All The Reasons You're Tired & What To Do About It
As a child psychologist, my experiences treating children have always been deeply intertwined with also treating families. Children do not exist in a vacuum and neither do their parents. We are all constantly interacting with stressors outside of our homes that make their way into our homes and into our family relationships. These stressors leave us tired.
Welcome to 2021. If you're more exhausted than usual, you are not alone. You're also not imagining it. If COVID has taught us one thing, it's this: Fellow parents, we have a finite amount of energy and we need to pay attention to where we spend our time. Situations either drain our energy or replenish it. We must notice the difference and then teach our children to do the same.
I have referenced Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs time and again throughout the pandemic. We have been surviving within Levels 1: Physiological Needs and Level 2: Safety Needs for nearly a year now. Only some of us are spending some time in Level 3: Love and Belonging as many are missing extended family, friends, and our kids are missing their teachers. Adding to this, we are sometimes being asked to work into Level 4: Esteem and Level 5: Self-actualization if these relate to our career. Problem is, during stressful times we likely only have the energy for Levels 1, 2, and maybe some 3 when we're rested. Therefore, we are tired. Exhaustion isn't only physical and mental, it's also emotional, sensory-based, social, and spiritual/moral. Let me explain.
Let's start with physical because it's what we understand the best and it's also the first way we explain exhaustion to our kids. We know this feeling as it relates to how our body feels after we've walked all day at Disney. Our kids know this feeling as playing all day at the beach and falling fast asleep that night. Our bodies have a limited amount of physical energy that is replenished with nutrition, hydration, and sleep. During COVID, most of us are actually not moving our bodies enough, which makes us think, "Why am I so tired? I haven't even gone anywhere today!?"
What to do: I know the last thing you are thinking about right now is taking care of your body, but trust me here. Just make one small change and see how it feels. Walk around the block. Drink a cold glass of water when you wake up. Add 20 minutes of yoga to your morning. No one is in a better position to care of your body than you are. No one else can feel what you need.
Remember that feeling when you walked out of the SATs or an AP exam? Dazed and detached, right? We feel mentally fatigued as adults after a long day of being "on" at work. During COVID, the parent mental game has been stacked high. You thought you were mentally tired from being "on" all day at work? Well, now you supervise your kids by keeping them on task with school, decide which social situations are safe or not, help your children emotionally process all these changes, and also continue to feed everyone, keep the laundry going, and walk the dog. If you feel like you can't remember things like you used to, that's because there's too much to remember and you are worn out by all the things. We all are.
What to do: Routine and systems are your best friend now. I'm sure you've figured lots of these out so far, but think about anything you keep forgetting and put a system in place to support your brain. A reminder, a sticky note, or delegating the job to another family member can be a part of this system. Perhaps you could remember all sorts of things pre-COVID, but you are at capacity now; plan accordingly.
Emotional tiredness is well-known to therapists as "compassion fatigue" and we are actually trained to recognize it and seek support when we experience it. Therapists are humans too and while we are trained to separate work and personal life, we are also feeling human beings who may absorb stress from our clients. Don't worry about us; we have a plan for this including consulting with colleagues, being super stingy about the amount of time we work, taking care of our bodies, and seeking out therapy for ourselves.
As a parent, you absorb your family's stress but you haven't been taught to notice emotional fatigue or what to do about it. Compassion fatigue might look like you getting irritated when your spouse is complaining about something or just wishing your child would magically be able to do the thing because you are tired of reminding them. Basically, you're feeling like you are having a hard time being compassionate, which we need to pay attention to as parents, because if there's one thing our kids need right now, it's compassion. I'm here to tell you this as well: If there's one thing parents need right now, it's compassion.
What to do: The first thing to do is to build a break into your day that helps you repair emotionally. You might be able to do this by yourself because you just need 10 minutes of quiet. Or, get up 20 minutes before your first child wakes up and make this space and time your own. If needed, talk to your partner, neighbor, friend, family member, or spiritual leader to help you feel less alone and to problem solve what you need to make your current situation more sustainable. Some people drain us and some people rejuvenate us. Notice how you feel after you spend time with people, in person or virtually. Only spend time with people who make you feel good.
We tend to think of sensory sensitivities as a pediatric concern, but many adults are sensory sensitive, too. Are you sensitive to how loud your kids are? How chaotic your house is? How much your kids physically climb on you? If you are irritated with the constant touching or noise from your family, your sensory system is likely overloaded. This overwhelm can be exacerbated by general stress being higher so it's not uncommon these days. Notice if your kid are sensitive, too. If one sibling is sensory-seeking and the other is sensory-sensitive, it will be important to get one child more movement and the other child more quiet space, respectively.
What to do: Similar to emotional fatigue, sensory overwhelm can improve when you can get space from it and create boundaries around the time you are exposed to your triggers. Does one parent not mind loud and the other does? Talk this out with your parenting partner and see if the adult who doesn't mind it can take the lead at that time of day. Are you more sensitive on a workday versus a weekend? Plan activities accordingly.
Who is socially fatigued? Not me. I would actually really like to be at a concert with a bunch of people right now. Human social needs are very different for each of us. While introverts likely haven't hated reading books on their porch more often than racing around town making chit chat with parents at soccer games, extroverts are crawling out of their skin at this point.
What to do: Whatever your flavor of social gathering, notice what you miss and only add back in those social engagements that energize you.
Recently I have sensed a collective exhale after the election season ended, yet this was quickly followed by a daunting "ugh" that we are still here in the midst of COVID. Many adolescents have shared with me that on top of COVID, they are still passionate about the work that needs to be done regarding systemic racism and climate change. These teens are stressed that time is passing for our environment and they don't feel old enough to make an impact. Any time a person feels strong convictions but limited power, it's exhausting. Whether you have consciously thought about it or not, current events have likely contributed to your fatigue in the past year.
What to do: When your child is developmentally ready to learn about the hardships of our history as a nation or the journeys of those in your family tree, share those stories with them. Their ancestors have overcome great things and their generation will, too. Take action in small, but certain, ways in your community and teach your child to do the same. Feeling we have the power and control to do small things will energize us, rather than drain us. Modeling this for our children is our greatest gift to them.
The bottom line: Know thyself. What have you learned about your personal fatigue limits this year? Feeling physically drained is the easiest to figure out, but what about mental stress, emotional fatigue, or sensory overload? Pay attention to your limits and commit to making changes that help you have more energy to sustain yourself through the hard things and to enjoy each moment of the wonderful things.
**All content provided is protected under applicable copyright, patent, trademark, and other proprietary rights. All content is provided for informational and education purposes only. No content is intended to be a substitute for professional medical or psychological diagnosis, advice or treatment. Information provided does not create an agreement for service between Dr. Emily W. King and the recipient. Consult your physician regarding the applicability of any opinions or recommendations with respect to you or your child's symptoms or medical condition. Children or adults who show signs of dangerous behavior toward themselves and/or others, should be placed immediately under the care of a qualified professional.**