You might think the term “burnout” applies only to your job — but burnout can affect more than just your 9-to-5. In fact, it can also affect the most important job of all: parenting.
With 2 years of the COVID-19 pandemic in the rearview, many parents are feeling the burn of virtual school, canceled playdates, strained spousal relationships, and other challenges. If you’re parenting through the pandemic, you’ve likely experienced a sense of frustration and helplessness.
And though we seem to have rounded the bend on the worst of SARS CoV-2, you may have nagging fears about what the future holds, leaving you still feeling overwhelmed.
Feeling at the end of your parenting rope? Here’s how to cope.
While everyone’s experience may look different, researchers have actually defined the concept of COVID-19-related parent burnout.
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In other words, you’ve been carrying a very heavy burden for a very long time — and it’s taken a long lasting emotional toll.
Living in a heightened state of stress for years on end isn’t natural, so don’t be surprised if parental burnout has far-reaching effects on your daily life.
You may feel extra lethargic or have diminished interest in activities you used to enjoy. Perhaps you’re irritable, forgetful, or simply feeling numb. Guilt can also creep in if you begin comparing your current parenting with what it may have looked like in the past.
Additionally, parenting burnout inevitably affects relationships with your spouse or partner. “I have observed a drastic increase in the reporting of spousal tension and conflict since the beginning of the pandemic, especially in couples who are parents,” says psychotherapist Haley Neidich, a licensed clinical social worker.
“When all of your resolve and emotional regulation is being used to manage parenting and your other responsibilities, it can become easy for your relationship to become deprioritized. Resentment over the level of support received around child care between spouses is the common complaint. Resentment that goes unchecked can lead to serious relationship issues,” Neidich says.
Things can be even more challenging without a partner. Not having the support of a co-parent means fewer breaks and less time for self-care — both of which contribute to greater feelings of burnout.
Parent burnout doesn’t just impact parents. Its effects trickle down to kids, too.
Children are highly attuned to the emotional states of their parents and caregivers. As the adults’ energy and patience levels diminish, kids may feel left out, neglected, or unseen. You may have noticed an uptick in difficult behaviors as your child seeks attention — even negative attention.
Not every case of parent burnout leads to serious consequences for kids, but it’s possible for parental stress to spiral into abuse.
“Sadly, with burnout, children do not get the best versions of their parents. This can lead to child neglect or abuse,” says therapist Molly Nourmand, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “In fact, there is a correlation between higher levels of burnout and coercive or punitive parenting practices.”
Finding help before abuse happens
If you’re afraid you may hurt your child, contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 800-4-A-CHILD (800-422-4453).
When burnout hits, it can be hard to know where to turn or what to do. Here are eight tips to help you cope:
1. Make time for self-care
We all know self-care matters — but when you’re a burned-out parent or caregiver, setting aside time to tend to your own body and soul becomes even more critical.
“Whatever is in the realm of possibility for you, I would encourage you to build nonnegotiable self-care into your schedule so that you do not wait until your proverbial tank runs out of gas,” says Nourmand. She recommends scheduling enjoyable activities as you would any other daily commitment.
Self-care doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming. Taking walk, soaking in a warm bath, or reading a good book can all be forms of self-care. Choose activities that feel restorative to you.
2. Ask for help
A stressful time (like, say, a global pandemic) isn’t the time to power through parenting alone. When you’re feeling burned out, it’s important to recognize your need for help — and reach out to others to get it.
Ask a friend or family member to babysit, or see if a neighborhood teen can play with your kids to give you a break. To take some responsibilities off your plate, check low cost household support websites that offer services like house cleaning, yard work, or running local errands.
Requesting help might also look like asking for more from your spouse, partner, or co-parent.
“Parents should acknowledge with one another the reality of their burnout, give each other elongated breaks, and talk openly about their needs,” says Neidich. “At this time it is not always possible to meet your co-parent’s needs, but talking about small ways to help each other through this phase can alleviate a great deal of tension.”
3. Dial down commitments
Step away from the calendar! Stripping your schedule of excessive or burdensome commitments allows for extra breathing room you may need right now. Ballet lessons, soccer practice, and book club can all make their way back into your family’s life when you’re feeling more refreshed.
4. Add meditation
“Meditation is one of the most powerful tools available to protect your brain and body from overwhelm,” says Neidich. “Meditation helps to protect your nervous system from the effects of stress by tapping into your body’s natural relaxation response.”
Not comfortable with a lengthy om session? Start small with a simple breathing exercise or a brief recorded meditation on Youtube.
You can even get the kids involved in an activity that’s beneficial for the whole family.
“Involving your children in meditation can actually help teach them a valuable life coping skill and can serve as a reset to the energy in the house,” Neidich says. “Parents who meditate with their children regularly often say that it is a new type of bonding where they can re-access the appreciation they have in the parent-child relationship.”
5. Invest in a hobby
One simple way to reconnect with your inner self: Pick up a hobby! According to research from 2015, leisure time, such as time spent on a hobby:
- increased positive mood
- decreased negative mood
- reduced stress
- lowered heart rate
Creative pursuits like painting, playing an instrument, or writing can all refill your emotional cup. Or you may find even greater rewards from hobbies that take you out of your usual environment.
“Doing an activity outside the home that brings you joy could help offset some of the burnout,” suggests Nourmand. “And if you’re feeling starved socially, then starting a hobby that involves a friend is a bonus!”
According to Nourmand, the right hobby can come with another hidden bonus for parents and caregivers.
“Getting back in touch with something that you loved doing when you were a child could actually help you connect with and relate to your children better.”
6. Spend time with friends
Let’s face it: The COVID-19 pandemic did a number on our social lives. If you’ve felt isolated from friends during the last 2 years, it’s probably contributed to a sense of burnout.
Maybe it’s time to get back in the social saddle by reaching out to friends.
“Spending time with friends offers an outlet to disconnect from the stressors of parenting and discuss your experiences,” Neidich encourages. “It also offers an opportunity to support one another and a normalization that everyone is struggling right now.”
For some people, the idea of spending time inside with a group of people or even with one other person may still feel uncomfortable or may not work for health reasons. That’s OK, too. Other ways to reconnect might include meeting up outside – like for a picnic or a walk, scheduling a Zoom or phone call with a friend or group of friends, or even just sending a friend a text or a message on social media.
7. Create a space for yourself
Taking a vacation or day off from the kids is never a bad idea for staving off burnout. But for those times when can’t leave the house, you consider creating a private sanctuary in your home.
Is there a space you can turn into a kid-free zone? Perhaps you designate your bedroom as your personal haven or choose a special chair on the patio that’s just for you. Let your kids know that when you’re in this place, it’s the equivalent of a do-not-disturb sign.
8. Seek therapy
For some parents, a DIY approach to overcoming burnout simply won’t cut it. If your chosen coping mechanisms don’t seem to be decreasing feelings of helplessness, frustration, or overwhelm, consider talking with a mental health professional.
Finding help for parental burnout
Options for finding a therapist:
- recommendations from friends or family members
- Black Mental Health Alliance
- National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Alliance
- online therapy through services like Talkspace or BetterHelp
- Therapy for Latinx
- Therapy for Muslims
- recommendations from your insurance company
Other sources of help include:
- babysitting or childcare apps
- meditation apps like Calm or Headspace
- service apps like TaskRabbit, ThumbTack, Angi, or others
No matter the challenges you’ve endured as a parent or caregiver during the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s hope for a brighter future.
As the virus reaches an endemic stage, many of the factors that made the last 2 years so difficult are falling away, allowing for a return to a more manageable, less stressful life.
Tending to your spirit, getting help, seeking counseling, and other strategies can all go a long way toward restoring your joy in parenting.
There’s no shame in feeling your parenting mojo could use a reboot. Parents and caregivers have borne the brunt of some of the most difficult aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As you take steps to recover from parental burnout, remember to give yourself some grace, knowing that this phase isn’t forever.
“Parents need to be gentle with themselves and adjust their expectations at this time,” says Neidich. “What matters most is your mental health, stress management, and keeping as peaceful and supportive an environment in your home as possible.”