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How to Counteract Parental Burnout During the Holiday Season

Expert tips for self-care when your cup runneth on empty

Kellie Schmitt

Published on: November 28, 2022

Family in a kitchen, mom making cookies and dad holding up baby who is sitting on the counter

Editor’s note: This article was sponsored by THIRA Health.

Sarah Skoterro, LPCC, LADAC, a clinical therapist and director of business development at Bellevue-based THIRA Health, starts to notice more and more people with an “empty cup” as the holiday season approaches.

From parents and caregivers to school staff, people need a break from their nonstop daily tasks to reenergize. With so many demands and expectations, though, they push forward at the expense of their own emotional well-being.

Often, one’s cup drains slowly over time. Each individual demand might seem reasonable, but these subtle stressors add up.

“The result is a gentle but consistent wearing down,” says Skoterro. “The empty cup [metaphor] refers to emotional emptiness.”

With the holiday season now in full swing, Skoterro shares her tips for pausing, reorienting, and taking a few moments to refill and recharge our emotional coffers. These simple strategies can have an outsize impact on our personal well-being — as well as on the people around us, she says.

What drains your cup?

The source of an empty cup is often the consequence of repeated day-to-day micro failures, Skoterro explains. For example, maybe someone hasn’t had time to sit down and pay their bills. Maybe they’ve also fallen out of their exercise routine or forgotten some groceries on their meal planning list. The more rigid one’s goals (e.g., a need to run a certain number of miles every day), the greater the likelihood of not achieving them.

The holidays often pile on additional expectations and opportunities, leading to perceived failures. There are the celebratory events themselves, as well as increased exposure to family members who might offer unsolicited and unwelcome observations. Imagine the relative who comments on your appearance, your home, your kids’ behavior or how long it’s been since you last reached out to them.

“Families evaluate each other,” says Skoterro. “It’s this reestablishment of expectations, goals and hierarchy.”

If you’re hosting holiday gatherings, there may be additional pressures to make sure everyone is happy. Something as simple as forgetting Aunt Jane’s favorite organic whipping cream might drain your cup’s last drop.

What happens when your cup is empty?

When someone’s cup is empty, even trivial missteps feel more consequential and significant. That’s because humans can shift into a mode of resource protection, guarding the small reservoirs of energy they have remaining. As a result, there’s not much left to give anyone else — which can register painfully for the individual, given the emphasis on the spirit of the “giving season.”

At this point, people may become cynical, critical or irritable. They might experience a sense of dread or an inability to concentrate. Even if they do manage to complete a task, there isn’t a sense of satisfaction in doing so. They might feel detached and unmotivated, as if they’re just going through the motions.

Others might perceive them as “busy” and not wanting to be bothered, even though that may not be the case.

In the workplace, this can lead to the phenomenon of “quiet quitting,” when people are physically present but not putting forth their full energy and spirit. At home, parents might feel increasingly detached and unmotivated. There may be a sense that, even if they dig deep, they might not be able to address their child’s need for attention.

Around the holidays, children may be experiencing their own empty cups, as the school year is fully underway and academic pressures are intensifying. If children perceive a parent’s empty cup, that can add to their own anxiety.

“Kids are always watching us, and more keenly than we are watching them,” says Skoterro. “Anxious kids notice empty parents. Our kids need us to keep them safe and notice them.” When our ability to be attentive to our kids’ needs is strained, drained or restrained, they notice and respond with their own resource-protecting behaviors.

If children sense parents delaying or postponing their bids for time together, they might “peck and check,” she says. This phenomenon refers to children “pecking away” for things they might not really need, such as a glass of water, to check on their parents’ responses.

“That can drive you a little crazy in a normal space, but if you’re worn down, [the exasperation] is amplified,” she says.

What can fill your cup?

Skoterro uses an acronym to help empty-cuppers take the first step in addressing this overwhelming sensation: STOP. Clinically speaking, this exercise is used in dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) as part of the skill set of developing distress tolerance. For the purposes of coping with seasonal overwhelm, Skoterro adds a few twists.

Stop in your tracks. Take a deep breath. Observe five things outside of yourself and five things inside of yourself. Perceive yourself and your surroundings carefully and intentionally, as if you are watching a video of the past few minutes of your life.

This DBT approach of pausing and reorienting oneself has its origins in wilderness survival, leveraging strategies that have aided everything from coping with life-threatening illness and addiction to handling financial crises and the stress of military maneuvers.

After taking that time to calm and regulate oneself, a caregiver can reflect on another acronym to begin to intentionally refill their cup: EMPTY.

  • Empathy for oneself is the first component in normalizing your experience and making it feel real, says Skoterro. You are doing what you can — at this time and with what you have — and this can be enough right now.
  • Movement and mindfulness come next, even if it’s only for a few minutes. This could mean anything from spending a few moments meditating to a quick walk around the block.
  • Professional therapy, life coaching or faith-based support can also be an important strategy.
  • Time for oneself is also a key component. “Micro timing out” for as little as three minutes to notice what is going well can be a vital and reenergizing step.
  • During this time, put the emphasis on You. Do something you enjoy, whether it’s a full day to yourself to reenergize, or something as simple as enjoying a cup of tea or your favorite food. Write down one thing each day that you like/enjoy. Our energy tends to flow where our minds wander, says Skoterro, so directing attention to enriching thoughts increases positive orientation for the self.

Taking the time to acknowledge the experience of feeling emotionally drained and then intentionally refilling your metaphorical cup is important for yourself and for everyone around you. Even if you have only 10 minutes to practice these strategies, it will make a difference, Skoterro promises.

“Focus on things you love,” she says. “You are worth 600 seconds.”

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