Health & Science

5 Ways To Deal With Pandemic Parental Burnout

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It’s hard to believe that we once thought parental burnout was caused by overextending ourselves—and our kids—with too many extracurricular activities and commitments. Today many of us have few places to go and less to do as a result of the pandemic, yet it turns out we’re more burnt out than ever.

When ParentsTogether asked 1,200 parents in a recent survey if they or anyone in their household was struggling mentally or emotionally, 65 percent said yes, with another 60 percent saying things have gotten worse or much worse since just last summer. Even in families that haven’t lost jobs and are able to pay bills, there’s a mental and emotional toll that comes with month after month of raising kids during a pandemic. It’s probably no surprise that remote learning has become a huge source of stress for many families. A recent Harris poll conducted on behalf of the American Psychological Association found a whopping 63 percent of parents say the pandemic made the current school year more stressful than last year’s. 

Making matters worse, parental burnout tends to be even more prevalent among single parents and in communities of color. That said, being part of a couple doesn’t always provide stress relief: a widely publicized recent survey found moms have borne the lion’s share of the burden, with 80 percent of those with kids under 12 saying they’re responsible for most of the distance learning occurring at home. 

“These are exhausting times for parents and kids alike,” says Jason Goldstein, M.D. Health & Wellness Advisor at Kiddie Academy. “Parents are having to navigate a lot of new territories, like working from home, working later or different hours, parenting with less emotional reserve, less exercise and less time to unwind and recharge.” Added up, those are a whole lot of stressors that many parents weren’t dealing with last year. As if managing our own burnout isn’t enough, many parents are also trying to manage stress levels in their children, too. “All the while, we’re getting overloaded with ever-changing information from experts with a confusing view of what the future holds,” adds Dr. Goldstein. It’s no wonder parental burnout is sky-high despite a pandemic keeping many families from their usual routines and activities. 

The key to dealing with burnout is to try avoiding it altogether. There’s plenty of research that shows regular exercise, meditation and deep breathing, and maintaining a healthy, nutritious diet may help, but they’re not the only way to deal with pandemic parental burnout. These five tips may also help:

Cut yourself some much-needed slack.

“The most important thing a parent on the verge of burnout can do is give themselves a break,” says Andy Slavitt, host of the podcast In The Bubble and former head of Obama’s healthcare initiative. “This is supposed to be hard. You are not going to bear up 100 percent of the time. it’s OK to fail at some stuff. It’s impossible not to… in fact, it is really, really hard.” You’re not alone—most parents are struggling, and unfortunately, that’s to be expected given the circumstances. It’s not your fault. Try not to be hard on yourself for every slip-up, missed deadline, pile of laundry, or whatever else feels like a “failure” right now—burning yourself out only makes meeting your family’s basic needs that much harder.

Know the signs. 

According to Dr. Goldstein, there are four key signs that you’re on the road to burnout:

  • Changes in your sleep or appetite
  • Unexplained sadness
  • Angry or even volatile behavior
  • Decreased interest or pleasure from activities that brought you joy in the past

Changes in sleep or appetite are perhaps the most common, but a general moodiness is also likely, so don’t wait until your behavior is already reaching high sadness or anger levels to take note of how you’re feeling. Try making it a habit to ask yourself how you’re feeling at the same time every day, such as when you’re driving to work, sipping coffee in the morning, or just before you go to bed. The minute you recognize any of the above signs, take action, even if it’s just asking a friend or partner for help. Just having someone to talk to can help put things in perspective, so don’t assume you need to find a professional—although that’s never a bad idea. Even small, regular conversations (or vent sessions) with those you trust can ease the burden and help you feel less alone. 

Avoid disciplining when you’re angry. 

When your stress levels are elevated and you’re frustrated, feedback tends to be more impulsive and less effective,” says Dr. Goldstein. “It is always best to check in with your own emotions prior to giving feedback to your children and be intentional in terms of your messaging and goals.” Simply put: Disciplining kids when you’re already stressed will usually just escalate the situation and make things worse—for you and the kids. This global pandemic has introduced an unprecedented amount of stress into all our lives. Checking in with ourselves regularly helps ensure we don’t lose our ability to be patient and understanding with our children. “This self-awareness, or at least an ongoing pursuit of it, can go a long way in helping us have an appropriate response to your child and the unique challenges they may be experiencing,” Dr.Goldstein says. 

Be intentional about sharing the load. 

Sharing the parenting load with another person is ideal, but many single parents—and even some married ones with different work schedules, for example—don’t have that option. “It’s important to identify and expand your network in a safe and intentional way,” Dr. Goldstein says. This may be as simple as scheduling a weekly phone call with a family member or friend as a “load management“ technique—or maybe you have friends and family with similar needs who can alternate days and share responsibilities. Parents often hesitate to ask friends or family for help, but “in my experience, people like to be asked for help,” Slavitt says. “It lets them know you trust them. And offer other people help, even when you don’t know where you will get the energy. Believe it or not, helping others sometimes gives you more capacity and perspective. We are all in this boat together.”

Tell your kids you need a break. 

Be honest with your kids, says Dr. Goldstein. It’s OK for them to know this is a tough time for everyone—that at times you are tired, sad and frustrated. “If you’re exhausted and need 15 minutes to yourself, be comfortable telling them this and let them share in this experience,” he says. Just be sure to reassure them they’re a big part or your support and happiness, not the cause of the problem. Showing kids our weaknesses is a sign of strength, because no one is perfect, and we’d be doing a disservice to our kids to let them think we’re not affected by everything that’s going on. Being honest gives them permission to share when they’re feeling burned out, too, while setting an example that asking for help is never wrong.

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.