Social media is abound with messages to parents that their love and attention is all their kids need during this stressful time. These messages are no doubt intended to be empowering.

But we're one year into the pandemic now, and what I’m hearing from parents is how exhausted they are — and how guilty they feel because they don’t have a lot to give right now. One mom I know burst into tears as she shared how ashamed and saddened she was at the relief she experienced upon finding that her son had fallen asleep before she came to say goodnight. The prospect of having some extra alone time was a dream come true. But instead of enjoying her much-deserved break, she was punishing herself, wondering what kind of mom she was if she was happy to have time away from her child.

This broke my heart. This is a thoughtful, sensitive, loving mom who is trying to balance caring for a feisty toddler and a 4-month-old baby while getting ready to return to work. She is exhausted, which is then worsened by feeling ashamed at wanting relief. She just wants her son to be happy. She gives and gives but feels like it’s never enough.

This mom is not alone. And I know many parents and caregivers are experiencing these kinds of feelings to some degree. So here is a list of some of the most important lessons I have learned about what children really need — things I wish my younger self had understood that would have reduced stress enabled more joy.

Be present by creating limits. Being a present, loving parent AND desperately needing a break are not mutually exclusive. Wanting some distance from your children just means you're human. In fact, breaks are necessary. If you don’t get the rest you need, you are less likely to be the engaged, responsive, playful parent you want to be and that your child needs. Creating limits for your child — whether on their endless questions when you have to get back to work or how many books you read before bedtime — are healthy and important for you and your child. There is a robust body of research that shows that it is the quality of your overall relationship with your child that matters. It is much better to be present and responsive for less time than distracted and on a short fuse for longer periods.

Add “quiet time” to your schedule. Something to consider, especially during this incredibly stressful time, is to create time(s) in your day for independent play or quiet time. Many families I am working with are finding this life changing, and it’s something I wish I had been better at, but mom guilt almost always won out. In hindsight though, it is so clear to me now that establishing this break period would have been much more loving to my kids. Creating this space has so many benefits:

  • You, the parent, get a break, and so you bring your much better self to the table during your time with your kids;
  • You provide a key opportunity for them to see that they can make their own fun (after all, boredom is one of the greatest motivations for creativity);
  • And, you are teaching them that having a close, loving connection does not mean having to spend every minute together — a key component of any healthy relationship.

Don’t feel like you need to rescue your child from feeling bad. Happy children are not always happy. When I had my first child, I was focused on ensuring that he had high self-esteem. I mistakenly confused self-esteem with happiness. This meant that anytime he was distressed, it was mom-to-the-rescue. If he was upset about not making a goal in soccer, I told him all the ways he was awesome! If he was struggling with a puzzle, I rushed in to put the pieces in their rightful places to reduce his frustration. I feared these experiences would make him feel bad about himself. So, I was quick to cheerlead him out of his difficult feelings or solve whatever problem he was struggling with. But because of my distress at his distress, I failed to see what my son actually needed from me. He needed me to show him that:

  • I had faith in his ability to cope with life’s frustrations and disappointments,
  • I could tolerate his difficult feelings,
  • I had confidence in his ability to master the challenges he faced by giving him the space to work through a difficult task.

Fixing all his problems didn’t build his self-esteem, it eroded it. I was accidentally sending him the message that I didn’t believe in him and that he needed me to find all the solutions.

I hope these insights help you avoid falling prey to pitfalls that are preventable, reduce your stress, and increase your ability to enjoy parenting your little ones throughout 2021 and beyond. Mostly I hope that it helps you see that you are, indeed, enough.