“When children are young, they step on your toes. When children are older, they step on your heart. “
We tend to associate parent burnout with parents with young children, and the research says that this is one of the most stressful times in the family lifecycle. They step on our toes and everything else. At the same time, the stress presented in raising children, particularly if the process is not going well, can lead to parental burnout at any age. Parental burnout occurs when parents experience overwhelming work and family demands, while efforts to cope are not enough. Most research has distinguished parental burnout from job burnout and depression, although there are indications that burnout and depression share some common characteristics. So how do we differentiate between burnout and depression? Do you think you might be suffering from burnout? Take this self-quiz to find out.
As I work with parents of young adults, the stress experienced is often related to the inability to control or influence the young adult in ways that would protect them from harm or poor decisions. When children are young and start to toddle toward the street, a parent can grab them and bring them back to safety. When an older adolescent or young adult takes a three thousand-pound potentially lethal weapon for a spin, the options to intervene are more limited. In some ways, parents I see who are struggling with difficulties in guiding their young adults exhibit more a sense of helplessness than feeling overwhelmed by multiple responsibilities. It’s not the number of stressors the young parent experiences, but the parental loss of control and influence over the young adult’s experiences. Because so many of us invest so much in the success of our kids, when they are deviating from the pathway we think they should take, we feel personally responsible.
What’s a Parent to Do?
There are no easy answers, secret sauce, or silver bullets. More than anything, I try to encourage parents to be patient. “This too shall pass” is not a bad mantra. Most young adults ultimately right themselves and eventually land on their feet. That said, there is ample evidence that burnout can lead to bad outcomes for both parents and young adults. Neglect, abuse, thoughts of escape (running away) can characterize both parents and young adults. However, there is also evidence that when parents focus on self-care, take time to themselves and find ways to strengthen their resiliency, the young adults benefit. We also know from research that there is a bidirectional relationship between parental stress and children acting out. By this, I mean that if a parent exhibits a negative mood and is angry and verbally attacking a young adult or, on the other hand, neglectful, the young adult is likely to respond in kind. The ability to be self-caring and affirming, calm, and appropriately attentive to the needs of the young adult can increase reciprocal actions on the young adult’s part. Relationships are inherently reciprocal, and modeling is the most effective heuristic. We need to practice what we preach.
Actions You Can Take
So here are some actions to help yourself but also help your young adult. Rate how well you are doing on each of these on a scale of 0-5 with 0= Doing Poorly, to 5=Doing Well, then decide to work on your low scores.
- ___Start with the correct mindset. Specifically, as I have said in my practice books, challenge certain beliefs or assumptions that can be at the root of unhappiness and burnout. These include: We can control our young adults, We are responsible for their actions and decisions, We are not responsible for our actions and decisions. Most parents don’t want to give up these beliefs and often expect me to come up with the magic answer to control their young adult. If you hold these beliefs, you will experience unhappiness.
- ___Permit yourself to do things that enable you to feel less exhausted, more energized, calmer, rested, etc. These would include exercise, massage, reading a book, watching a movie, eating good food, reducing sugar, carbs, caffeine, and alcohol. And most importantly, getting adequate rest. Recently a book was published entitled Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, which makes a compelling case for getting seven hours of sleep a night. And by the way, self-care is not mutually exclusive with being a good parent. It is a route to being a good parent.
- ___If married, guard your marriage and not allow your adolescent or young adult to divide and conquer. If there is a fault line in your relationship, conflict over the approach to the young adult will exacerbate this.
- ___Get the help of friends, other parents, or professionals, especially if you are a single parent. Social support from other parents of young adults, extended family members, and professionals can give you strength, comfort, and help with decisions you have to make. Good friends help you see the challenge from various angles, options you have, and actions you may consider that won’t be helpful. We often get so ensconced in our family bubble that we miss valuable outside perspectives.
- ___Step back by using methods such as meditation, yoga, and learning to let go. Stepping back is an Eastern approach that focuses on letting go of control. We do this when we step back and use a method of detachment and nonjudgement. Check out local opportunities to learn meditation or yoga or download a meditation app such as CALM.
- ____All the clients I see suffering from anxiety, whether a parent or not, are encouraged to learn to manage breathing. Although there are certain schools of thought related to breathing, they all focus on regaining normal breathing. I teach breathing in to the count of three and out slowly to the count of five. This method mimics the usual number of breaths that we will take in a minute. Most people don’t realize that they breathe in a shallow and short manner which is appropriate if you are preparing for fight or flight but not if you in an argument with your young adult. Try it when you are worried or tense. You will likely realize that you are out of breath by the time you exhale to the count of 2 or 3. It’s the quickest surefire way to bring your tension down and regain your composure.
- ____Learn to set limits and say “no.” As I have stated in several of my practice books, “no” is not a four-letter word. If you have caved in way too many times to the requests or demands of your young adult or adolescent, this will be a difficult change. Your young adult will push back hard because they believe that if they complain or criticize or guilt you enough, you will give in. Like a small child who needs to be told “no,” they learn to take this message inside and say “no” to themselves, you have to do this for the young adult. Please don’t allow them to threaten or punish you for taking such a stand on your values; hold your ground. It’s an act of love.
There is no easy time raising children, and some parents find certain stages more challenging than others. In my opinion, the young adult stage is one of the toughest because there is ultimately no control. Our most effective leverage, especially if they are not living at home, is our heartfelt love and concern for their welfare. We should make a point of communicating this in “loud and clear” ways as much as possible.
Additional Burnout Resources:
- A Letter from A Grieving Mother - November 14, 2023
- Book Recommendation: Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict - November 13, 2023
- When a Young Adult’s Transition to Independence is Complicated by Special Needs - October 27, 2023