Conscious Parenting — Running on Empty

By Rev. Erin Fry

There are times as a parent when it feels like I have lost the capacity to care. I feel totally overwhelmed, frustrated, and exhausted. I feel impatient and I am not able to respond with love or kindness. In those moments, I might yell or be overly aggressive. As an example, when changing a non-cooperative toddler, in my frustration I may have been too rough pulling off his clothes.

Much of the time when I am with my three-year-old twins, I am really present. I get down on the floor and play with them. We dance, wrestle, and build forts. We read every day. If I am busy with housework or on the computer and cannot pay as much attention to them, I stay even-keeled and available if needed. On the whole, I strive to be patient, loving, and kind, and despite the constant activity and motion, I can stop and savor the moment. Not just the extra special moments, but the everyday moments that might go by unnoticed without the practice of gratitude. These are the days that feel like a win.

But how do we handle the days when we feel like we’re running on empty? 

In his book Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg talks about how we can’t give something that we don’t have. He specifically addresses the importance of receiving empathy before we can give it to others, so it is essential that we be grounded in empathy, love, and kindness before we can truly give this to our children.

Rosenberg offers several suggestions on what to do when we can’t access our empathy. One approach is simply to let the other person know. He says, “Sometimes if we openly acknowledge that our own distress is preventing us from responding empathetically, the other person may come through with the empathy we need.”

At first I thought my children would be too young for such an abstract notion as empathy, but without using the actual term, we have been talking about the concept for as long as they have been able to talk. When one child upsets the other, we don’t ask “How would YOU feel if someone did that to you?” Instead we ask “How do you think Brother feels?” “Sad.” “Mad.” Their answers are basic, but always on the mark, and demonstrate their innate understanding and awareness of empathy. So when I verbalize that I am in distress (feeling frustrated, tired, or overwhelmed), even my toddlers can understand and offer some level of empathy and comfort. 

This is a powerful approach no matter how old your children are. Even if our children struggle to offer empathy or understanding, it is a great way to practice being clear to ourselves and to them about our own feelings and needs.

Another method is to give ourselves “emergency first-aid” empathy by noticing what’s going on in ourselves. Rosenberg says that “If we become skilled in giving ourselves empathy, we often experience in just a few seconds a natural release of energy that then enables us to be present with the other person.”

I am still working on giving myself this emergency first-aid empathy in the heat of the moment. Fortunately, Rosenberg also suggests a third option:

“If, however, the other party is experiencing such intensity of feelings that they cannot hear us nor leave us alone [which is frequently the case with my toddlers] the third recourse is to physically remove ourselves from the situation. We give ourselves time out and the opportunity to acquire the empathy we need to return in a different frame of mind.” 

I did this once without knowing that I was following Rosenberg’s advice. I was so appalled at my behavior toward my toddlers that I stopped and told the kids I was sorry and that Mommy needed a Time-Out. I remember the oddly satisfied look on their faces. They actually seemed pleased to find that Mommy would be treated the same way that they would be treated when demonstrating poor behavior. And they nodded in agreement that, given my level of frustration, a Time-Out was the proper course of action. So I went into my room, closed the door, and had space to cool off. (Luckily, during those few minutes, they didn’t do any irreparable damage to the house!)

When I recently came across this third option, I felt much better about the Time-Out I had given myself. Now I no longer look at that moment as a parenting failure. Instead I see the “teachable moment” it became for myself and my kids. I am choosing to see it as a win. 

In addition to the options suggested by Rosenberg, I have found another strategy that works for me. I’ll call it the “third-party empathy” practice. This is where I find someone who can listen to me and possibly even take over the responsibility of watching the kids. I feel grateful that I have the level of honesty and empathy with my spouse where we can admit when we feel we are at the edge of our capacity. We can tag each other in and out. But my husband used to travel a lot and we don’t have any family in the area. I would often be home alone with the babies for a week or more, so I would invite a neighbor over to keep me company. It felt good to have an empathic ear, and the other person’s presence created the space for a different experience with my kids (even if that other person wasn’t particularly interested in children). Having a partner, family member, neighbor or friend who can offer us empathy and be present when we need a Time-Out can be a big benefit, and I hope that each person can find someone to fill this important role.

No matter which strategy we choose when we are running on empty, if we practice patience with ourselves, we allow ourselves room to learn and grow. Thankfully children are marvelously forgiving — another thing for which I am grateful!

Erin Fry is an ordained Interfaith Minister and served as a volunteer Minister at the Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth in Ann Arbor. She is also a licensed Spiritual Coach with the Centers for Spiritual Living. Erin works with people of all faiths and backgrounds to help them create the families they desire. For more information, go to her website at: 

Posted on April 30, 2016 .