond to your needs like an attuned parent would.
  • Be psychologically flexible. Psychological flexibility is your ability to stay present, engaged, and act on your values even in the face of obstacles. Psychological flexibility in parenting is linked to more positive parenting practices and family well-being. Psychological flexibility in parenting during COVID also predicted fewer spillover effects of stress on kids and less marital discord. Choose what matters most to you in parenting, and turn toward that value as a guide when you feel ineffective.
  • Share the Load. Parents are not meant to do it all alone. If you are unable to keep up with the daily demands of making meals and caring for your children, get some support. Get your kids involved in housework (and let go of it being perfect), enlist friends to trade childcare, and get creative with communal exchanges. When my children were young, I traded dinner nights with a friend. One night a week I would cook for her family, and one night a week she would cook for mine. One person would drop off a dinner at the other’s doorstep and the other would return the favor a few days later. It was a way to stay connected with her family, and a great way to get a night off of dishes and cooking. Look for someone who is in the same boat as you and share the load!

Parental burnout can take a toll on your physical and emotional health. If you are at the point where you are noticing signs of depression, substance use, child neglect, or angry outbursts you need professional help. With the advent of telemedicine, therapy is more accessible to parents than ever. If you need psychological support, Psychology Today has resources for you.

To learn more about strategies for parental burnout, listen to my conversation with parenting expert, and author of Raising Critical Thinkers, Julie Bogart on Your Life in Process!

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