Coping with Parental Burn Out

This is an extract from my new book ‘How to be a Calm Parent‘:

Photo by Tara Winstead on

“I just can’t take any more!”, “I’ve had it up to here with being a parent!”, “I literally don’t have the capacity to handle this”, how many times have you said something similar? 

Every parent knows how it feels to be emotionally and physically wrung out, exhausted and unable to handle their children. We all know how it feels to be desperate for a break, and by a break I don’t just mean a brief week or two in the sun, but real, tangible time away from the demands of everyday life (including our children!).

I genuinely believe that parenting would be a whole lot easier if we could only admit how bloody hard it is, and how desperate we are to have some respite now and again. 

Just because we may struggle with our lives and the demands placed upon us, it doesn’t mean we hate our children though and it definitely doesn’t make us a horrible person. It makes us a real person, with real needs and real limits to what we can handle at any one time. 

Parenting is tough and with everything else life throws at us it can sometimes feel impossible. We must acknowledge this fact, before we can attempt make things easier.

While the physical toll of parenting is no-doubt exhausting, personally I find the mental load far more of a drain. We get to switch our bodies off for several hours at night, when we lay still in bed, or collapse on the sofa once all the children are asleep, but our minds continue whirring. Whether we’re dreaming about next week’s dinner menu, or frantically planning a last-minute World Book Day costume, once we become a parent it becomes harder and harder to switch off our thoughts.

The cruel dichotomy of Mother Nature is that the more time we allow our bodies to be still and rest, the more space we give our minds to run marathons around our head. As we grow, the free and fanciful daydreams of childhood become quickly replaced by the responsibility and demands of adulting. Parenting is adulting and then some though, because now we’re not only thinking for ourselves, but we also have the mental burden of thinking for our children – and often our partners, too.

What happens to us when we carry too much of this mental burden, alongside the very real physical demands of parenting, particularly younger children? We break. We snap. We scream, we shout, we cry. We become the antithesis of a calm parent.

The irony here is that usually it is our very attempts to be such a good parent, to ‘do it all’ for our families, that lead to our demise. Therein lies the problem, to be a calmer parent, we must learn to share the load and to carry less. To entrust some of these all-important parenting jobs to others and, sometimes, to ask for help if it is not offered. Doing everything alone, or rather attempting to, doesn’t make us a better parent, but it certainly makes us a far less calm one.

Although physical burn out, the deep-seated exhaustion that accompanies sleepless nights and the relentless physical toil of parenting, particularly in the early months, can be highly damaging, particularly when it comes to the physical toll on the body and relationship to illness and immunity, emotional burn out, can be even more damaging when it results in cynicism and connection problems with our children. Mostly importantly however, the emotional exhaustion is a major culprit behind the inability for parents to control their tempers and emotions around their children. 

If we are at rock bottom emotionally, it takes very little to trigger an explosion in us. Emotional burn out is the dark side of the selflessness, self-sacrifice, and devotion to their children so common amongst parents, particularly those inspired by a more gentle, respectful style.

What is the answer to parental burn-out? Let’s start with what isn’t. Relaxation techniques are not going to resolve it, as the common stressors still remain and therefore so does the stress response. While job related burn-out can sometimes be resolved simply by leaving the role, this is clearly not an option in parenting. This is why I didn’t ‘How to be a Calm Parent’ with a focus on mindfulness, self-care and breathing techniques, as so many parenting, or self-help related books do. These can all be helpful tools, but often they are superficial, if the deeper issues are not discovered and ultimately resolved. To reduce burnout, we must work with the root cause and learn to lighten the load a little.

Want to learn more? How to be a Calm Parent is out now – Order your copy HERE

Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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