Exhaustion, anxiousness and negative thoughts can all indicate parent burnout. And yet, parents need to parent, they cannot give up. These practices will help when you are feeling down about yourself or parenting.
Another cold and miserable February was upon me and it was school break. I shuddered at the prospect of spending a whole week on my own with my two young children. My 5 year old daughter was off school for the week and her 18 month old little brother needed almost constant attention as he tottered from one accident to the next. The long week of wintery weather and no childcare loomed over me.
I was anxious about how I was going to get through the days ahead.
Parent burnout makes days feel long and hard
I was new to Hand in Hand Parenting back then. The connection-based approach resonated with me in theory but I was struggling to find time to do Special Time. I was overwhelmed by my daughter’s emotional outbursts and I felt very far from playful. I was trying my best to be a gentle parent but found myself in an almost constant state of frustration with my kids.
The Hand in Hand tools sounded good on paper, but it felt impossible to use them in my day to day parenting when I felt like I was drowning. I felt like a failure.
In my head I would analyse all my interactions with my kids: what I should have done or said instead of shouting? I saw the disappointment and hurt on their faces when I was harsh with them and I would feel it too. I worried that I was damaging my daughter every time I lost my temper with her.
My inner critic was constantly judging me. Meanwhile on social media, other people and their smiling kids seemed to have it all figured out. They seemed to have endless energy to organise a week of fun-packed activities while I could barely get dinner sorted.
Other people’s children seemed to take life in their stride while my daughter was clingy, argumentative and would not play with other kids unless I was right next to her playing along too.
When I met up with friends, they appeared to have it all together, while I was panicked and anxious. It was like I was constantly buckling under the relentless exhaustion of taking care of two young children.
I felt like I was the only one who was struggling with the mental load of parenting. I felt like I was failing.
These traits were all signs I had parent burnout. And, as this post points out, parent burnout can have a significant impact on your health and wellbeing.
Now, years later, I hear a familiar story from the many parents I work with: they feel alone, they think they are the only ones struggling with raising their children.
Parent burnout. Those times you feel exhausted, doubtful, and negative about yourself as a parent. Those times you feel completely alone with the weight of it all. Felt that lately?
So I am here to tell you, you are not alone.
Parenting is hard and we live in a society that does not support parents well. We are expected to get on with raising our children without complaint and without adequate support. This is why so many parents find themselves struggling.
This was a real turning point
Since that dreary February mid-term, parenting has vastly improved for me.
A turning point for me was when I realised I needed help and made the decision to reach out for more support. I was not good at asking for help, but I knew I needed it and I plucked up the courage to commit to a regular Listening Partnership. It was slow progress at first, but as the months progressed, I felt like I could breathe a little more freely.
As I used the time, I felt more confident as a parent and more resourced to meet my children’s emotional needs. In the space that opened up for me, I had lots of questions about how the listening tools applied to my parenting situation so I took a Hand in Hand Parenting Starter Class.
For those six weeks, I felt the difference good support made to my parenting. I felt less isolated as I listened to the struggles of the other parents in my class. I learned how to use my Listening Partnerships well. I became more compassionate towards both myself and the other parents as I saw how deeply they cared for their children and how hard they were trying, often with very little help.
As I felt more emotionally resourced, I became more playful with my kids and less reactive. I was able to see my children as little people who needed my love and connection: they weren’t manipulating me or making my life difficult on purpose. I was able to appreciate my children for the unique individuals they were. I became more forgiving of myself on the many days when I felt frustrated and lost my cool.
What can you do to overcome burnout?
As I began to feel more resourced, I started to add practices into my daily life that supported my parenting. I didn’t start them all at once. I tried something, and if it was helpful, I stuck with it. Then I tried adding something else. As I regularly used the Hand in Hand tools in my daily parenting, life got easier.
I still had hard times but now there were many good times filled with fun and connection as well.
Below are some of the practices that continue to help me as a parent. Parents need and deserve to have their basic physical and psychological needs met. Living in a state of survival and scarcity makes parenting much more difficult and makes looking after your own needs a luxury.
I feel privileged that I have my basic needs for security, housing and food met. I have a supportive community and family around me. I know this is sadly not true for all parents.
The suggestions below are not intended to add to your list of things you should be doing or contribute in any way to parent guilt – there is enough of that around already. They are simply ideas of practices that have supported me in my parenting and might be helpful to you too. Feel free to take what works for you and leave the rest.
Six ways to stop parent burnout (or recover from it)
1. Use your Listening Partnerships
The cornerstone to getting the emotional support I need as a parent is Listening Partnerships. Having a regular, reliable time and space every week to bring my parenting stresses and worries has by far made the most difference to me. I am less reactive now and I have more capacity to meet the emotional needs of my children. Read more about how to find a Listening Partnership and join a supportive network of parents who are using this tool effectively to support their parenting.
