How do we Leave Burnout?

books burnout low demand parenting foundations practical tips Apr 10, 2024
How do we Leave Burnout?

In a recent book club discussion of my book, “Low Demand Parenting,” our conversation led to a compelling question that I found myself pondering for days after.


“What happens when things finally stabilize, when the kid is coming out of burnout? When do I push them forward? When do we start new things? What do I do when things are finally…better?”


What is your role as the parent when positive changes are finally taking place? Perhaps you embraced low demand when absolutely nothing else would work. Now, as your child’s capacity is growing, the temptation to go back to those old techniques is strong. 

Maybe I can ask them to clean their room again?

Should we start back to nightly toothbrushing?

Could we try an autism assessment now, or spend the night with grandparents, or start eating as a family at the table again, or…?


This is a key moment in the low demand journey, the space to truly embrace these new ways of thinking as a lifestyle, not merely a survival strategy. 


The question at the forefront of our minds: What is the low demand roadmap for sustainable change?


In our pursuit of answers, let's take a step back from the prevailing parenting narrative—a narrative that insists our ultimate goal lies in propelling our children into a hyper-independent, do-it-all-on-their-own mode. In truth, such a trajectory isn't inherent to human nature; it's more reflective of a Western, capitalist ideal than a universal truth.


The Science Behind Felt Safety

Delving into the scientific underpinnings that substantiate this unconventional parenting approach, relational neuroscience illuminates a different perspective. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that suggests growth arises from navigating discomfort, relational neuroscience posits that humans make meaningful changes when they feel safe.


Consider your child's brain as a garden, with safety as the fertile soil fostering the seeds of growth. When a child feels secure, their brain becomes a receptive ground for learning, emotional processing, and resilience-building. The emphasis, therefore, should not be on pushing through discomfort but on cultivating an environment where growth occurs organically.


In the realm of parenting, the concept of "felt safety" emerges as a critical element. Extending beyond physical safety, it entails creating an emotionally secure space where your child feels understood and accepted. 


Felt safety is like the cozy blanket for our brains, and in the world of interpersonal neurobiology, it's the brain's version of a warm hug. Dr. Stephen Porges, a key thinker in this field, says that felt safety occurs when the perception of an environment or relationship is as safe, nurturing, and trustworthy. When we feel safe, our nervous system chills out, stress levels drop, and we can fully engage with the world. In relationships, creating an atmosphere of felt safety is like hitting the neurobiological jackpot—it's where deep connections and genuine understanding flourish. So, think of felt safety as the secret sauce that makes our brains go, "Yep, I'm good here."


This emotional resonance acts as the catalyst for unlocking the potential for growth. You're nurturing an environment where your child feels emotionally secure—laying the foundation for them to express themselves, communicate preferences, and explore their own boundaries.


Safety Leads to Growth


Felt safety challenges the age-old notion that pushing kids to their limits through external rewards and punishments is the only way to foster growth. Many of us were brought up with the belief that without constant pressure, children would become lazy or complacent. However, thinkers like Dr. Porges teach us that a sense of safety and security is the real catalyst for growth. 


In fact, safety is the true launchpad for personal growth and transformation. When children feel safe, their nervous system isn't preoccupied with survival; instead, it's free to explore, learn, and grow naturally. Safety gives us the green light to take risks and embrace new challenges. This process is intricately tied to our brain's neurobiology; a sense of safety signals that it's okay to shift from survival mode to growth mode. It's like giving ourselves permission to step out of our comfort zones and into the realm of learning and development. 


This challenges the traditional narrative that external pressure is the sole driver of progress. Felt safety encourages us to look beyond coercive methods, emphasizing that genuine growth arises from an internal sense of security, connection, and trust rather than external force. It's a paradigm shift from pushing to nurturing, creating an environment where children can flourish authentically.


You may hear, “If you make it too comfortable, kids will never grow.” Modern neuroscience challenges this misconception. The idea that safety means staying stagnant is far from the truth. In a paradoxical twist, it's the safety net that empowers us to venture into the unknown. Without it, the brain is often too preoccupied with threat detection to focus on growth. So, safety isn't a barrier to stretching; rather, it's the essential foundation that emboldens us to explore, learn, and evolve, one courageous step at a time.


Insights from Atomic Habits: The Art of Small Wins


Enter the realm of habit formation, as dissected in James Clear’s seminal book, 'Atomic Habits.' The core tenet is elegantly simple yet impactful: small changes, compounded over time, yield remarkable results. This philosophy seamlessly aligns with our parenting journey.


Leaning into positive habits holds more weight than fixating on extinguishing negative ones. The brain, a creature of habit, finds solace in routines. Introducing positive habits consciously creates neural pathways that strengthen over time—an analogy akin to paving a well-lit, inviting road rather than hacking through tangled woods.


What does this look like in practice? Let’s combine the idea of felt safety and positive habits by leaning into small steps toward connective, trust-building. Perhaps in burnout, your child or teen pursued their special interests in isolation, or spent a lot of time in dissociation. Now, you may be able to join them in their play in small, comfortable, safe ways. Joining them in playing video games together, watching their favorite shows together, discussing or researching their special interests, or creating new ways to play games together could be possible. Use your child’s interests as a springboard and take note of signals of safety. 


As we navigate the pivotal moment in our low demand journey when our child is finally expanding, instead of contracting, and when positive changes start taking root, the temptation to revert to old techniques may be strong. This juncture invites us to embrace these new approaches not just as survival strategies but as a lifestyle. So, what's the roadmap for sustainable change in low demand parenting? 


We break free from the prevailing narrative that compels us to push our children into hyper-independence. Relational neuroscience, exemplified by the concept of felt safety, challenges the conventional wisdom that growth arises from discomfort. Felt safety, described as the cozy blanket for our brains, fosters an emotionally secure space for deep connections and understanding. Safety isn't a barrier to growth but its essential foundation, empowering us to explore and evolve. Small, intentional steps toward connection and trust-building, combined with the concept of felt safety, pave the way for transformative growth, even after a dark season of burnout—one small, courageous step at a time.

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