How to crawl your way out of motherhood burnout

“I just can’t do this anymore.”

How many times have you thought that in the last year? Felt like you’re a bad parent? Been stressed out or felt hopeless?

Felt like your kid is impossible?

You have motherhood burnout.

“Parenting is really hard, and that’s OK,” says Neil D. Brown, a Santa Cruz, Calif., psychotherapist who wrote the book “Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle.” He’s been studying parental burnout and what parents can do to get out of that cycle of control battles and burnout.

Burnout can happen when your kids are any age, newborn to high-schooler, he says.

Closer to home, Houston therapist Colleen O’Grady has been studying the dynamic between teenage girls and their moms. She wrote “Dial Down the Drama: Reducing Conflict and Reconnecting With Your Teenage Daughter.”

They both come to the same conclusion: The drama, the burnout, it’s all about Mom not taking care of herself.

And it’s not entirely Mom’s fault.

“There are cultural messages that keep Mom exhausted,” O’Grady says. Those messages include: “It’s selfish to pay attention to me.” “I just need to put myself last on the list.” “It’s my job to worry and stress all the time.” “Everything has to be perfect.” “I have to get everything just right.”

Being perfect is not possible. Getting everything perfect is not possible. When a parent is engaged in powerless parenting, as O’Grady calls it, “Mom feels like it’s all on her shoulders.”

How do you know if you have burnout? It’s feeling that hopelessness, plus you also might have anxiety, low energy, lowered immune system and all the symptoms of depression, Brown says.

Brown gives us these three things to do, which O’Grady also echoes:

1. Get out of the parenting pattern you are in. Kids know how to push your buttons, and they do it well.

At some point, their behavior becomes acceptable and parents become too tired to fight it.

“You have to get out of that battle and move forward,” Brown says.

He suggests that instead of “consequences” for bad behavior, have expectations of good behavior. Instead of threatening to take a phone away if kids don’t do their homework, the phone becomes a privilege they earn when they do their homework. You’re not fighting. You’re matter-of-fact about what is expected.

O’Grady wants moms to become intentional, rather than reactionary, in their parenting.

“If either you or your teen are emotionally flooded, you can’t accomplish anything,” she says. “You’re just going to escalate the drama.”

Everything for both of you becomes extremes: “That’s the worst”; “You never do this”; “You always do that.”

Instead, take a deep breath and parent in a clear way, not out of fear, not as a reaction and not when you’re stressed or exhausted.

Figure out how to be present, how to be fulfilled. You might need to take a step back and come back to the problem later, O’Grady says.

2. Get support. Parents, Brown says, “have to have some sense that they are being successful, that things are getting better, that things are working.”

You really need someone who will affirm that you are doing a good job or at least trying really hard. You need that person who will give honest feedback. “It’s really nice if it comes from a co-parent,” Brown says, but it also could come from a neighbor, a fellow parent at school or a friend.

Just as you find support for you, find healthy adult role models for your children, so it’s not all on you. Children should have connections with teachers and coaches and other relatives.

Consider enlisting the support of a family therapist or personal therapist as well.

3. Practice self-care. Brown says the cycle of parenting burnout messes up your sense of reality. Everyone can tell you that you need to be the parent and have the phone be a privilege, not an entitlement, and you might know that you need to do that, but you just can’t.

Or it’s like someone who is depressed. They know they need to eat well and exercise and get out of bed, but they just don’t know how.

Parenting burnout lowers your self-esteem. You put everyone else’s needs before yours because you don’t feel worth it.

O’Grady started writing her book when her teenage daughter was 15. She had to readjust her parenting around the time her daughter turned 11. “I had to do something completely different,” she says. “I could see I had lost it.”

She says she did some soul-searching and began doing what she tells parents to do. She started finding positive experiences every day, even if it was just 20 minutes of doing something positive for herself.

You have to find places to practice that self-care. Go out with friends. Start having me time at the gym. Take a dance class or do yoga, or just give yourself alone time to recharge.

Practice a little separation. Your life cannot be all about your child. “We can get wrapped up around how they perform and how they are doing,” O’Grady says. “We can feel shame around other parents about our girls if we don’t feel that they are measuring up.”

Often, moms can become hypervigilant and hypercritical of everything their children do. Because you’re so tuned into your child and she’s so tuned into you, “she knows the kind of mood you’re in by how you open the door, and you know by the way she puts her books down.”

