4 Self-Care Strategies to Avoid Parental Burnout

By Mark Bertin

Taking time for yourself supports not only your own well-being but drastically changes the lives of your children. Frazzled, over-stressed parents make for frazzled and overstressed families. You may feel the need to be on call all the time, but there is no advantage to 24/7 parenting—it’s another unique stress for the modern parent. No one can be available all day, every day, without becoming awfully tired and run-down.

Having one child is demanding, having more than one child even more so. Even if your kids are, against the odds, each and every one an angel, the logistics of getting them out of bed, dressed, fed, out the door, and then back inside at a reasonable time—while continuing to do all the grown-up chores you’ve always had—may, in the end, create even more parenting pressure.

Parenting can feel like one big sloppy mess, especially since family life never goes exactly as we pictured. A huge school project that you were told is due next month is due tomorrow, and you forgot to buy the chicken part of the chicken dish you’re cooking, and you haven’t exercised in a month, and you wonder if your son forgot to bring his soccer bag to practice yet again. There’s always one more thing to fuss about, it seems, or to do or fix or change.

There’s also nothing most of us care more about than our children. Just having them causes most parents a fair amount of worry about their well-being. Add on chronic sleep deprivation and shattered routines around eating, exercise, and sex. Altogether, becoming a parent creates a thriving medium for a great deal of stress.

Our interconnected, media-driven world often amplifies that parenting stress. Knowledge and reassurance about raising children in the past came from an intimate group: family, close friends, and a pediatrician. Extended family provided a network of support, yet these days it is rare if multiple generations all live in the same town. Instead, we reach out to our peers, many of whom are just as inexperienced as we are, and to the Internet, the great perpetrator of fear.

Turning on a faucet of information to sate ourselves today is more like unleashing a fire hose. A quick drink to slake our thirst for knowledge blasts us with a deluge of confusion. Rose-colored postings online about why each child is more precious and advanced than every other one leads us to doubt our more realistically inconsistent lives. We are led to believe there is so much we “must” do or our children will fall behind or suffer.

We desperately want happy and successful children but can’t control everything. In real life, inevitable surprises and unexpected moments arrive on our doorstep. Perhaps we have one picture of the future, but our kids disagree. Right when we think we are doing okay for a moment, another online posting about a child reading novels at six while playing classical violin makes us wonder why our child draws crayon stick figures.

A kind of implied judgment looms. Beyond falsely perfect postings, there may be pressure to meet standards that don’t fit for you. You may want to breastfeed, find yourself unable, and then have to deal with all sorts of negative feedback about using formula. (While breastfeeding is recommended, most kids do well with either.) Or you may need to return to work sooner than your parents think you should, or you find that your friends choose to work but you want to stay home instead.

Fear insidiously ends up driving our lives. Every catastrophe any-where in the world has become part of our local experience. The overall rate of anything bad happening to kids hasn’t shifted much, if any, in the past fifty years, though it feels much worse. A twenty-four-hour-a-day media industry streams horrific headlines and hooks us with quick fixes to problems both real and imagined.

And lastly, far too often we get swept up by viral trends carried by some perception that they will save our kids (from what, it isn’t clear)—all based on fads and salesmanship and television ratings and social media. An endless stream of often-conflicting information has created a parenting culture of unease that won’t abate. Yet if you feel pressured to handle anything exactly by the book (this one or any other), you’re going to exhaust yourself even more.

All that anxiety around raising children isn’t without consequence. When we’re overwhelmed, it affects how we act and think. Stress triggers our fight-or-flight response. I’m in danger and must protect myself. Evolutionarily speaking, that might pertain to, say, being chased down by a terrifying predator. Nowadays, it tends to mean something more abstract. I wonder if anyone will notice the stain on my son’s shirt at the concert tonight. There’s a brain-based on-off switch when it comes to stress, and all too often it remains endlessly stuck in the on position.

Chronic stress undermines our mental health and our physical health, and it changes how we think. One study even suggested that one of the best measures of a child’s stress is their parents’ stress level. A reasonable amount of stress keeps us on our toes and motivated, but when it comes to stress and family, it’s all downhill from there.

There’s a further implication to undermanaged stress: The often-unspoken last part of fight or flight is a mental “freeze.” Under danger, who needs to deliberate? No time to figure it out — gotta run. We stop thinking clearly. We fall back on reactive habits, which might be a perfectly reasonable survival tactic (Run away, there’s a lion) or not so much (Run away, homework has to get done).

Adult EF (executive function—the developmental path that describes out self-management skills) defines how well we handle challenges ourselves, and stress and burnout undermine our parental EF. Stress causes less flexible problem-solving and a decreased capacity to sustain effort (like sticking to intentions around discipline or a new homework routine). That state of depletion makes managing family life harder, creating a cycle that sustains our exhaustion. If we don’t find time to build our own resilience, we create patterns that perpetuate themselves.

Whenever family life seems unstable and overly (as opposed to routinely) chaotic, a valuable first step to hitting the reset button may be a few minutes to take care of yourself. Rediscovering your own strength, or simply taking a moment to settle, is often exactly the next best step to taking care of your child.

Here are four self-care strategies to consider:

  1. Value what keeps you healthy. Find one activity that keeps you sane and strong, and no matter how busy you are, make it happen. Music, reading, hiking, movies, knitting, or whatever you choose, stick to it. Pay attention to how you budget your time, how you eat, and how you take care of your body—and whenever you can, make lifestyle changes that reduce over-scheduling. Strengthen yourself so that you have more energy for your family. It’s not for you alone; when children are part of family life, they pick up similar healthy habits.
  2. Notice what’s right. As with children, adult resilience relies on acknowledging what you do well, instead of wallowing in self-judgment. Take small, steady steps toward change, pushing back against mental habits like perfectionism and negativity. Play to your strengths and allow for long-term, steady progress toward family goals.
  3. Value relationships. It’s easy for spouses to lose track of the little free time they spend together. Months, or even years, after having children, they may find their relationship strained or distant. If you have the resources (and not everyone does), schedule a regular babysitting night so that you and your significant other can go out and do something grown up. Or trade nights of babysitting with another family. In the same way, and particularly if you’re a single parent, find times for friends as consistently as you’re able. Creating this time also embodies healthy relationships for your children, letting them see the importance of treating others with warmth and compassion.
  4. Take a break. There’s an adage around rock climbing: If you find a solid hold that allows for a rest, take a break. Who knows the next time rest will be available? Throughout your day, and your life, when you see a chance, take a breather. Instead of continually doing and fixing and, of course, checking social media and email and succumbing to the pull of the average smartphone, actively choose something that allows you a restorative minute or two.

Mark Bertin, MD, is a pediatrician, author, professor, and mindfulness teacher specializing in neurodevelopmental behavioral pediatrics. He’s a regular contributor to Mindful.org, HuffPost, and Psychology Today. He is the author of How Children Thrive: The Practical Science of Raising Independent, Resilient, and Happy Kids (Sounds True, on sale May 2018). Dr. Bertin resides in Pleasantville, New York. For more, visit developmentaldoctor.com.

Join Mark Bertin, Sharon Salzberg, and Christopher Willard on June 5 at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan for a panel discussion, “Raising Resilient Children and Creating Thriving Families: Learning from Science and Wisdom Traditions.” Purchase your tickets here.   

Adapted from How Children Thrive: The Practical Science of Raising Independent, Resilient, and Happy Kids by Mark Bertin, MD. Copyright ©2018 by Mark Bertin. Published in May 2018 by Sounds True.

Photo courtesy of Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash 

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