2. Cultivate a gratitude practice – try this with your kids
Gratitude helps us remember the things that are going well, even if it is something small like noticing that you found five minutes to drink your tea while it was still hot! This can stop negativity spiralling.
Gratitude is also something you can do with your child as part of their bedtime routine.
You can share with them a few things that you appreciate about your day. You might like to include something you enjoyed or appreciated about your child. For example you could say “my favourite thing about today was giving you a big cuddle on the sofa after dinner”. Your child might join in with their own appreciations (but no need to force them to). Or you might prefer to keep your own gratitude journal and start or end your day by writing down a few things you are grateful for.
3. Reflect on your day
When you are plagued with parent burnout, it can be easy to focus on what didn’t go so well in our day and forget how much love and attention we offered our children, to redress this, in the evening, it can be helpful to take a minute to pause and reflect on your day. You might do this alone, in a journal or with your Listening Partner. Reflection can slow racing thoughts associated with parent burnout, and leave you feeling calmer and more positive.
I like to use these four steps:
- Think about all you do for your children every day. Make a list of all the ways you took care of them from greeting them with a morning hug, helping them dress, preparing meals, organising school bags, lunches, activities or play dates, helping them navigate friendships, planning their medical or dentist visits, offering them comfort, a hug or empathising with them.
- Now think about the things that didn’t go so well. You might like to imagine gathering all those things that didn’t go well into a basket or a jar. Maybe you spoke harshly, maybe you shouted, maybe you got frustrated and overpowered your child. Gather them all up and sit with whatever feelings arise. Feel how hard it is. Cry if there are tears there.
- I imagine a good friend, or your own child as a grown up, coming to you with their basket full of things that didn’t go so well. Imagine what you would say to them and then offer those words to yourself. Maybe it would sound something like “I see how much you have done for your children today. You are a good parent. You love your children dearly and I know you did your very best. I’m sorry it has been so hard. You deserve much more support. I love you. Let me put my arm around you. Lean against me and see how it feels to be supported for a few minutes”.
- Then release your basket full of things that didn’t go so well. You could visualise releasing them to the wind or pouring them into the ocean or burying them in the earth. Let go of them and ask your inner critic to step back a little and give you some space from continuously beating yourself up about the things that didn’t go so well.
4. Calm your nervous system
If you have a little time at the end of the day when the kids are in bed it might be all you can do to flop on the sofa and watch TV or scroll through your social media feeds. However, this type of downtime can stimulate your nervous system and deplete you further.
Instead, you could try taking a few minutes at the end of the day to calm and restore your nervous system. Restorative practices such as lying on the floor taking some slow breaths for five minutes, stretching or light yoga, meditating or a short walk outside can revive you and aid your sleep.
5. Prioritise sleep and keep parent burnout at bay
Lack of sleep propels parent burnout and makes it almost impossible to be emotionally available to our children. Getting seven to eight hours of sleep per night will help prevent parent burnout. This may be wildly unrealistic for you right now if you have young children who wake multiple times per night. If that is the case, it is worthwhile prioritising your sleep in any way that you can.
That might mean asking your partner, if you have one, to do the morning routine while you take an extra hour in bed, going to bed a bit earlier instead of doing laundry or watching TV or finding someone to mind your children for an hour during the day so you can take a nap. If you aren’t getting enough sleep and it is impossible for you to get more right now, I want to acknowledge how incredibly difficult that is. I hope you can find ways to get the support you need and deserve.
6. Doing little something for yourself brings you all more joy
Doing whatever it is that makes you feel alive once or twice a week will help you feel more resourced as a parent and you will bring that joy with you into your family life. It might be a walk in nature, time at the gym, playing music, dancing, meeting with good friends, or nerding out on parenting books.
This looks different for everyone so it is about finding out what is right for you.
Stuck on what to do? It is so easy to put our own needs last that we can lose ourselves in parenting. This makes it difficult to even remember the things we used to enjoy. If you are struggling to figure out what you enjoy doing you could make a list of all the activities you have enjoyed in the past or have ever thought about trying. Pick one that seems manageable and commit to carving out a little bit of time each week to do that.
Walking the path of being a gentle parent is often difficult and pushes us to the limits of what we are capable of. When we have those inevitable days or weeks when it all goes wrong and we feel like we are failing our children, it can be helpful to take a step back.
Remind yourself of all the times you have responded to your child with respect and understanding. Then look at it from your child’s perspective – they have a parent who loves them deeply, who is doing their very best with the tools and resources they have, who is committed to being a gentle and respectful parent, who often gets it wrong but does their best to repair and no matter what, keeps showing up day after day.
That is one lucky child to have you in their corner. Know that that is enough.
I hope these ideas have given you some hope that, with the right tools and support, it is possible to feel like an able and confident parent. I would love to hear what practices work for you and to help you feel resourced as a parent.