Avoiding Parental Burnout: 10 Steps to Lower Parenting Stress This Year

parental burnout threatens an exhausted mother

Parental burnout is the new kid on the block. But we don’t have to let it get the upper hand.

If you’re struggling with a bad case of ‘I just can’t parent anymore’, you’re bound to feel trapped. Because there’s just no hitting ‘stop’ on this treadmill. But there are some ways to lower the incline. Read on as we look at 10 psychological and physical tactics that are proven to help lower stress, improve your outlook, and short-circuit the path to parenting burnout.

Why Should I be Concerned About Parental Burnout?

Stressed out mom

No parent is immune to stress. The whole gig comes with a built in control panel of stress buttons.
And there’s a whole bunch of people who get to push them.

You can bet your kids are in the front row seats with a whack-a-mole hammer. Then there’s your partner, your parents, your in-laws, and that strange lady at the grocery store who always seems to be watching you.

We all have our own stress bears. Maybe becoming a mom threw you a few curveballs. Perhaps you have a kid with special needs. Or you’re a single mom.

Or maybe you’ve just, you know, lived through a global pandemic.

Wherever you’re at, parenting stress is real. And for my money, it’s only going to get more intense as our western society becomes even more fast and furious, not to mention more fragmented.

And that means that many of us moms, who tend to carry the greater household and childcare stress load, are at greater risk of parental burnout.

Parental Burnout Symptoms

According to psychologists, parental burnout happens with extended periods of exhaustion when we experience an emotional imbalance, when “the burden of perceived stress exceeds personal resources to cope with it.”

If you hit burnout, you’ll probably experience a combination of physical, emotional and psychological symptoms. According to a 2018 study, burnout is characterized by three key aspects:

  1. Physical and emotional exhaustion
  2. Emotional distancing from your children
  3. The feeling that you’re incompetent as a parent.

Burnout is not something to wave off as ‘just another parenting side-effect,’ or a short term crash. As it’s a fairly new field of study, there is much we still need to understand about parental burnout and its effects. But studies have shown that it increases chances of parental neglect and abuse. And it can lead to mental health issues like clinical depression and anxiety disorder.

As the aforementioned 2018 study revealed, “a mom experiencing burnout will likely feel trapped by her parenting responsibilities, and start fantasizing about escape. In some cases, moms may entertain thoughts of suicide.”

It’s not a place any of us want to be.

10 Steps to Downgrade Parent Stress & Avoid Parenting Burnout

While there’s still a lot more we need to learn about parent burnout, we’ve lived with stress for long enough as a society that we’ve figured out some effective coping strategies. And as any mom will agree, prevention is better than cure! If you’re concerned that your stress levels (or those of a loved one) are getting beyond what you can handle, here are 10 practical steps you can take to help get things under control.

Image by Gaby Orcutt on Unsplash

1. Confront Reality

Stress is not just a state of mind you can wish away with enough ‘zen’ thoughts. The stress we experience as parents is (for the most part) founded in real problems that need to be dealt with — leaving them festering will only make things worse.

So call them out. Identify the key culprits. Make a list. (Just the act of putting them down in black and white will already remove some of their emotional power over you). Then pick your first contender.

Once you zero in a specific problem, you can start figuring out a solution.

2. Own your feelings, but don’t let them own you

Emotions are to the psyche what nerve endings are to the brain. They’re crucial for letting us know what’s going on and where there’s a problem. But they’re only meant to be messengers — not masters. When negative feelings get too much power, they become another source of stress.

Give your feelings the credit they’re due — acknowledge them, listen to them. But don’t let them drive the conversation. Don’t let them tell you that you’re inferior, inadequate, or unworthy.

You’re just a mom with too much on your plate (and what other kind of mom is there, really?). The solutions are out there, and you’re going to find them.

3. Get some problem-solving power

Most of the problems that cause our mom stress can be solved with one basic thing — information.

Knowledge is problem-solving power. So focus on one problem at a time, and get the information you need to deal with it from trusted sources. Ask your doctor, ask your pediatrician, ask your lawyer, ask your financial advisor. Don’t get sucked into information-overload on the internet or social media — it just leads to more overwhelm.

4. Lower your expectations

It’s a chronic problem for moms — we always seem to have unrealistic expectations of ourselves. Whether those pressuring voices are external or internal, we all tend to labor under the notion that we’re supposed to be able to do it all — magically juggling home, kids and work life while somehow finding time to take care of ourselves.

And it’s just not possible.

If you’re still living in the shadow of ‘Supermom,’ it’s time to give up the game and downgrade that stressful job title to ‘Good Enough Mom.’

Kids alive? House still standing? Avoided setting fire to your hair today? That’ll do, momma, that’ll do.

5. Get your safety net in place

Even if the stress of parenting pushes us over the edge at times, having a safety net of loving, non-judgmental support can stop us from falling to pieces.

As the pandemic eases and we start returning to some measure of a new normal, it’s only natural that some of us might take a while to emerge from the social cocoons we’ve grown used to. Don’t feel bad if it’s a little uncomfortable at first — just focus on giving yourself that extra push. Enrol in that parenting class. Reach out to another mom. Ask a relative for some extra help with the kids. Once you break the initial barrier, things will get a lot easier.

6. Try to get some sleep! (But don’t stress over it)

Sometimes we forget that stress is just as much about the physical side as the emotional and mental aspects. Most of the time, it’s the physical overload and lack of self-care that’s causing — or exacerbating — the problem. And probably the biggest culprit is lack of sleep.

As Dr. Gwen Dewar points out:

“Sleep deprivation doesn’t just make you tired. It interferes with the natural pattern of stress hormone production.”

Worrying about your lack of sleep is the one thing you don’t want to do, as negative thoughts are just another stress trigger. Instead, keep the focus on finding practical solutions to family sleep problems (Dewar’s website offers some very helpful evidence-based information for sleep issues with babies and young children).

And in the meantime, try to accept the temporary situation for what it is, and make the best of things.

7. Get your heart pounding for the right reasons

Stress has very real physiological effects. But we can train our bodies to deal with stress by subjecting them to the good kind, in the form of aerobic exercise. Not only will it give you an immediate mood boost thanks to the endorphins, but according to studies, regular exercise helps our bodies build up a natural defence against the negative effects of stress.

The only catch is that the exercise can’t be forced or it may have the opposite effect of increasing your stress! So, that obligatory workout of spring-cleaning your house may not have the desired effect.

But I’m sure we can all think of at least one fun aerobic activity that’s bound to help you (and your partner) fight off stress the enjoyable way!

8. Avoid negative triggers & focus on the positives

As moms, we’re well acquainted with the whole negative spiral. When we’re stressed and tired, it’s like we’ve tapped into ‘the dark side’ and any tiny disturbance in the force can suck us into a vortex of doom that spirals out of control.

Science shows that even the briefest exposure to negative stimuli — a Youtube video, for example — causes our brains to hone in on other negatives, and leads to anxiety about the future. A single negative trigger can activate the stress circuits in our brain, which can be difficult to turn off.

On the other hand, actively focusing on positive stimuli — whether it’s meaningful interactions and affectionate moments with your kids, listening to uplifting music, or taking a moment to enjoy nature — can push your brain chemistry in the right direction and put you in a good mood.

9. Find meaningful inspiration

Investing in your own sense of fulfilment is a vital way to protect yourself from the effects of stress.

As a mom, sacrificing short-term personal pleasures and preferences comes with the territory.

What should not be up for grabs is your sense of purpose and fulfilment. The need to have your tank refilled on a regular basis isn’t just crucial for your own wellbeing — it’s vital for your family too. Because they need you present –not just physically, but as a whole person.

How you fill your tank is up to you. As women, it’s often about reconnecting with the things and people that really matter to us — whether that’s friends, nature, special activities, creative outlets, or personal goals.

You won’t have time to do it all. But you can start with something small — one thing you can look forward to each week that will help fill your tank. Maybe be it’s taking a walk by the sea or in the park. Or getting your partner to watch the kids so you can read a book for an hour.

10. Share your story

Finally, don’t keep your parenting struggles to yourself. Don’t be scared to share your pain. Don’t buy into the lie of the stigma attached to stress and parenting burnout.

You are not alone in the struggle.

There are millions of other parents out there who empathize, and still more who can learn and be encouraged by your story.

So share your load — however you choose to do it.

You never know the difference it could make.

The risk of parental burnout should not be taken lightly, as it could lead to more serious mental health concerns. It’s important to pay attention to early warning signs and symptoms, and take action. If symptoms persist for more than two weeks or get worse despite additional rest and recovery measures, it’s a good idea to seek professional support. As a starting point, contact Postpartum Support International (in the US) to find relevant resources in your area, or ask for advice from your doctor or therapist.

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