Ask a Therapist: Tips for Weathering Parental Burnout

by Liz Covey, LMHC

Question: My kids are positively driving me crazy. At first, I was enjoying all the time together, but now I just want them to get out of the house for a few hours so I don’t go crazy. I know what I’m supposed to do, but I can’t do it. I have even read stuff online that has been helpful, but honestly, it’s just TOO MUCH parenting. Now all the camps are closed for the summer and I hear that school is pretty unlikely to reopen in September. What suggestions do you have for a mom at the end of her rope?

Dear Reader,

Your question reminds me of a tagline from an old movie, The Royal Tenenbaums, that has stuck with me over the years. It’s this: Family isn’t a word, it’s a sentence. 

Never has that double entendre been more poignant than today, as our worlds have practically shrunk down to the size of just our families, and we as parents face the undulating highs and lows that come with this new and challenging reality. So, thank you, Reader, for highlighting a feature of this year’s mayhem that doesn’t seem to be getting the attention it deserves. 

I’m talking about parental burnout, especially for parents of younger children — the ones who need constant supervision and interaction. Caregiving for these young kids has fallen solely on parents, a departure from the design of our species throughout human history. Many of us know the aphorism echoed across African cultures and throughout modern popular culture, including in Hillary Clinton’s 1996 book, It Takes a Village to Raise a Child. It’s a truism known to anyone actively raising a family. 

Today, family life is largely homebound, an endless loop of tasks for parents. It’s an ongoing stream that includes a surplus of “mental load” activities, pioneer-days-style cooking and cleaning regiments, and digital coordination for all socializing, schooling, and extracurricular activities. This on top of whatever the parents must do to secure their income. 

Such a routine is grating on many levels, and I, like most parents, find myself overwhelmed to the point of existential despair. I consider it a good day when an F-bomb doesn’t drop within a child’s earshot, or when I don’t deliver a Shakespearean-soliloquy-length tirade about my newly devolved 19th-century life (with the addition of the internet). When a client recently told me, deep in a moment of torment, that she wished she could “give them all away” — meaning her kids — I was shocked to realize I knew exactly what she meant. A taboo and terrifying thought was transformed into a normal sentiment within the span of only a couple of months. 

According to anthropologist Helen Fisher, the norm for human beings for tens of thousands of years has been multi-generational social groups in which children were cared for by all manner of relations, biological and otherwise, with many hands on deck. Somewhat surprisingly, Fisher writes that  “the nuclear family is very unnatural in human history … families would have been embedded in networks of other marriages and other families and elders and cross-generational [groups].” 

Our modern family social group is an updated version of this motif — often composed of extended family help as well as a team of paid caregivers, for those fortunate enough to be able to afford them, from daycare worker to coach to piano teacher — and most critically, the public school system. Though it is less interconnected today and it involves more commerce, the village has remained. Until now. 

We have learned from Fisher and other evolutionary scientists that the singular unit of immediate family ain’t much all by itself, and it never has been. It’s a piece in a larger puzzle, one that needs a lot of support and a wide range of influences to work successfully. 

In our present circumstances, we are experimenting with just how little help families can have and still make it. And by the evidence of my own family, and from my parent coaching practice, it isn’t clear to me that we are. 

What results from these isolated conditions is a reasonable certainty that our parenting will go off the rails and that we will have to find our way back to equilibrium with our kids, one way or another, despite having less relief than ever before. We used to spend a lot of time talking about the “work-life balance”, but almost overnight that term has become irrelevant. Almost comically so. 

The conversation has changed. Today’s family is a ship that has too much cargo, so it will list, sometimes to the brink of danger. The question I want us to be asking is: how can we keep it from capsizing?

In this cultural experiment of pressing parents to the bitter edge, and in an effort to protect our kids from what could spring from that scenario, now is not the time to talk about how to get it right or how to aim for smooth sailing. Rather, now is the time to cultivate and practice skills of being hardy and nimble. Now is the time to learn how to become adept at bouncing back. 

