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Running on Fumes: Managing Parenting Burnout


How was your summer? Filled with sun, beach trips, pool time, waking your kids up to get ready for camp? Maybe it was smooth sailing with minimal bumps. Maybe your nervous system is recovering from device negotiations.


Outward parenting plea: “How many hours did we agree on?!?!?”


Internal parenting dialogue: “I promised myself I wouldn’t yell. I hate it when I yell. Why can’t he/she/they just listen?”


A new day, a different merry-go-round. Rinse and Repeat.


To avoid cynicism, maybe it’s more like the surf, coming in and going out. Parts of it feel refreshing and invigorating, while others moments simply pull at the soles of your feet, sucking you further into the sand, requiring that much more effort to find optimism.


Regardless of the exact image that emerges when you reflect back on your summer, there is often some bemoaned degree of burnout. But burnout isn’t just a loaded word for those of us that are anchored to our computers during the day. Research and society are finally taking into consideration the role of parenting burnout. And I am so there for that!


What is Burnout? Do I Have It?


Yesterday, my daughter complained of an earache and a sore throat. I took a look, checked her temp. No fever. I officially diagnosed her with allergies. Gave her a Zyrtec, cough drop. Voila! I am a brilliant pseudo doctor.


Burnout is trickier to treat, yet as familiar as seasonal allergies.


A wealth of knowledge can be found in the book, Burnout, by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski (of course sisters, cute) (2019). I’ll do my best to summarize salient points here. The word “burnout” has been around since 1975, which means before some of us were even zygotes. Basically, when the term was first coined it included three components:


  • Emotional Exhaustion: caring too much, for too long

  • Depersonalization: depletion of empathy, caring, and self compassion

  • Decreased Sense of Accomplishment: feeling that nothing you do makes any difference


Let’s focus our attention on emotional exhaustion. This happens when we have been feeling, sensing, experiencing an emotion for an extended period of time. The challenge with emotions is that we feel them all day, and often multiple emotions at the same time. For instance, excited for our kids to head to camp and nervous/terrified that navigating the social terrain in a less familiar place could have its challenges. Or maybe you’ve felt the joy of booking a vacation as well as the dread of prepping for said vacation. Though neither feeling is bad, enduring these emotions for an extended period of time can have ramifications on our mental and physical state.


In the role of parenting, we find ourselves commonly throwing around the word “busy” like a badge that is loaded with planning, trips, work, negotiations, what-ifs, shoulds, anticipation of our children’s behavior, managing medical conditions, mental health, meals…AHHHHHHH!! Each event hosts an emotion, and sometimes multiple. “I’m super excited about seafood tonight, but my 9 year-old might hate the salmon. Will this turn into an argument? Will I even eat a warm meal?” A perfect petri dish for burnout.


So do you have it?


While I can’t answer that for you, I can provide some statements and actions that you might relate to, suggesting burnout is on the horizon (or you’re already in it):


  • “I just can’t do this anymore.”

  • “When am I going to find the time?”

  • Looking at your calendar and feeling a physical symptom creep into your gut or your shoulders tense up.

  • Zoning completely out on the car ride home, pulling into the driveway wondering if you teleported home.

  • “Sure, I’m busy, but I’ve got this,” even though your summer calendar resembles a tetris board that you’re managing.

  • Oscillating from kind and firm parenting more often than you’d like:

    • Day 1: “Sure, I can make your lunch one more time.”

    • Day 2: “I told you! I’m only making your lunch one time! Now you need to make your own lunch! What am I your sous chef!?”

  • Coping skills and resources are attempted, but don’t seem to work.

  • Imploding and finding yourself shutting down, seeking your bed or space of comfort at all times.


Why You Burnout


You, my friend, are in good company. Here’s what is happening. We, parents, people, are stuck in a never-ending stress-cycle, that is actually a broken gestalt, with no period. The overly simplified theory goes like this: once, during our hunter/gatherer times, our bodies and brains would activate by preparing to catch the next meal to avoid death. We would celebrate the abundance of our hunt by feasting and thanking the animal for its sacrifice, then a quiet burial, followed by some rest and relaxation. However, circa 2023, our body remains activated without the restoration or closure that our nervous system needs to regulate. We remain in alert mode constantly assessing for the next thing, request, problem to solve.


