Let’s just state the obvious here: parenting can be really difficult. From the very moment you first bring a baby home from the hospital, overcome with joy and fear all swirled together, the challenges of parenting are very real. Babies, it turns out, require full-time attention just to keep them alive. Who knew? And they can’t tell us what’s wrong, so we spend the first couple of sleepless years of their little lives guessing what they need. Why is the baby crying? Wet diaper? Hungry? Gas? Why won’t she sleep? Should I let her cry it out or comfort her? Should I bring her into bed with me? When should I start her on solid foods? Should I be reading to her every day? Why do other parents play classical music to their babies? How am I screwing up this poor child!? If you don’t occasionally doubt your fitness for raising a child during the baby years, then maybe you’re not paying attention.
Then come the years between babyhood and pre-teen-hood, when they actually like being with you and sometimes even follow your directions. Ah, the golden years! This stage seems to be dominated by behavioral training. Don’t put that in your mouth. This temper tantrum will have the opposite effect of what you are hoping for. Take your sister out of the dryer. This stage is filled with birthday parties and soccer practice and never-ending laundry and dishes and picking up toys and wiping tears. These years can be physically exhausting just trying to keep up with everything that’s going on in the full life of your growing family.
Ann and I now have three teenagers living in our house. Please pray for us. And for them. Pray that we all survive this. Right now, they feel more like large, bumbling toddlers than almost-adults. They’ve reverted to grunting and tripping over everything. They eat and sleep – they sleep a lot – and eat some more. Moods change as quickly as the weather in spring, and like babies, they can’t seem to tell us what they need. Tear and scuffles and rolled eyes and slammed bedroom doors. It’s a good thing we can still remember how cute they used to be. Sometimes it feels like we have three very moody roommates who aren’t paying any rent and expect us to do everything for them. Lord have mercy.
If you are a parent or have watched others parent or have parents, it should come as no surprise to you that parents can get burnt out. Social pressures to raise perfect little people who are responsible, intelligent, and spiritually mature are tremendous and can overwhelm even the most well-intentioned parents. We want our children to excel at every sport, to memorize all of the AWANA Bible verses, and to get accepted into the best colleges. In short, we want them to achieve all the things we didn’t!
Although it hasn’t yet made it into the official guidebook for diagnosing mental disorders – known as the DSM – “parenting burnout syndrome” has recently been proposed as an actual disorder, distinct from depression or stress. Dominated by feelings of overwhelming exhaustion with parenting duties, parenting burnout syndrome also includes a sense of failure or incompetence in parenting as well as some degree of emotional distancing from the source of our burnout, the kids. A 2017 study in Europe estimated that as much as 12% of the parenting population, both mothers and fathers, is experiencing parental burnout syndrome. That’s 1 in 8 parents who are overwhelmed, exhausted, beating themselves up for their imperfect parenting, experiencing serious self-doubt, and even disengaging from their kids emotionally to avoid the pain of it all.
Piled atop the normal stressors of parenting, our modern culture is moving towards an increase in two-income households, adding to our already overbooked schedules and drained emotional tanks. What’s more, this generation of kids shows less appreciation for their parents and expresses a greater degree of entitlement than previous generations: they expect more from us and are less grateful for what we give to and do for them.
The bottom line is that this world we live in doesn’t make parenting easy, and many of us are struggling. So, if you think you might be burnt out on parenting, take heart! You’re not alone.
So what can you do? Here are some tips for breaking out of parental burnout and moving back towards enjoying your kids again:
- Take a deep breath. Deep breathing, it turns out, sends messages to your brain that everything is OK and you can calm down. It helps with anxiety and panic both in the moment and in a preventative way. It also helps you to think more clearly when you are feeling overwhelmed.
- Share your struggle with someone who will not judge you for it. This might be your spouse, or it might be a close friend or mentor. Don’t let stigma and stereotyping stop you from reaching out. There is tremendous relief in verbally sharing your burdens with another human being.
- Seek professional help. There is no shame in what your are struggling with or in turning it over to a competent therapist. I’ve learned from my own experiences that you can surprise a therapist: they’ve heard it all! Don’t let yourself fall into the 40% of the American population who thinks they can fix their mental health problems on their own – and who, incidentally, rarely get better.
- Pray, pray, pray. And ask others to pray for you as well. Parenting is God-ordained, and He knows how hard it can be. Bring it to Him and ask Him for answers. No one understands parental burnout more than your Creator.