Parenting Through the Storm Blog

Parenting information and support for parents who have a child who is struggling. The official blog for Parenting Through the Storm: How to Handle the Highs, the Lows, and Everything in Between by Ann Douglas (HarperCollins Canada, January 2015 + Guilford Press, September 2016), a guide to parenting a child with a mental health, neurodevelopmental, or behavioural challenge.

Are You at Risk of Parent Burnout?

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A recent study published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology reported that as many as one in eight parents may be struggling with burnout. They feel exhausted. They feel like they’re doing a bad job as parents. And they feel increasingly disconnected from their kids. It’s a worrisome place to find yourself when you’re a parent, but it’s possible to turn the situation around. Here's what you need to know.

There's a difference between feeling frazzled and experiencing full-fledged parent burnout.

When we talk about parent burnout, we're not talking about garden-variety tiredness or feeling a little frustrated or overwhelmed from time to time. That’s kind of par for the course, when you’re a parent.  

What we’re talking about here is something much more pronounced and prolonged.

You don't just have the occasional bad day, when you're struggling with parent burnout. Every day feels like a bad day.

You always feel exhausted.

You always feel like you’re doing a bad job: that nothing you do or try is making a difference for your child.

You increasingly feel like you're parenting on auto-pilot as opposed to making conscious and deliberate decisions about your parenting

And as you become more discouraged and more cynical, you start to feel emotionally disconnected from your child. 

The more passionate you are about parenting, the greater your risk of experiencing parent burnout.

Parent burnout isn't something that happens to "bad parents." It's something that happens to really committed parents. It’s those parents who are most passionate about parenting and who hold themselves up to the very highest standards who are most vulnerable to experiencing parent burnout.

This makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. If parenting is the most important thing in the world to you and things aren’t going well (or at least as well as you had hoped they would, back when you were merely dreaming about what it would be like to be a parent!), you can start to experience some of the symptoms of parent burnout (feeling exhausted, ineffective, and emotionally distant from your child, for example).

Of course, that’s not the only factor at play here. Having a child who requires a great deal of parenting time and attention for whatever reason can increase the risk of parent burnout. It could be that you're raising a child who has an extra-challenging temperament or who is dealing with a lot of physical or mental health challenges, for example.

Your own resources (or lack thereof) also factor in. A parent who is facing a lot of financial pressure and who doesn’t have a lot of social support is more likely to experience symptoms of burnout than a parent who isn't grappling with money worries and/or feeling isolated and alone.

Interesting enough, one thing the researchers didn’t uncover was any sort of gender gap when it comes to parent burnout. Parent burnout is an equal-opportunity experience! It doesn’t care if you’re a mom or a dad….

There are things you can do to avoid or manage parent burnout.

And now the good news. The situation isn't hopeless. There are things you can do to turn the situation around. The most important thing is to ensure that your expectations of yourself are realistic. We’re living in an era of sky-high expectations for parents: both the expectations that society sets for us and the expectations that we set for ourselves. Not only are we supposed to be ever-loving and ever-patient: we’re supposed to protect our children from every conceivable danger and ensure that they benefit from every conceivable advantage as well. (Or at least that’s how the job description of parenting seems to read some days.)  So reducing your risk of burnout (or reducing it, if it's starting to kick in) is all about wrangling your definition of “good parent” into something a little more manageable: something that allows you to be less than perfect; that gives you at least some time off for good behaviour; and that recognizes that you can’t be all things to all people at all times.

This is something I talked to Claire Kerr-Zlobin about recently. She's a Toronto-area mother of two school-aged children and the founder of the parent mental health charity Life With A Baby. She told me that setting limits for herself (as opposed to continuously pushing herself to her limits and beyond) allows her to be more productive and to feel less scattered and stressed: "I’m not feeling like I’m being pulled in like a million places all at once. I’m actually getting things done versus just like spinning around and not really completing any one thing," she said.

She told me that what helps her to stay on track is her realization that her kids are paying close attention to everything she does. If she finds herself straying too far in the direction of overwork or consistently neglecting self-care, she forces herself to hit the reset button by reminding herself that she's teaching her kids important lessons about what it means to be an adult: “I don’t necessarily want my kids to feel like seeing mommy completely exhausted is the norm.” 

