How to Handle Parenting Burnout

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An interview with Dr. Alan Kazdin

The love for my boys abounds. But there are times, when I crave a very long day at the beach with a book by myself. Judging by the parent talk on the playground, I know I’m not alone. How can parents renew their love of parenting? How can parents prevent themselves from parenting “on empty”? Dr. Alan Kazdin, Director of the Yale Parenting Center, shares his insight and guidance on how to keep us parents feeling perky about parenting. — Laurel Moglen, Managing Editor, TMC

What are the signs of parental burn-out?

First of all, parenting is tough, and it can be made tougher by external and internal influences — for example, someone might have a chemical imbalance, or be contending with grief over the loss of someone close. These kinds of natural stressors play a role in effecting parents’ behavior and their relationship to their kids. But, these issues and concurrent feelings are passing as well.

Also, there is no such thing as a constant, ebullient parental love towards children. There are moments or even days of anguish and if it’s transient, this is real and normal. So, parents need to take the pressure off themselves, and know that realistically, parenting is complicated and rich and tough and wonderful.

Ages 3-6 are intense years – but there is so much beauty during that time. If you’re so burned-out and all you experience is how arduous parenting it at this stage, the issues can summate, and get worse.

There are a few ways to figure out if your feelings of parental burn-out are out of the range of normal.

  • If during a peaceful time of day, with no children around, and no immediate parental responsibilities weighing you down — you feel totally uninterested in your children and parenting them.
  • If you feel apathetic. You just don’t care anymore about caring for your child, and find you’re doing a minimal amount of care-taking.
  • You can’t think constructively when the children aren’t with you. You respond to your child as if they are a burden, and whatever it is you do is a chore.
  • When you have free time, you regularly prefer to spend it away from your child.
  • Your reprimands outweigh your nurturing.
  • You spend most of your time managing your child’s behavior, instead of actively engaging with your child.

Once burn-out is in full force, what should parents do?

Rituals and routines are good. Doing your sport/s, going to the spa, or getting your nails done, (when you don’t need them done), or time with your spouse are all examples.

You know how in an airplane, parents are told to put their air mask on before putting on the air mask for their child? This is because without the parent being available, the child is in peril.

Similarly, parents need to put on a “psychological well-being mask.” Ways of doing this is by programming regular breaks and sanity times for yourself. Really — if you love your child, you’ll take breaks, and take care of yourself.

When you’re stressed, and let’s say, asking your child to do something, there might be an edge to your tone. You might say something like, “After the day I had, I don’t need this attitude from you.” This is not helpful. Your quality of day is not your child’s responsibility. Your attitude of stress, bleeds onto your child.

When you’re less stressed you speak differently to your child, and the child will respond in kind.

After burn-out is regulated, how can a parent stay regulated — or rather, not fall into a burn-out situation again?

One suggestion is a parent can find four constructive things s/he likes to do. I have one example of a mom who had no money, but loved to window shop. She did it weekly. It cost nothing, and she felt so rejuvenated after the experience. It was so little, but it went so far.

Little doses of feeling like you’re in control have a powerful effect on a person’s well-being. Research shows being in control is not as nearly as important as feeling in control.

There’s the story of the Titanic. When it was going down, some musicians continued to play violin. Playing violin gave them sense of control.

How can parents refresh and then, maintain a love of parenting?

There are hundreds of things to do to make the relationship better — but love is never guaranteed.

Some parents love certain stages of their kids, some love all stages (and ages), and some really aren’t in to parenting. No one can make you love. Some parents feel like they never love their child.

That said, improving a child’s behavior at home, in a constructive way, can take stress off. Once the behavior is improved, a parent will likely feel better about their child, and feel more comfortable parenting.

Dr. Alan Kazdin is John M. Musser Professor of Psychology at Yale University and Director of the Yale Parenting Center. He was the 2008 President of the American Psychological Association and is the author of many professional-audience books on child psychology and behavior published in dozens of languages.

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Posted in: Expert Advice, Emotions, Family, Health & Wellness