Tips for parents who are feeling overwhelmed | Stressed and overwhelmed

A therapist explains how to cope when parenting overwhelm kicks in

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Being a parent means being overwhelmed—and that’s when we’re not all stuck in quarantine. Right now, that feeling is often tripled (quintupled?) as parents are run ragged at home, trying to stay on-task at work while troubleshooting the kids’ online schooling, cooking healthy-ish meals every day… all while being pretty freaked out by what’s going on in the world. So we checked in with therapist and communication expert Debra Roberts, LCSW, author of the “Tell Me What To Say” action guide, for ways to handle it when parenting overwhelm… is, well, a little too overwhelming. 

Give yourself the gift of a little time

One issue we’ve heard from moms over and over recently: it can be really easy to get frustrated and say something you don’t mean right now, either to a kid or to a partner. Don’t chide yourself for it—you’re still a good mom!—but there are some ways forward to make this interaction go better the next time around.

“Kudos to you for being aware that this is happening,” Roberts says, noting that if you can recognize it when you’re in that moment, you can make some choices before you say something unkind that you’ll regret.

Yes, giving yourself a little “me time” might seem laughable right now, but removing yourself from the situation—even that just means just going to the bathroom for a few minutes—can profoundly help you collect your thoughts. 

“What I want you to do is catch your breath and relax for a second,” Roberts says. “Breathe in slowly with the intention of breathing in what you need. So in this instance, you can say, ‘I want to be calm and relaxed,’ and then you breathe that into your lungs: breathe in relaxation, breathe in calm, breathe in light, and then exhale slowly, breathing out anger, tension, frustration, emptying your lungs of everything you want to get rid of. If you do that 2-3 times, it can calm your system.”

Think “us” vs. “i”

“We have to acknowledge that this situation is difficult for all of us, and that we all want to find a way to get through this together,” Roberts says. Communicating better as a family is all about thinking of it as a team effort. If the kids are old enough, Roberts says, opening up lines of honest communication can lead to really good results: “Ask them, ‘What can I do to make this easier for you or better for you?’ And then let them know what works for you and what you need from them.”

Pick your battles

It’s really easy for little things to start to get on our nerves right now, and we can find ourselves being picky and grumpy because of all the tension in the air, so you have to really pick and choose what you want to address—if something’s bothering you, you have to weigh whether it’s important to talk about or if you can let it go, Roberts says.

Head off arguments at the pass

“If you’re looking for change, bring up the topic not to have an argument or hurt anyone’s feelings,” Roberts says. “Let how you want the other person to feel guide your approach. Say, ‘I want to get along with you, I don’t want to fight with you, I want to be closer to you. I want us to get along and I know you do, too.’ State your intentions up front. Let them know that you’re not looking to start an argument, that you want to give them the benefit of the doubt, and that you know they also want to have a good conversation and a positive outcome.”

Tailor the language to their age

“You can absolutely use this with a younger child, with what’s appropriate to their age. You’ll use different language when you’re talking to a third grader—for instance, ‘When you yell like that, it makes me unhappy.’ This way, you’re explaining things to them in a way they can hear it, and as your children get older, the conversation can become more sophisticated.” 

Check in with yourself first thing in the morning

Starting right when you wake up, take stock of how you feel right then, Roberts advises. “I call it the ‘How am I doin’?’ check-in,” she says. “It’s all about self-awareness since these are tougher days and you need to pay extra attention to yourself. That way, when you start to get stressed or overwhelmed, you can feel more in control of yourself and the situation. When you don’t bring self-awareness—that’s when things start to build up and go out of control.”

Performing these check-ins throughout the day can help keep you from getting upset or activated, too, Roberts advises. “If you have a rough call with your boss, say to yourself, ‘Well, that was stressful.’ Just knowing that you’re a little stressed can help you prepare yourself to feel more grounded and able to handle the situation at home.”

Offload what you can

If you have the resources, consider hiring a tutor to help take some work off your plate. “I know a bunch of parents who got together and hired a tutor recently,” Roberts says. “They’re parents of several students in the same class, so this way, they share the fee, are helping to employ someone, and are giving themselves a break for a few hours a day.”

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