It may not be easy, but it’s worth it—hitting that reset button in your own life. And if you’re looking for allies to help spur you on—other parents who are trying to model healthier patterns for their kids—you’ll find them all around you. Because here’s the thing: every parent struggles with this. No one ever feels completely on top of their parenting game—or at least no parent I’ve ever met! So don’t be afraid to wave the white flag and ask for help—or to extend a helping hand to another parent who is struggling. After all, we’re all in this together, moms and dads.

Related:

Big-Picture Parenting: Graphic Recording

Have you ever watched an artist create a graphic recording while someone is speaking? It's a pretty powerful experience.

Last Thursday night, when I was speaking to a group of parents at Cosburn Middle School in Toronto, I had the opportunity to experience the magic first-hand.  

Graphic recorder Tanya Gerber turned the key concepts and ideas in my Big-Picture Parenting presentation into this memorable graphic, which I am sharing with her permission.

I think you'll agree that she did a beautiful job. Thank you, Tanya!

How to Get in a March Break Frame of Mind -- and Fast....

March Break certainly gets its fair share of hype. It’s a time of year when we are supposed to relax, unwind, and spend quality time with our kids: you know, the stuff of which perfect childhood memories are made….

Of course, the reality can fall far short of that rather utopian parenting ideal. Routines get turned on their head because the kids are out of school. And, at the same time, expenses can soar out of control, whether you head out of town or stay at home. 

I know what it's like to be a parent who is dreading rather than anticipating this annual shake-up to the family routine because I've lived it many times.

Maybe you can relate....

It could be that you’re the parent of a child who doesn’t cope well with changes to his/her routine, which means that you’ll be dealing with a stressed out rather than a happy kid if you try to sign that kid up for March Break camp or any other sort of organized activity.

It could be that you're a parent who is already feeling maxed out by the day-to-day demands of parenting. Or maybe you’re a parent on an already tight budget who is feeling stressed by the added expense of March Break camps, activities, and/or childcare -- which means that March Break spells “stress” and “expense” for you.

Or it could be that you’re a parent who runs a home-based business and you’re trying to figure out how to juggle the needs of your kids and your clients — both of which are pretty much guaranteed to need you at exactly the same time (think “Murphy’s Law of March Break Parenting"). Or maybe you're working outside the home at a busy job that doesn't make allowances for the rollercoaster ride in family life that is March Break.

This, of course, begs the question: how do you get through it? How do you cope with the stresses of March Break and make this a fun week for your kids? Here are my suggestions, based on what I've learned from my own March Break parenting experiences.

Accept the fact that you’re the one who will set the tone for the week.

Even if you're feeling mega-stressed by the fact that your responsibilities as a grownup don't get time off during March Break (and, in fact, they may even ramp up), you don't have to pass that stress along to your kids. So pause and be mindful of your big-picture parenting goals.

Clear the deck of non-essentials.

It's okay to put some worries and tasks on the back burner, for now -- and to say "no" to non-essential commitments and obligations. Sure, it would be great if you could whip through all the tasks on your spring cleaning to do list this week -- but do you really want to ramp up your stress levels at what may already be a fairly stressful time? What you might want to do instead is to come up with creative ways to free up the time, mental space, and energy required to make the most of this time with your kids. 

Ditch the guilt.

You don’t have to be a perfect or all-sacrificing parent to help your kids have an enjoyable break. And what works for you during March Break may be radically different from what works for other parents, due to differences in time, budget, and circumstances. To each their own! So resist the temptation to get caught up in a frenzy of social media comparison -- obsessing over Instagram pics of other parents taking their kids to exotic locations or doing Pinterest-worthy DIY projects or just plain oozing parental competence and caring on Facebook 24/7. Instead, focus on what will make this week a positive experience for you and your kids -- and then figure out a way to make that happen. (Hint: Look for ways to join forces with other families. They're grappling with the very same time- and budget-crunch issues, too.) 


Ann Douglas is a mom of four and the author of numerous books about pregnancy and parenting, including, most recently, Parenting Through the Storm. 