For O’Grady, practicing self-care starts with looking at your stress level. If you’re worrying about all the things you have to do as a mom and worrying about all the hypothetical things that could happen to your children, you’re not able to be the best you. Then add that your child also is stressed because the pressures on children both academically and socially are even more than they were just 10 years ago.

Both mothers and their children also are overscheduled with little to no downtime. Build in downtime, as well as family time together. The great thing about teens, as well as younger children, is they are full of life, full of adventure and hilarious, O’Grady says. “They can add a lot to our lives,” she says.

For her, that meant not going to the same coffee shop all the time, but letting her daughter help her branch out by creating an adventure of finding a new coffee shop to try together. “They can wake adults up from their doldrums,” O’Grady says.

Doing these things is hard and takes time and diligence. “Everyone comes in looking for a quick fix,” Brown says.

The first thing is really to get parents to understand that burnout is a real thing and they’re experiencing it. “They think, ‘I suck’ or ‘I’m bad at this’ or ‘I don’t have a good kid.’

“Your kid is great and so are you,” he says. “You’re in the mud together.”

It’s time to get out from being stuck in the mud, get support and take care of yourself, so you can be the better parent.

Remember, just like in the plane, always put your oxygen mask on first.

Mindfulness for motherhood

Sometimes it’s hard to start practicing self-care. “Breathe Mama Breathe: 5-Minute Mindfulness for Busy Moms” by Shonda Moralis offers different ways to take a breath and be mindful, including exercises to do in the shower, while brushing your teeth, while drinking coffee and while playing Legos with the kids. They are all things you can fit in your day.

Here’s a great one:

The STOP Mindful Break

When your teen offers up a ’tude, see if you can stay in control of yours.

First, stop right where you are, whatever you’re doing. Take a few deep breaths. Notice what is happening in your body. Is your jaw tight? Has your heart rate sped up? Your breath quickened? Which muscles have tightened with anger?

Most likely your thoughts will persistently try to persuade you to fix the problem now. But first things first. The STOP Mindful Break will help you calm down enough to find the best solution, whether immediate or after given some time and thought.

If needed (and it is often needed) repeat the first three steps until you can feel calm enough to proceed.


Take a breath.



Good luck (to us both). May the STOP Mindful Break help us remain just a little bit closer to that loving mommy version of ourselves we once imagined.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Lifestyle

Volunteer logs almost three decades of pacing the Austin AIDS Walk
Volunteer logs almost three decades of pacing the Austin AIDS Walk

At the peak of the AIDS crisis, Becky Helton remembers hearing about an Austinite who was out of the office for a few weeks. Turns out that person was diagnosed with HIV. “Their desk was moved to ‘Siberia,’” she recalls. “This is in an office setting, not in a place where anyone would be at risk. It broke my heart to see...
Tired of traffic? Try one of these unusual commutes instead
Tired of traffic? Try one of these unusual commutes instead

Why sit in traffic when you can catch a workout on your commute to work? We checked in with a quartet of Austin residents who park the car at home now and then or skip the bus and travel to work under the power of their own muscles. We’re pretty sure they arrive at the office in a better frame of mind than those who sit in gridlock traffic on...
Find out the Philanthropy Day Award winners ahead of time
Find out the Philanthropy Day Award winners ahead of time

The Austin nonprofit community perks up every year for the Philanthropy Day Awards, given out by the Austin chapter of the  Association of Fundraising Professionals. Tito Beveridge hand packs cases of 1.7 liter bottles of his handcrafted Tito’s Vodka. Rodolfo Gonzalez/American-Statesman These honors are chosen by...
Today’s birthdays - Sunday, October 22
Today’s birthdays - Sunday, October 22

Actor Christopher Lloyd is 79. Actor Derek Jacobi is 79. Actor Tony Roberts is 78. Actress Catherine Deneuve is 74. Guitarist Leslie West of Mountain is 72. Actor Jeff Goldblum is 65. Keyboardist Greg Hawkes of the Cars is 65. Actor Bob Odenkirk is 55. Contemporary Christian singer TobyMac (dc Talk) is 53. Singer-songwriter John Wesley ...
Running coach celebrates survival of massacre in Burundi with walk up Congress
Running coach celebrates survival of massacre in Burundi with walk up Congress

Gilbert Tuhabonye marched up Congress Avenue this morning with a 40-pound, 5-gallon jug on water on his head. LIZ KREUTZ/Special to the American-Statesman Austin’s drum-thumping, “run with joy!” shouting coach marched up Congress Avenue this morning, marking the anniversary of the day he almost died in a...
More Stories