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Stop being overwhelmed in 3 steps, for foster and adoptive parents.

For many of us who are living with wounded and chronically anxious children, we absorb that stress ourselves, to the point of developing secondary trauma reactions. Being in a state of high alert, always vigilant, and often anxious and depressed ourselves, can make accomplishing basic tasks and time management difficult. 

When we operate from our own fight or flight response, we can’t access our higher-level thinking and planning, and tasks as simple as taking out the trash can feel overwhelming. Once we fall behind, the feelings of drowning and despair only compound.

Take a few minutes to think about how your foster or adoption journey has affected your ability to manage your time and tasks. What strategies work well for you in getting things done? Which areas are you really struggling in?

Managing your time well is a simple three step process, it looks like this:

1 Task Download – get it all out on paper.

2 Task Planning – prioritize and put it on a calendar.

3 Follow Through – build confidence in yourself by doing it.

Think about everything you need to accomplish this week, down to the smallest step, and write it all out on paper. If you need to make a grocery list in order to go shopping, write that preparation step down too. If you need to get a dog sitter for your trip, refill a child’s medication, or remember to talk a walk alone, put it all there.

Ideally you will do this same process every week, either on Sunday night or Monday morning. Plan an hour once a week to download your tasks and schedule them onto your calendar. Use the space on the page to write out all of your tasks. 

I’m not a big fan of to do lists. Mine really never end and are forever taunting me of all I have to do. A to do list in my mind, feels a lot like emptying all my kids backpacks out on the kitchen island and staring at it, promising myself I will do it later. I’d much prefer to leave the stuff in their backpacks, plan a time to clean them out, and have a clear counter. 

Taking your task list, you will place every item on your calendar for this week. You can use something free like google calendar, or printed planner. My favorite is the Passion Planner. I order one each year, but you can print one for free on their website. Something that you can see one week at a time is really helpful. 

This may seem a little crazy to you, but you’re going to start with your selfcare first. Like placing an oxygen mask on your face in an airplane before you help your child, prioritizing your selfcare is the only way you both will survive. The very best gift you can give your spouse and children, is the gift of your own wholeness and happiness. 

It’s not your family’s job to make you happy or to watch out for your needs. It’s not on them to make you feel like a good parent. Only you can do that. When you put the pressure to provide these things on your family, it leads to resentment and unhappiness. 

You cannot pour anything from an empty cup. For foster and adoptive parents who live with chronic levels of stress, self-care is not a luxury, it is pure survival. Get out your planner and schedule time for you first. Then you can put in everything else. 

Block out seven to eight hours per night for sleep, a minimum of three hours per week for exercise or movement, and twenty to thirty minutes each day of time to be alone and journal God’s word and your thoughts. 

Make sure to plan in a few hours each week of focused time for your spouse. You can get a sitter and go out, or if this is difficult for your family, have a planned date night at home with special food you save just for that night and require your kids to be in their rooms that evening.  

Having five kids with crazy schedules, and some with significant special needs, I know how challenging this can be. Whatever excuses you have, it’s imperative you find a way past them to prioritize this time for your marriage.

Marriage is built on a series of small decisions compounded over time, either moving toward, or away from your spouse. No team needs the strength of a good marriage more, than the one raising children with trauma backgrounds.   

Next calendar in everything you need to do to get everyone in the family to school, work, doctor visits or therapy appointments, and practices or performances. If you need to email a teacher, pick a specific time to do it, and write it on your calendar.

The magic of this method is that once you put a task on your calendar, you can know it’s as good as done and stop mentally worrying about it. This is space your brain desperately needs.

Next tackle food and housekeeping for your family. We have a day every week for each member of our family to do their laundry and clean a bathroom and part of our floors.

Friday afternoons I schedule time to plan meals for the coming week and place it in a Walmart order, then Saturday mornings I pick it up, and everyone helps put it away. When you can move all these tasks into the habit part of your brain, you will be amazed by the extra energy you have to tackle your days and speak life into your family.  