Unfortunately, scrolling on TikTok, a glass of wine, or some other preferred vice doesn’t give our body the input it needs to combat perpetual stress. We are able to solve the stressor through brilliant logic and problem solving, but we often forget about the impact of the actual stress.


Kick the Habit


Rest assured, we are not lost causes and we can model better habits for our kids so that burnout is not normalized. First off, we are not at fault. It is likely that there has been gradual conditioning by the generational family system, as well as societal messages. “Extracurriculars are good! Boredom is bad!” How often do you hear a list from friends of all the to-do’s like, “My child attends dance, piano, and speech. After that, we infuse the weekend with expanding knowledge in the area of sea turtle nests along the coast, while cleansing our palettes with kombucha for our gut health.” (Note some sarcasm, but not too far from the truth). Ha! Help!


I am not going to overwhelm you with a million options, strategies, and self-healing ventures. What I do want to do is offer a few concrete tools that you can try. Consider this: As you read the next paragraph, pay attention to your skeptic. Where does that voice come from? I’ll invite you to also consider how you can apply these tools in a way that makes sense for you. Both the skeptic part and inner coach are welcomed.


Get Ahead of Burnout by Shifting Your Mindset


Sometimes we know what our triggers are: being late, getting stuck in traffic, forgetting to fill out a form, losing a swimsuit on water day. In these moments, we have an opportunity to get ahead of it and shift our mindset by:


  • Planning Ahead: You do this all the time with budgets, calendars etc. This could include purchasing school supplies in advance, keeping extra cash in the diaper bag, and having routines in place so that the family community can share in behind-the-scene tasks (i.e. packing their own lunch and school bags).


Pause: Is your skeptic screaming, “Duh, I already do these things. I’m the queen of planning”? If so, consider this: How is it working for you and in what way is it not useful? Then read on.


Planning doesn’t always work. This is why I prefer placing more energy into shifting the mindset. This requires being attuned to your body, noticing the shifts that occur that are letting you know you are heading into alert mode. As this creeps in, identifying the positive or neutral of the situation. “I’m in traffic and it’s out of my control. Let me call my Aunt that I’ve been meaning to reach out to.” This takes practice, but it’s so worth it. All of a sudden, we begin to realize what is within our power, and letting go of what is not. Then we get to breathe.


Simple Tools to Keep Burnout at Bay


There are many ways to complete the stress cycle. Here are 5 that I will share now. My suggestion is to pick 1-2 tools for 2-3 weeks, paying extra attention to the shift in your thoughts, feelings, and body sensations before and after the exercise. Notice the subtle differences and feel free to try something different if it doesn't work. Your journey is your journey. Own it. It will literally save your body and mind.


  • Exercise: Argh, am I right? Exercise speaks the body's language letting it know, once complete, that it is safe, accomplished, and ready to rest. This could include a walk, actual sweaty exercise or maybe even preferred yard work (gardening or mowing the lawn).

  • 20 Second Hug: Yep, hugging. And long enough to get feedback that the body is okay.

  • 6 Second Kiss: The Gottman Institute found that a daily 6 second kiss can be effective in connection and security

  • Creativity: Engaging your creative juices in some drawing, painting or writing.

  • Breathing: The power of breath work is undeniable. The most effective part being a long exhale.


Do What Works for You


We forget and then we normalize the role of stress or minimize it due to our overwhelming desire to get it right, fit it all in, keep up with others or maintain generational and societal standards. As you prepare for the transition back-to-school for you and your child, consider the power of completing your own stress-cycle to reduce and repair burnout. Modeling these habits for your children can help them develop positive coping strategies for years to come.


In all of this with you,


Holly

Holly Moore, MS, EdS, NCSP

Holly is a school psychologist, mental health provider and certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator. For more information about Holly, and her parent coaching or upcoming parent workshops, visit her website at That's the Mom in Me or email her at hello@thatsthemominme.com






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