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Mental health breaks for parents are nonnegotiable: Here’s what experts say

Whether you have 10 minutes or two days, taking a mental health break when you’re a parent shouldn’t be optional.

Mental health breaks for parents are nonnegotiable: Here’s what experts say

The joy they bring is endless, but … Kids. Are. Full. On. The demands. The playdates and activities. The snacks. The messes! While their smiles and snuggles make it all worth it, those alone aren’t enough to recharge moms and dads. Parents need a mental health break on the regular. 

In the past few years, thanks in part to the pandemic, “parents” and “burnout” have become such an iconic duo that 66% of parents in one study reported feeling burnt out. In another study, it was found that parents in the United States were among some of the most burnt out in the world. While things like paid parental leave and subsidized child care would most definitely help lighten parents’ loads, being diligent about taking breaks — yearly, weekly, daily — needs to be a nonnegotiable. 

“Taking time out is particularly important for moms and dads,” explains Dr. Stuart Lustig, a child psychiatrist and national medical executive for behavioral health at Evernorth. “Much of a parent’s day revolves around providing for someone else, and the tasks can be physically and emotionally draining. Breaks help parents reset, or to use an analogy, refill their cups.”

From how often to do it to affordable options, here’s everything parents need to know about mental health breaks. Spoiler alert: They’re not optional. 

Why parents regularly need a mental health break

According to Jeff Temple, a psychologist and director of the Center for Violence Prevention at the University of Texas Medical Branch, the oxygen mask analogy — the one about making sure you put your own on before helping others — is used ad nauseum for a reason: It’s the truth. 

“If you run out of oxygen, you’re of no use to your fellow passengers,” he says. “Same holds true for parenting. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll be a less effective parent and more prone to burnout and lashing out.”

More so, it isn’t uncommon for parents today, women in particular, to bite off more than they can chew, according to Lustig, which makes the risk for burnout higher (and the need for breaks greater.) 

“In today’s society, parents try to ‘do-it-all’ between work, caregiving, carpooling, volunteering — the list goes on and on,” Lustig says. “They give so much of themselves to others. Taking time to focus inward creates opportunities to feel refreshed and recharged.”

What parents stand to lose if they never take a mental health break

What happens to a car that goes and goes and goes? It runs out of gas, or eventually, breaks down. Same goes for parents — only there’s a lot more at stake. “When parents don’t take breaks and prioritize self-care, they run the risk of failing to accomplish their biggest goal: raising healthy, happy kids,” says Temple. “Even the calmest, most well-intentioned parent has a threshold that, without breaks, will be breached.”

When this happens, Temple says, parents “may be quick to lose patience and react in unhealthy ways toward their kids.” 

Other pitfalls of failing to take breaks, according to Jaclyn Gulotta, a licensed mental health counselor in Longwood, Florida are feelings of: 

  • Stress.
  • Anxiety.
  • Anger.
  • Resentment.
  • Short-temperedness. 
  • Impulsivity. 
  • Impatience. 

Lustig adds that forgoing breaks can also put a strain on romantic relationships, impact work productivity and cause sleep disturbances.

What is a mental health break for a parent?

Can a walk around the block cut it? Or do you need a full-on spa weekend in order to truly reset? There’s no hard and fast rule when it comes to what constitutes an actual break, so gauging how you feel after certain activities is important. 

“A mental health break is different for everyone,” says Lustig. “One person might need to physically leave the house and go for a walk outdoors. Another person may just need to go into a different room and meditate or listen to relaxing music.”

“There should be less of a focus on what, when and how long the activity is, and more focus on how you feel during or after the activity,” he continues. “Do you feel refreshed and rejuvenated? Happier and recharged? If yes, consider it a mental health break. If not, try something different next time. Everyone’s needs are different, so understanding what best helps you individually is key.”

“Do you feel refreshed and rejuvenated? Happier and recharged? If yes, consider it a mental health break.”

— Dr. Stuart Lustig, psychiatrist

In more concrete terms, Temple urges parents to take one mental health break per day — “even if only for 30 minutes,” he says. “How long and how often will vary by individual characteristics, number of children, children’s temperament, support system and other life stressors.”

Temple also recommends “going on dates with your partner, without the kids at least twice a month.” If necessary, he suggests, “utilizing extended support networks or swapping babysitting duties with other parents.” 

How long is a mental health break?

Time poverty is real for parents, so it isn’t uncommon for there to be days when it’s hard to swing even 30 minutes. When you find yourself in such a position, consider taking microbreaks.

“Small breaks in one’s day can be helpful, especially for busy parents,” Lustig says. “Five-minute meditations can help reset one’s day and act as a mental health break. A few minutes outside in the sunlight, drinking a cup of coffee or writing in a journal can work too. Setting a timer and concentrating on your breathing for a minute or two can help kick start creativity and focus.”

“Microbreaks can be especially beneficial if parents feel themselves getting triggered and need a moment to reset,” adds Gulotta. 

“Microbreaks can be especially beneficial if parents feel themselves getting triggered and need a moment to reset.”

— Jaclyn Gulotta, mental health counselor

Mental health break tips for parents

To get the most out of your breaks, here’s what Temple, Lustig and Gulotta suggest:

Set boundaries 

“Make sure to set boundaries with your family when you are planning for a mental health break, and make sure they realize you are unavailable during a specific time,” Lustig says. “That may mean hiring a babysitter or asking your partner or extended family for help.” 

Be open with your kids 

“Tell your children why a mental health break is important to you,” notes Lustig. “If your children, especially adolescent or teenage children, watch you taking time for yourself and understand the importance of mental health, they are likely to model this behavior as they get older.” 

Respect your partner’s breaks 

“We all need breaks from kids,” Temple says. “If you’ve finished a long day of work and your partner has been with the kids, you still should give them a break. Parenting is hard — harder than whatever work day you just had.”

“If you’ve finished a long day of work and your partner has been with the kids, you still should give them a break. Parenting is hard — harder than whatever work day you just had.”

— Jeff Temple, psychologist

Take it slow

“Don’t look for perfection in one day,” says Lustig. “Good mental health practices take time to master, so give yourself grace — especially if you are trying something new like an exercise class or meditation. What works for your friend may not work for you, so be open to new experiences, too.”

Remember, this isn’t optional

The biggest thing to keep in mind is that self-care is and should be a major part of parenting,” Temple notes. “It’s part of being a good parent.”

In order to ensure you get a break, prioritize it, Gulotta says. “Arrange time in your day for individual self-care,” she explains. “Some parents may set up certain days of the week with their partners to watch the children so they can go do something for themselves. It’s important.”  

Budget-friendly mental health break ideas for parents

In a dream world, we’d all be able to whisk off to an island — alone — for a week to rest and reset. But, alas, that’s not the case for most. These cost-effective options will still give you a much-needed mental health break, without breaking the bank. 

Spend time in nature.

Both Gulotta and Lustig recommend this. Nature can be very healing, and luckily very inexpensive,” says Lustig. “A long hike or walk can often make a big difference. Just make sure to really pay attention to what’s around you!”

Move your body.

Exercise is key for mental health, so it’s no wonder Lustig recommends it as an affordable mental break. Whether you have a gym membership or do a YouTube workout in your living room, get moving. 

Use community — and free — sources of entertainment.

“Check out some books from your local library or listen to a podcast,” says Lustig.

Get creative.

According to Gulotta, “writing in a journal or acquiring a new hobby can help when you need to redirect your energy and take a break.”

Spend time with your partner.

“After the kids go to bed, cook a new meal together, watch a movie or play a board game,” Lustig says. “It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive to count as a mental health break.”

Spend time with friends.

“Whether you go to a friend’s house or find a Groupon for a cheap activity, spending time with friends is always rejuvenating,” says Gulotta.

The bottom line on taking a mental break as a parent

Parenting is dang-near impossible, but look at you! You’re doing it! You deserve a break and you shouldn’t feel bad about it. 

“When my children were younger, I would often tell my patients that my two favorite times of the day were seeing my kids and leaving my kids,” says Temple. “It’s OK to not want to be around your kids at all times. It’s OK to have a life outside of them.”