Take whatever is left on your list of weekly tasks and fit it into your calendar. Especially the first few weeks you do this, you will need to leave yourself extra margin around everything.

You will learn how much time it takes you to get things done, and what measure of empty space you need to function best. It may be one of those weeks where you can’t get everything accomplished, and that’s okay. Maybe you simply don’t need to do that thing, or you can do it next week. 

At this point in your calendar exercise, it may become painful apparent that you simply have too much on your plate to fit it all in. Or you can fit it all in, but just barely, and there is literally no empty space anywhere on your calendar. It’s no wonder you are running on empty and feel overdrawn constantly, your calendar math doesn’t add up.

You need to say no more in this season of life. Read my post about 5 ways to say no with grace, and free up some desperately needed space.

Follow Through

The plan seems pretty straight forward:

1 Task Download – get it all out on paper.

2 Task Planning – prioritize and put it on a calendar.

3 Follow Through – build confidence in yourself by doing it.

But when it comes to following through, we can struggle. When we’re parenting hurting kids, who can be volatile and demanding with the severity of their needs, our best laid plans get highjacked and our energies drained making it difficult to accomplish what we set out to do. Instead of surrendering in defeat, we can employ simple strategies to stack the deck in our favor. 

Breaking overwhelming tasks down into manageable parts, is one of the best tools we can use against projects that feel so big we don’t know where to begin. Think of the task that is currently overwhelming you the most and break it down into six separate parts. For me right now it’s keeping up with my twin’s medical needs and therapy. I could break it up into six steps like this:

Step 1: Check prescription account for the correct order. 

Step 2: Call the doctor’s office to update prescription.

Step 3: Call Medicaid and try to update mailing address.

Step 4: Call Social Worker to update mailing address with Medicaid

Step 5: Practice EMDR at home with Faith

Step 6: Get Hope’s Medicaid switched to managed care

Realistically, I could likely accomplish all of these items in an hour of focused time. But I’ve been stuck resenting them and overwhelmed for weeks, so none of them have been accomplished. We make things appears so much bigger in our minds than they really are when we are overwhelmed, but if we break it down into small steps, suddenly we realize how doable it is. 

Now it’s your turn to do this same exercise for yourself. Pick your overwhelming task, break it into six steps, and find a time to accomplish each step on your calendar. 

Another important tool in following through is how we time things. The first few weeks of writing your tasks in your calendar, you will get a better handle on if you tend to over, or under estimate the amount of time it takes you to complete things. This is good information you can use as you plan the following week. You’ll also need plenty of margin and white space in your calendar.

I like to use this white space to motivate me to complete my tasks more quickly. I know if I get done what I planned to do efficiently, I can use my downtime relaxing or having fun. If I don’t get done what I planned because I’m dragging my feet, I’ll have to complete it later when I’d prefer to be resting. 

Building in accountability to your schedule is another great way to keep yourself motivated and following through. Share your weekly calendar with your spouse, your kids, or a trusted friend.

Plan your exercise with other people. It’s much harder to skip out when you know you’re breaking a commitment with someone else as well. Have a weekly lunch or coffee date with a friend to talk about what you each have been learning in your time with God. 

Consider rewarding yourself for hard tasks completed. Give yourself one hour to pick up the house, then set the timer and reward yourself with twenty minutes of whatever you like to do on your phone, play a game, read the news, or scroll Facebook. I like to get the house picked up and make sure the kids have cleaned up the kitchen in the evening, then I reward myself by sitting down with a cup of tea. 

Sometimes it’s fear that is coming in between us and completing a task. We’re afraid we won’t know how to do it, or we’ll mess it up, so we don’t start. Do a thought download and mind map on your fear and the thoughts driving it. Examine the evidence for and against it. Often doing the thought work is all you need to take massive action on a particular task. 

You can read more about how to do these thought exercises in my book, Faith Forward Adoption, available on Amazon.

I believe one of the reasons we struggle so much with follow through, is a false belief that work and getting things done should always be rewarding and full of purpose. