Strategies for Coping with Overwhelming Parenting Stress
Five expert-backed habits and mindset shifts to help you handle burnout.
Expert Sources: Michelle Maidenberg, PhD; Jeff Leininger, NP
Between managing school and remote work, trying to keep everyone healthy, and simultaneously running a household, there’s no arguing that the last few years have stretched many parents to their limits.
While the time at home brought certain benefits to some families, others have felt a lack of balance in work and in life since the beginning of the pandemic. Jeff Leininger, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine in California says for many, the pandemic also led to a sense of dislocation and distance from ourselves, friendships, families, and communities. And many parents have found themselves feeling stretched mentally, emotionally, and physically—eventually reaching the point beyond high stress and in total burnout.
Finding time to relax was difficult in the before times, but it’s been nearly impossible in these unprecedented days. Sadly, slapping on a charcoal face mask doesn’t do much for your mental well-being when your support systems feel like they are crumbling. However, developing ways to handle stressors is paramount to good mental health, and practicing healthy stress management is beneficial for the whole family
“If parents don’t take the opportunity to model coping strategies, children are less likely to attach importance to those behaviors,” explains Leininger.
We know that getting yourself and your family through the unknown is easier said than done, though, so we tapped the experts to deliver effective ways to alleviate stress and, hopefully, avoid burnout. Here’s what they had to say.
Recognize Competing Values
“There are so many variables that may determine when you reach the tipping point of burnout, such as your personality, strengths and weaknesses, and previous mental health history,” says Michelle Maidenberg, PhD, a psychotherapist in New York and author of Ace Your Life: Unleash Your Best Self and Live the Life You Want.
“No two people are going to reach burnout at the same moment or handle mounting stress in the same way. So if you’re looking at your neighbor and they are handling stress well, or your perception is they are handling it well, it can lend itself to habitual negative self-talk,” she explains.
However, we can’t rationalize away our worries or the negative voices in our heads. The antidote to this defeatist self-talk is to identify your core values, as well as your competing values. Core values are the things most essential to your life, like your children, marriage, and career. Competing values are when multiple areas in your life are important, and you need to consider which takes precedence. That push-pull to determine what deserves attention in any one moment of your day raises stress levels.
“This conflict of priorities became very evident during the pandemic—your work and your children both needed attention at the same time—and each one is critically important,” Dr. Maidenberg explains, “this leads to emotional difficulties.” You may also experience feelings of guilt and inadequacy because you don’t believe you are devoting yourself enough to each of your core values. And the prioritization decisions are out of your control.
Compliment Your Struggles
Recognizing you have competing priorities is not the same as fixing this situation. Dr. Maidenberg describes parenting stress as an “abyss of discomfort.” There’s not a blanket solution or piece of advice for every person to remedy these feelings, so there has to be some acceptance that you’re going to continue to have competing values.
“Rather than getting in the throes of guilt and shame, recognize that you’re focusing on work or your kids and say ‘good for me,’” suggests Dr. Maidenberg. Compliment yourself for having disappointed or sad feelings because it makes you aware of all the big, important things you have in your life. It’s a mind shift that allows you to congratulate yourself and your choices. You can think, I have a growing career that is important to me and sometimes that means I miss a music class; this is OK because I am putting effort into all the things that matter to me. I am teaching my kids about the juggle of values and am a present parent, even if I cannot physically be at everything.
To quote an old saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” this practice also encourages a sense of feeling grounded and makes it easier to see the fuller picture, according to Dr. Maidenberg. “I can say, OK, this and that are both important to me, so how do I want to move forward?” Recognizing the juggle instead of contending with it can decrease stress and increase your confidence.
Learn a Lesson
Our natural inclination is to resist or segue outside of discomfort, but there is value in going through it and sticking it out; there are resilience and coping skills to be built. “It’s helpful to take opportunities, even in moments of adversity or crisis, to think about what can I learn from this and how can I boost my strength or humanity at this moment,” Dr. Maidenberg suggests.
“To be clear: Silver linings are BS,” says Dr. Maidenberg. “No one wants to be in stressful situations, we often cannot avoid conflicting priorities, and we also can learn lessons in good times,” she points out. Parents are being put through immeasurable challenges and might be understandably angry or bitter. The idea isn’t to find the bright side. It’s choosing to take the perspective of learning or appreciating through adversity.
Lean into Intentions
Every day we are met with moments that we can lean into or out of, explains Dr. Maidenberg. Take, for example, holding a door for someone who is a few steps too far away. You have to make a decision—should you wait to hold the door or let it close? Now, instead, see this as an opportunity to lean into your value of kindness and thoughtfulness. These moments happen hundreds of times every single day, but we aren’t paying attention to them.
It would be easy to let the door close or hold the door open without thinking about it, and it still wouldn’t have an impact. “I make an intentional effort in every moment to live my values,” Dr. Maidenberg says, “because it’s the conscious decision and feeling of joy it brings in the seemingly insignificant acts that nurture our confidence and beliefs of self-worth.”
To encourage this practice with your kids in your family life, you need to link the act with the value. Some examples are an older sibling getting a toy your little one couldn’t reach, helping to set the table for a meal, or going along on the weekly grocery shopping trip. A parent could say, ‘You really acted on your kindness (or thoughtfulness, patience, etc.) there, which I know is important to you. That’s something to be proud of.’” The child gets to define what kindness means to them and act on behalf of their definition, Dr. Maidenberg explains. “It’s something they would do despite somebody knowing about it. It’s fundamental to who they are and who they want to be.”
Develop Stress-Reducing Tactics
Beyond mindset shifts, there are, of course, stress-reducing behaviors to incorporate into your daily life. First, establish a daily routine, Leininger advises. “When we know what’s coming next, we are able to plan better, including scheduling time to manage difficult emotions that arise with various activities,” he says.
If children are old enough, they help to manage their own routines by getting themselves dressed or brushing their teeth after breakfast. You can also start to introduce your children to time management—how long do daily tasks take to complete and count backward to achieve them. “Routines shouldn’t feel like drudgery but rather foster connection,” Leininger says. Things like pizza Friday or two books before bed are also routines, but ones you look forward to doing.
Second, schedule time for self-care: to relax, decompress, and find balance. This can be five minutes of stretching, taking a short walk through a green space, or pausing and enjoying several deep, relaxing, and centering breaths.
“At the end of each day try reviewing those moments that brought feelings of contentment and ease—perhaps it was an interaction with a neighbor or a loved one. Try setting an intention to welcome the next morning: Focus on growth but not at the expense of sacrificing peace of mind,” Leininger recommends.
Most of the stress-reducing habits mentioned above are associated with mindfulness, or “a practice to maintain awareness when our bodies and minds become overwhelmed,” Leininger says. If we are able to develop an awareness of our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors (i.e. daily routines), then where we focus our attention becomes more natural. “This can lead to engaging in activities that restore us, connect us to other people, and align ourselves to our goals in life.”
And in case you need the reminder: Parenting is a flying trapeze act atop a shifting platform while juggling glass balls. There is no way to “balance it all” forever. Every day we are negotiating how to use our time for ourselves, our children, colleagues, friends, and other family members. Some days we make it through our to-do list, while other times we have to take a deep breath and allow things to wait for the next day. That doesn’t mean failure, explains Leininger. “If we are moving through our days with greater awareness, checking in with ourselves and our loved ones—whether or not we accomplished the big goals of that day/week/year—we will likely feel that our lives have balance.”