Here are some tips for how to be nimble in the face of parenting adversity:

Catch Yourself in the Act — Track the cues that you are not doing so well. Check the body —  your voice, heart rate, and muscle tension are a good place to start. See if you can notice when you start to get amped up, or listless and weighed down.

Breathe, or Tap Your Feet — It’s helpful to interrupt cycles of distress with a present-moment experience. Take a few deep breaths — into your belly, not your chest — and slowly blow it out of your mouth in the shape of an “O.” Try tapping your feet (alternating them) for a few beats, or roll back and forth on the soles of your feet. Afford yourself a minute or two to get “grounded” in stressful times. 

Take Responsibility When You Lose It — Apologize for anything out of line. Kids don’t need much explanation, but they benefit from a clear admission when we veer off-course. Usually, this is called for when we’ve been harsh, absent, distracted, or too negative.

Help Kids Organize Their Feelings — When we have behaved badly, we should right ourselves, then take time to address any feelings that might result from it. A heartfelt “I bet it was scary when I yelled” is one example. Feelings-organization helps our kids understand their emotions, and sidestep shame or traumatic associations when they endure tough times.

Take the Lead on Moving On — In my practice I often say that family is a forgiveness practice. It is the place in our lives where we are required to pick up and start over, no matter how bad things are. Parents take the lead in shifting the energy after a difficult time. Even if you have to fake it, it is your job to set the course in a better direction.

Work It Out through Play or Physicality — Kids often benefit from exaggerated play based on themes that are conflictual in the family. So, act out the “big bad wolf” in a chasing game or imaginative play after a rough morning when you’d been a big grump. For older kids (and adults) high physicality can help break through miserable times.

Know What Works – Don’t reinvent the wheel. Make a four-point list of things you all enjoy, and another list of what each kid enjoys, and do those things when you start to collapse. A few examples from my family are trampoline time, the game Clue, or a trip to the coffee shop with my tween.

Talk about It and Laugh at Yourself — Talk about the strangeness of this time and validate any grievances. Poke fun at yourself as a way to lighten the mood, as well as to invite discussion about the sharper edges or missing pieces in life today.

Find Some Healthy Ways to Vent — Don’t neglect your adult need to unload the considerable weight you carry as a parent today, and don’t rely exclusively on numbing agents like alcohol, TV, or marijuana to de-stress. Reach out to a friend (curse words and confessions are recommended), have a hard workout, or take a karaoke carpool drive by yourself.

Double Down on Nurturance — Spend extra time cuddling and commenting authentically on your child’s specialness (be specific!). Tell them how much you love them and what makes them unique. And take more one-on-one time with each kid when possible. This goes a long way to offset the stuff that is less successful in your parenting today.

Becoming nimble is not something people talk about much, Reader, but perhaps it should be. We parents have to learn some new things, as well as be self-aware and self-compassionate if we are to make it through this unusual time — one where we can count on little other than uncertainty and hardship. 

So I ask you, Reader: if “Family isn’t a word, it’s a sentence,” then which kind do you want it to be? 

Will it be a prison sentence, one where you and your family simply bide your time until life goes back to normal? Or will it be a sentence you’ll write as a parent with new skills? A treatise on survival and strength, of what was learned under pressure after having gotten close to the breaking point, then learning how to nimbly bounce back?

This crisis may not afford us a lot of luxuries, but it does offer us time. So with this time, we parents can ask ourselves: which kind of sentence do I choose?

Counselors Roy Fisher and Liz Covey answer readers’ questions for South Seattle Emerald’s “Ask a Therapist.” Have a question about a relationship? Wondering about the struggles of being a parent? Others likely have the same questions and Covey and Fisher bring years of professional experience to provide their insights.

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Featured Image: “Walking The Ledge Part IV” by StarMama is licensed under CC BY 2.0. View a copy of this license here.