Over 10 years ago, I experienced some mysterious symptoms doctors couldn’t easily explain. Sharp back pain, ringing ears, heart palpitations, and digestive issues didn’t add up. I was fatigued beyond belief, but a decent night’s sleep didn’t make a dent. As a young mother with three children, I couldn’t afford to fall apart.
My kids were not what you’d consider “easy.” I was one of those moms who was always on edge, waiting for the next call from school, wondering if I was making the right choices. I had a wealth of parenting advice but not a wealth of support, in a society that often says, “Here’s what you can do…” and not so much, “How are YOU holding up?” With little to counteract the pressure, I often felt exhausted and overwhelmed.
It turns out my hypervigilance was taking a toll. After several doctors dismissed me, I eventually learned that I had almost no more cortisol, an important hormone responsible for helping us respond to stress. In order to be there for my family, I had to change my relationship with stress. I spent the next several years researching and experimenting, trying to figure out how to restore myself even as my circumstances remained the same.
My recovery from parental burnout taught me many powerful lessons about resilience that happen to be even more relevant these days, as we transition into this next phase of pandemic life. There’s a pull to go back to “normal,” high-speed living. And yet we’re still holding—somewhere inside—the stress and grief of this last year-plus. While it’s tempting to push ahead and try to forget about what we’ve been through, we need to process it so that we can move forward in a healthy way, for ourselves and our kids.
What is parental burnout?
When I burned out, I discovered that parents of kids with higher needs (like myself) experience more stress, distress, illness, anxiety, and depression than parents of “typically developing” kids. One study found mothers of young adults with autism and behavior challenges had cortisol patterns comparable to those of combat soldiers. The recent surge in child and youth mental health issues brings a wave of parental stress with it. But stress and distress don’t just affect parents of children with challenges.
The collision of roles we have had to take on during this pandemic—parent, partner, teacher, employee, caretaker, and so on—was an impossible load. When demands and stress exceed our resources, well-being suffers. We weren’t exactly prepared for such a disruption—or the prolonged grief and fear that came with it. A March 2021 “Stress in America” survey by the American Psychological Association found 39% of mothers and 25% of fathers said their mental health had worsened compared with before the pandemic. Parents reported unwanted changes in weight, disrupted sleep patterns, and increased alcohol consumption—all signs that parents have been struggling to cope.
This struggle to cope is often referred to as “burnout,” which the World Health Organization describes as “a vital state of exhaustion.” Originally identified as a work-related phenomenon, burnout has only recently been studied in the parental realm. The first research published in 2019 characterizes this syndrome with “feeling overwhelmed, physical and emotional exhaustion, emotional distancing from one’s children, and a sense of being an ineffective parent.”
Once considered a shameful admission, burnout is now finding its own kind of “me too” moment. We don’t have endless wells of energy—no matter how much we love our kids. Whether a parent is feeling slightly toasted or completely fried, burnout is an actual and serious condition. It can affect any parent: Perfectionists, those with limited resources, and those lacking actual support are the most at-risk. Moïra Mikolajczak, a professor at the University of Louvain who has been at the forefront of this research, said parental burnout “urgently requires more attention,” and the pandemic has only magnified this need.
Here are my six suggestions for building post-traumatic resilience, drawing on the many insights and coping tools I’ve collected over the years, to help other parents who are feeling wobbly after this extraordinary experience.
Start where you are
As parents, we often put our needs at the bottom of a never-ending to-do list. But burnout creeps up when we stop checking in with ourselves. We say, “I’m fine!” until suddenly we’re not. I learned that the hard way.
While some of us just want to power forward, our bodies still remember the stress of lockdowns. Take moments during the day to pause and gently open to what you’re experiencing:
- Try a mindful break, such as the “STOP” method: Stop. Take a deep breath with a longer exhale. Dig your feet into the ground as you tune into your five senses. Observe what you’re thinking and feeling. Then decide on the “next right thing” and Proceed with intention.
- “HALT” and ask yourself: “Am I Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired?” Sometimes we forget to address the basics.
- Practice the body scan. Finding moments of stillness can help you feel more centered and also create the space to have more meaningful connections with your kids.
Recognize it’s “just that hard”
When family life is messy, we often believe that it’s our fault, but parenting is challenging even in the best of times. Systemic factors that have nothing to do with our abilities make it even harder. It would be a relief if we all had access to high-quality health care and child care, as well as equitable school funding. It would also help if practitioners would consider each parent’s stress profile, cultural background, values, and resources before offering us more strategies.
We can’t change the system by ourselves, but we can rest in the wise words of nurse Diana Spalding: “You’re not doing it wrong. It’s just that hard.” Understand that shortcomings may not (and often don’t!) root from you and your choices.
Reframe what it means to self-care
Parents tend to say that self-care seems selfish, indulgent, or impossible, but self-care is essential, and it doesn’t have to be a big deal to be effective. Lots of research shows that tiny tweaks lead to big change. I started with a sticky note that had three small things I would do for myself each day, like:
- Grab some almonds instead of that muffin;
- Look up and notice the sky;
- Think of one good thing today and soak it in.
What fills each of us is different, and what you need might change by the day. It’s personal. The easiest way to develop a self-care habit is to attach tiny steps to your regular routine. For example, drink a glass of lemon water while you wait for your coffee to brew, think of one gratitude while you wash the dishes, or rest your legs up the wall for a few minutes before bedtime—and then pat yourself on the back for doing this.
Every act of self-care contributes to your well-being and, by extension, to that of your child. Nim Tottenham, a professor of psychology at Columbia University who focuses on the interplay between caregiving and brain development, emphasizes that we care for children by caring for parents. As she stated, “Parents ask me, ‘What is the best parenting advice you can offer?’ I tell them, ‘Do what you can to take care of your well-being, to make sure you are feeling safe, and to manage your own emotions in a healthy way. When you feel this way, that gets translated to your children in a powerful way.’”
Our children rely on our nervous systems to regulate their own. I like to remind myself that my well-being is connected to my children’s, like Wi-Fi.
Abandon the “cult of the perfect parent”
In this era of over-parenting, many of us aspire to an impossible standard. And sometimes we get so flooded with parenting advice, it drowns out any confidence we had in our own instincts. Professor Isabelle Roskam of UCLouvain, who studies parental burnout, concurs that one of the best ways to prevent stress in parenting is to “abandon the cult of the perfect parent and gain some perspective on all the parenting advice out there in order to choose what works for you.”
The myth of the perfect parent is just that. A myth. And yet we can still beat ourselves up for struggling.
A powerful antidote to this pressure is self-compassion, which involves three elements: relating to ourselves with kindness and compassion, appreciating our common humanity, and staying present and open to our pain and struggle. When we treat ourselves with the same kindness and care we’d offer a friend, everything changes. Self-compassion can transform our stress responses into nurturing ones. By activating the caregiving system in our bodies, self-compassion provides us with a sense of safety and resourcefulness.
Whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed and insufficient as a parent, I put my hand on my heart and offer myself this self-compassion mantra: “This is hard. I’m doing my best. I’m a good parent.” It allows me to pause, recognize my own humanity, and offer myself some kindness.
Then I consider what I need in the moment to feel a little better. Maybe it’s a glass of water, or a timeout in the other room. You can find more self-compassion practices here.
Revive the village
We’ve all heard that it takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to support that child’s parents. Modern parenting, however, does not often come with a community of care wrapped around us. Psychiatrist Bruce Perry puts it this way: “At no other time in the history of humankind have we left only one or two adults to meet the physical, social, emotional, and spiritual needs of one or more children. In fact, during tribal living, a family like this would never have survived.”
According to recent research, parental burnout varies by culture, with the highest rates appearing in countries that value individualism as opposed to collectivism. Here are a few ways to cultivate your village:
- Open up a bit about your struggles to someone you feel you can trust. We are not as alone as we often believe, and there’s nothing more comforting than finding someone who understands.
- Offer help. Simple gestures of kindness toward others give us a boost, too.
- Team up with a friend or a neighbor for practical and moral support. Join a group, start a group, or foster the connections you already have. We flourish when we are part of a community of sharing and mutual aid.
Seek professional help if you need it
Self-care habits can protect us from burnout and bolster our well-being, but sometimes that’s not enough. When we are constantly overwhelmed, checked out, or burned out, it can have potentially severe consequences for kids. We were designed to respond to stress, but not to remain stuck in survival overdrive. If you don’t feel like yourself, seek help. We are stronger when we raise our hands.
To emerge from a crisis with resilience, children need loving, calm caregivers. As developmental psychologist Diana Divecha explains, when a supportive adult is present, the child can tolerate much more than if they were alone. This past year has reminded us all that parents are on the frontlines—the last line of defense—protecting our children from the fallout of the pandemic. As we lurch into another school year, addressing burnout is vital to our well-being.