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Avoiding parental burnout

Children and family health researcher MIRIAM MCCALEB shares some practical advice to avoid parental burnout. By Kineta Booker

Juggling work, children, home life, family health… there’s little wriggle room for anything else, let alone something unexpected. It’s this kind of hectic life that leads to burnout – the point of mental, physical and emotional exhaustion. 

In Miriam McCaleb’s work in child development and parent wellbeing, she’s worked alongside hundreds of families. “Burnout is one of those things that manifests differently from person to person. It really depends on personal context and their own developmental history – what their family was like growing up and how they were allowed to handle emotions,” Miriam says.

Pay attention to the basics.

“Parents do well when they pay attention to the basics. Living your life so you have a healthy sleep schedule and regular bowel motions changes everything,” says Miriam. 

Find people to make up your network.

“We all have our ebbs, and by reaching out to people, you’re showing them that you need them just as much as they need you,” Miriam says.  

Talk with someone you trust.

“There is research to show that hearing the voice of people you trust provides benefits that are not replicated by text conversations,” Miriam says. “There was a study on soldiers from the Gulf War who needed pain relief, and if they got their Mum on the phone, they required less pain medication than others. These relationships matter in profound ways.”

Put down the phone.

“Avoid looking at others’ curated feeds when you can. We compare the worst of ourselves with the best of someone else. Be cautious about what social media feeds you’re paying attention to,” says Miriam.

Make exercise your best friend.

“Exercise will make you feel better! Outdoors is best, and outdoors with a friend is one of the best things you can do.”

Give a gift to your future self.

“On a Sunday, do a bunch of meal prep. I’m going to do as much prep as my future self needs – with tonnes of vegetables because we want to have those healthy bowel motions,” says Miriam. “Even if you don’t feel like doing it – you’re helping the future you.”

Have a ‘rectangle of sanity’.

“Five minutes before bed: is everything ready for the next day? The balance between enough organisation rather than everything being perfect.” Miriam talks about her “rectangle of sanity – like a clear space on the bench. Even if the rest of the house is a tip, the rectangle is my bare minimum and makes me feel competent and on top of things.”

Look out for your friends.

“If you’ve got friends who are losing their sense of humour, that’s a sign they may not be doing well,” says Miriam. Have a quiet word: ̔You don’t seem like yourself; do you need a listening ear?’ If I didn’t know someone that well, I would shoulder tap someone that does for them to check in and see if they’re OK.”

You’re not alone.

Miriam reminds parents: “We all go through patches that are incredibly intense. Burnout doesn’t have to be a failure. Don’t feel like you’re doing anything wrong. It’s a series of systemic failures. Just say to yourself, ̔I’m doing my best; things will get better.’ With major burnout – if you’re in a situation that you can’t sustain, that’s when things get to the point of being courageous enough to seek external support. Burnout gets you to that point of having to make some changes.”

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