How to Avoid Being Psychologically Destroyed by Your Newsfeed

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This past week has been brutal, in terms of what has been coming across my newsfeed. And 2016 wasn't exactly a picnic either. So lately I've been thinking a lot about the mental health impact of a steady avalanche of Really Bad News. Many of us (myself included) deal with mental health challenges on a daily basis and being fed a steady diet of devastating world events only serves to make that harder. So I've decided to share a few strategies I'm using to avoid being completely crushed by my newsfeed right now. (I'm writing this post as much for myself as for anyone else. But I'm also hoping that this post will be helpful to some other sensitive soul who is having an extra tough time right now.)

Here's my best advice....

Recognize that there's a difference between being immersed and being informed

Sure, you want to be aware of what's happening in the world, but that doesn't mean that you have to be plugged into your Twitter or Facebook feed 24/7. Give yourself permission to take breaks. And aim for a balanced media diet. Don't just focus on the really bad news. Gravitate toward the good, too.

Stick to your usual routines as much as possible

We humans are creatures of habit and we find comfort in the familiar. And make sure that you're giving your body what it needs to function at its best: healthy food, regular physical activity, time for fun, and adequate sleep. (I don't know about you, but I find that sleep is the glue that holds everything else together. I've learned to recognize it for what it is: a necessity, not a luxury.) 

Look for opportunities to take action

It doesn't have to be something huge. Frankly, it will feel a whole lot less overwhelming if it's not. But by carrying through on sort of positive action, however small (writing a letter, making a donation, attending a face-to-face get-together in your town), you'll be engaging the rational-logical part of your brain. And that will help to put the brakes on what can otherwise quickly escalate into paralyzing feelings of anxiety and sadness. Feeling powerless fuels anxiety; taking action brings it down. 

Allow yourself to feel all the feelings

Allow painful emotions to flow through you as opposed to avoiding them (which suppresses positive as well as negative emotions, leaving you feeling emotionally "flat") or dwelling on them (which ties up cognitive resources, leaving you less equipped to solve problems or connect with other people). Remind yourself that feelings come and feelings go -- and you are not your feelings. 

Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.
— Noam Chomsky

Maintain your sense of optimism

Focus on what you can control as opposed to fixating on what you can't. You'll find it easier to make this mental mindshift if you make a conscious effort to boost your level of positive emotion by doing things you enjoy and spending time with people you love. Positive emotions leave the door open to possibility while negative emotions slam the door shut. You want to keep the door open right now.

Reach out -- don't crumble inward

Connect with other caring citizens who share your concern about what's happening in our country and our world. Talk to other people you know who may be going through an especially difficult time right now -- especially members of vulnerable or marginalized communities. Let them know that you will be there to support them and that you care. Smile at strangers. (Assume their good intentions unless proven otherwise.) Look for opportunities to build bridges, not walls. Finally, reach out for other types of support if you feel like you're really struggling. Self-care isn't selfish; it's self-preservation. You need to take extra good care of yourself right now.

Talk to your children

Address their fears and spark their compassion. Do everything in your power to nurture their caring and to encourage them to dream of a better world. Then support those brave dreamers. They offer the best path forward for our deeply troubled world.

Reading Guide: Parenting Through the Storm

A few months ago, I was approached by a school that was interested in choosing Parenting Through the Storm as a selection for their school's parenting book club.

Needless to say, I loved the idea; and the school's email got me thinking about what I could do to support their efforts. In addition to offering to visit their school (either virtually or in person, depending on logistics!), I also offered to create a reading guide for Parenting Through the Storm.

The result is the reading guide that I have just uploaded to the website.

If you take a moment to download a copy, you'll see that it is a hefty guide (11 pages!) containing

  • a series of discussion questions tied into the major issues touched upon in the book (both overview questions that apply to the book as a whole and questions that relate to specific chapters)
  • spinoff social-emotional learning activities for parents to try at home
  • a series of illustrations and quotes that highlight some of the key points I hope every reader will take away from the book and the resulting book club discussion.

Note: It doesn't matter whether you're reading the Canadian edition of the book or the US and International edition of the book. Either way, this reading guide is for you. 

And if you do decide to choose Parenting Through the Storm as a selection for your parenting book club or other reading group, please drop me a line to let me know. I'd love to hear how things go and I'd welcome your suggestions on how to improve the guide.