Summer is officially in full-swing, and while the kids are ecstatic for a break from the classroom, parents are feeling that extra heavy lift. My oldest is starting kindergarten in the fall, and the question of what I’ll do with him during those long school breaks already has me feeling overwhelmed!
I spoke to Dr. Maddy Brener — a licensed clinical psychologist with Thriveworks in San Diego who specializes in anxiety, depression, coping skills, and women’s issues — about being over-kidded and how to deal with a full plate. Here’s what she said.
First, what does it mean to be over-kidded?
Not a formal diagnosis, being “over-kidded” refers to when a parent or caregiver finds themself overwhelmed by the amount of time or energy their kids have needed. It’s very much like any other overexertion, such as taking on too many tasks at work or too heavy a course load in school.
A far higher concentration of parents/guardians have experienced this phenomenon in the last couple of years, as the pandemic, and subsequently working- and schooling-from-home (and a significant decrease in the number of extracurricular activities for both kids and adults), has led to parents and children being in each other’s physical presence far more hours of the day than the previous norms.
How serious is the problem?
The seriousness of being over-kidded can vary dramatically, much like any other form of stress and overwhelm. For some, when resilience and coping skills are high, they may never rise above a tiring inconvenience. For others, it can lead to more severe burnout, hallmarks of which may include physical symptoms (especially muscular, gastric, and headache complaints) or illness, irritability, short-temperedness, excessive fatigue, restlessness, temporary cognitive impairment/loss of focus, self-doubt, sadness, racing thoughts, etc. In extreme cases, a caregiver’s level of burnout may lead to them being a danger to themselves and/or the children, which may necessitate temporary separation, treatment, and sometimes even hospitalization.
As a mental health professional, what are the biggest concerns to you?
My first concern, as in all of my work, is the immediate safety of both my patients and the children in their care. Once that is established, I focus on the ongoing strain that such levels of overwhelm can put on both the body and the psyche. There is extensive evidence that persistently high levels of stress are deeply detrimental to overall health, so managing stress, anxiety, and overwhelm is important to all aspects of personal well-being.
Summer is underway, which means parents — especially mothers — may feel overwhelmed with keeping their kids occupied. What’s the first thing mothers should do when planning summer break?
Stay-at-home caregivers (often mothers, although increasingly fathers, grandparents, and other family members) benefit from remembering that they are people first, parents second. Often disparagingly mislabeled as “selfish,” rather keeping this fact in mind reminds the carer that they cannot be of service to anyone else if they allow themselves to fall apart.
I often utilize the analogy of oxygen masks in an airplane – one must put the mask on themselves before trying to assist anyone else, including a child. Otherwise, they run the risk of blacking out before successfully providing aid, effectively dooming them both. When framed this way, my patients are able to recognize that sometimes taking care of themselves, in order to be equipped to care for others, is actually somewhat selfless. With this in mind, caregivers whose time with their kids is about to increase exponentially should make sure to schedule time for themselves – and no, going to the grocery store alone is not enough. Coordinate with significant others, family members, friends, hired help, etc. to consistently have times that the children are occupied and cared for by someone else, and go get a massage, take a long walk, go for a swim, read a book, or just take a well-deserved nap.
What’s next after that?
After making sure to make time for yourself, check in with your kids! Odds are, as much fun as summer break can be, the changes to their usual schedule can be disorienting. Also, make sure you’re doing things with your kids that you all enjoy so that you are better prepared for the inevitable, seemingly endless renditions of Baby Shark (or whatever forms of media make you feel like tearing out your hair). Also remember, they will go back to school eventually, and routine will return, but in the meantime, it can be incredibly rewarding to spend time really getting to know your kids as they exist now. Child development is rapid and incredible, and your kiddos may have a whole swath of interests, beliefs, thoughts, and curiosities than they did when last you checked.
What are the basic tools mothers should use throughout the summer to avoid being over-kidded?
Don’t be shy about asking for help! Tap your network, join or create a care swap with fellow parents, set up a formal hand-off schedule with your significant other. Even if you are the primary caregiver, you can’t possibly be “on” 24/7/365. Also, if they’re old enough, let your children run wild on a playground or a trampoline park while you sip some tea, or send them to the backyard to “paint” the fence with water while you read your Kindle. Maintain healthy eating, hydrating, sleeping, and exercise routines. Engage in hobbies and socialization. Explore grounding exercises, guided meditations, journaling, etc. to increase mindfulness.
When should mothers seek professional health care support? What are the warning signs?
While there’s no wrong time to start therapy, some of the red flags that it may be necessary sooner rather than later include increased irritability or snippiness, racing thoughts, genuine feelings of dread about spending time with your kids, feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, angry outbursts, crying spells, and insomnia. In the event that physical violence occurs or is even a risk, or you have other thoughts of hurting or killing your children or yourself, seek immediate intervention through either a crisis line or your local emergency room.
Finally, Dr. Brener reminds parents that being “overwhelmed, over-kidded, touched-out, etc. does not make you a bad parent or person.”
“Kids can be a lot, and today’s parents have had to deal with an inordinate amount of additional personal and professional stressors thanks to the COVID pandemic,” she said. “Take a breath, take a break, drink some water, phone a friend, and remind yourself of the loveable, wonderful things about your children and yourself.”
San Diego Moms is published every Saturday. Have a story idea? Email [email protected] and follow her on Instagram at @hoawritessd.