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Overwhelm...when it all feels just too much...
And how some of the things we can do to help our children, can help us adults too!
A couple of weeks ago I sent out my May newsletter (not my Substack on my 'other one' which was all about overwhelm.
I was always planning for May’s newsletter to be about parental overwhelm as it is such a relevant subject at the moment, not only for parents but for children too.
The first thing I want to say before you start reading, and maybe your mind starts wandering is:
Remember – you are enough – you don’t need to be the all singing all dancing version of yourself...think of how often those all singing all dancing toys break down!
We put so much pressure on ourselves nowadays to be the perfect parent, and many of my clients, my friends and even myself are trying to juggle being the perfect ‘stay at home’ parent as well as also working alongside this. The weight of the mental load and the physical impact of this is huge.
I am also observing more and more children feeling overwhelmed, this shows in their behaviour, in their mood and in the general family dynamic and it very quickly becomes a vicious cycle for all those concerned.
So, what is causing this Overwhelm? As with many things it is usually multifactorial and so it is important to take a moment to look and see what may be creating this feeling of overwhelm for you – which of these things are out of your control and which can you do something about? When you are feeling overwhelmed it can be difficult to do this, it feels like just another thing to think about when your headspace is already overflowing but it really is an important step to help reduce that feeling overwhelm and a really important tool to mirror to our children (and help teach them).
I am a real fan of using visuals to help children understand certain concepts (and I think they can really help adults too!) For many years I have used the image of a water bottle overflowing when I have spoken about overwhelm and big emotions. I have seen lots of different analogies used – the cup of tolerance, a box of cereal, shaking up a coke bottle, and you may have heard of others that you feel will better suit your family however I will use the analogy of the water bottle in today’s post!
If you think of our everyday emotional state as a bottle of water that is about 1/3 full (see diagram for the visual.) As you go through your day things come along that fill your bottle, it could be you are tired, hungry, had a hard day at work, got into an argument with someone, and slowly your bottle has filled nearly to the top (and if you have had a super busy day then you have probably not done anything to empty out your bottle a little!) If life in general is also really tricky at the moment, then your bottle will already start out much fuller with all the big things before any of the little things come in on top…
Then you stub your toe – and it hurts – and your bottle overflows and you shout or cry and the reaction is really disproportionate to the thing that triggers it! The thing is that subbing your toe has simply caused your bottle to overflow, the reaction is actually also in relation to all the other things that have filled your bottle up.
Image:Caroline Evans copyright 2023
Does this scenario sound familiar in your child? It happens all the time! Countless parents will say to me that their child’s reaction is regularly disproportionate to the thing that triggered it, but this is because it is about so much more than the trigger. But children cannot know this, their brains are often not mature enough (depending on the age of your child of course, but remembering that our brains are not fully developed until our mid-twenties!) and perhaps we haven’t taught them this either. It is also really relevant to adults too, often we recognise it but are so used to our bottle being on the brink of overflow all the time that we have just gotten used to it being this way.
So, what can we do to help?
Firstly, we need to think about what to do in the moment, when the bottle overflows, how can we support our children, and how can we help ourselves? The first thing I suggest is acknowledging that we are all human and big emotions are a necessary and normal part of life. As adults we are better at recognising them and managing them, but children need a lot more help with this. Try to make talking about emotions a natural part of everyday life (remembering that we can be really specific in how we name emotions – it doesn’t just need to be happy, sad and angry, it could be disappointment, frustration, joy, excitement, jealousy, fear – and the list goes on!)
(Many thanks to Geoffrey Roberts for allowing me to share his wheel of emotions. )
We also need to be there to help our child in moments of dysregulation (when the big emotions come up), we need to try and find a way to remain calm (even if this means stepping a way for a moment just to gather your thoughts, if it is safe to do so) and help you child regulate themselves as they are often unable to do it alone.
If you personally are feeling overwhelmed, then consider what may help you in that moment to regulate yourself. Maybe you need to stop what you are doing and get some fresh air (and if you are with children and cannot leave them then this may simply be opening the window and taking a big deep breath in, or standing on the doorstep. Perhaps taking some deep breaths helps you, or having a warm cup of tea and popping the TV on with a show that makes you laugh or smile. Practicing some of these skills in moments of calm can also be really helpful.
Prevention can be better than cure, and so learning (and applying) ways in which we can empty out our bottle to make it less likely to overflow is also really important, and teaching our children to do this too.
In the short-term, things that may empty out your/your child’s bottle (or stop it getting so full) could include:
- Making sure you have enough sleep.
- Eating nutritious meals at regularish times.
- Having some time outside in the fresh air.
- Having some down time without too much going on.
- Seeing people that make you feel good about yourself.
Longer term in order to help your bottle not to be always so full then you may need to look at things that run a bit deeper. For adults this may be:
Who can I share the mental load with?
What can cross off or let go of from my to do list, what can I outsource?
Who is taking my needs into consideration? Am I?
Where can I turn to if the overwhelm never seems to subside?
For children this may be:
Are my expectations of my child realistic?
Do they have too many activities / enough time just pottering around at home?
Am I able to give them some 1to1 time and some real connection?
Are they getting enough sleep?
Don’t get me wrong if having lots of activities suits your family then great, but so many people spend so much time doing things that they feel they ought to be doing and end up feeling utterly exhausted with all of it, as do the children.
Social media can make us feel we should be doing so much more ALL THE TIME, and it can really contribute to the feeling of overwhelm that many parents feel. I also think as a result we end up putting too much pressure on children, contributing to their own feelings of overwhelm and it becomes a viscous cycle.
Take a breath, take some time to focus on what you feel is really right for your family, rather than trying to cram in everything that everyone else says you should be doing in order to be a great parent! You may be surprised at how impactful this can be not only on your own feelings of overwhelm but also on those of your child/children too.
I am in the process of creating a resources section of my website here:
I have created a space with some information on overwhelm. I will pop in there an information sheet on how to use the bottle analogy with your child (and yourself) and an empty bottle picture that you can download and use if you feel it would work well for your family.
Over time I will add more and more resources to this space so please feel free to come back to it regularly to see what has been updated (as I am not going to overwhelm myself trying to fill it to the brim immediately!)
On May 26th 2023 I will be doing a Q&A day on Instagram and Facebook on the subject of overwhelm. Feel free to post any questions you may have on the designated thread and I will be happy to share my thoughts with you.
Finally to finish, I am sending all those overwhelmed parents a big hug and lots of love. Parenting can be the most rewarding and the most challenging time that humans will experience and we often don’t have the support around us that we need (even though we can be surrounded by others). Please reach out and seek support if you feel the overwhelm is really too hard to manage alone – there are some links on my website to charities that can help.
I will leave you with this:
Top tip : If you are tired then playing “doctors” can be a great game (depending on the age of your children of course), get a doctors kit add some real bandages, some real plasters and a little pot of aqueous cream and give them free reign to ‘make you better’ – honestly you can often lie there for a good half an hour whilst they wrap you in bandages and rub cream into your legs (and let’s face it chances are your skin needs a good moisturise as I expect it is way down your list of priorities!)
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Last updated: 09.08.2023
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