What Every Exhausted Parent Needs to Know

Written By

Jess VanderWier
October 29, 2018

This article has been reviewed by Nurtured First’s team of child development experts.

It’s often said that you don’t know true exhaustion until you become a parent. For many, they’ve never known sleep deprivation until they have a child. This, together with the mental load of parenting can leave parents, especially mothers, feeling exhausted.

The worst periods of exhaustion come typically come when there is an illness in the family. I recall nights where I lay in the hallway between my children’s rooms because the constant support and clean up required for a tummy illness never relented. There was no point going back to bed.

For others, their exhaustion occurs as part of depression. Depression can begin in the postpartum period but also later as parents adjust to their new life as a parent. If your exhaustion occurs with feelings of sadness, emptiness and numbness, sleep problems not caused by your children’s sleep patterns, difficulty enjoying the activity you would normally enjoy or any of the other depressive symptoms you may have depression. This one parenting tip can also help you, it is important to get professional help as well.

When you are an exhausted parent, you will receive lots of advice such as you should exercise more, eat better, fix your child’s sleep problems, pay a house cleaner, take vitamins or just get by with coffee and wine. The problem with some of these suggestions is that when you’re exhausted anything extra feels like too much. You are also often very critical of yourself and all the things you perceive you are not doing. For this reason, these suggestions can feel like criticisms.

One tip I regularly share with exhausted parents is the importance of self-compassion or as I prefer to call it self-kindness. Self-compassion means giving yourself the same kindness and care you’d give a friend. Leading self-compassion expert, Dr Kristin Neff, developed self-compassion therapy when she noticed the negative impact her self-critical behaviour had on her wellbeing and performance. Dr Neff’s research has demonstrated that being kind to yourself helps you do better in life and achieve your goals.

Self-compassion doesn’t mean giving up on yourself as Dr. Neff says:

“You may try to change in ways that allow you to be more healthy and happy, but this is done because you care about yourself, not because you are worthless or unacceptable as you are. Perhaps most importantly, having compassion for yourself means that you honor and accept your humanness. Things will not always go the way you want them to. You will encounter frustrations, losses will occur, you will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals. This is the human condition, a reality shared by all of us. The more you open your heart to this reality instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all your fellow humans in the experience of life.”

There are three main components to self-compassion. These are self-kindness instead of self-judgment, common humanity instead of isolation and mindfulness instead of fusing with our thoughts. Self-kindness means giving ourselves understanding when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate. e do not ignore our feelings or criticize ourselves for thoughts and feelings. Recognizing our common humanity reduces our feelings of aloneness with a problem. We are not the only ones suffering or making mistakes. When we are mindful of our thoughts we notice them but don’t get caught up in them or believe them as 100% true. In this way we don’ deny thoughts and feelings but are also not at their mercy, they seem less permanent.

Here are four ways self-compassion can help if you are an exhausted parent:

1. You won’t feel so isolated.

It can help to accept that it’s ok and normal to be tired. You may connect with the common humanity of this experience rather than feel isolated in your experience. It used to help me when I did night feeds to think that all over the world, other women were up at 3 am feeding babies as well, I was not alone in this.

2. You will likely take better care of yourself.

You will likely take better care of yourself and feel less guilty about taking breaks, having a nap, accepting help or paying for help. When you can be kind to yourself and accept that like other humans you need to take care of yourself to feel well, thoughts such as “I shouldn’t be so resentful” “I should be able to do this because other mothers seem to” will reduce. Instead, you will be able to look at what you need to get through this exhausting period.

3. You will be less self-critical.

You will be less self-critical of your parenting in an exhausted state and more able to notice what you are doing well. Instead of getting stuck on thoughts such as “I should have climbed on the play equipment instead of watching from the park bench” you will compassionately replace it with “I took care of myself by taking the opportunity to rest, it’s understandable I would need to given how tired I am”

4. It will reduce your negative thoughts and feelings.

It will reduce your negative thoughts and feelings about yourself and your parenting. Because when we are self-compassionate we can reduce the tendency to get swept up in negative thinking. When you mindfully notice negative thoughts you can choose whether we engage in them. Instead of spending half an hour thinking about how exhausted you feel and all the things you should be doing and feeling down in response, an exhausted parent might notice thoughts of exhaustion or what needs doing and let those thoughts pass without judgment and reduce the likelihood of feeling down or hopeless.

Self-compassion can help you if you are an exhausted parent. Parenting is hard enough without adding dollops of self-criticism, negative thought patterns and isolation to the mix. Self-compassion is the way out of this unhelpful cycle.

Being kind to yourself helps you be a better parent. It benefits you and your children. So be kind to yourself. If you are having difficulty being kind to yourself, seeing a psychologist can help.

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    This article was originally published by Nadene van der Linden. Nadene is a clinical psychologist in private practice. She is the author of Tales from the parenting trenches. A clinical psychologist vs motherhood and Live life to the full. Your guide to feeling better sooner.

    Article By

    Jess VanderWier
    Jess is a seasoned Registered Psychotherapist with a deep commitment to enhancing emotional well-being in children and families. Holding a Master's in Counselling Psychology, Jess has extensive clinical experience in guiding parents through their children's intense emotions, sleep struggles, anxiety, and other challenges with empathy and understanding. In addition to individual sessions, she is known for her work educating parents on social media through @nurturedfirst. Outside of her professional life, Jess enjoys the peace of nature hikes and spending as much time as possible enjoying her family.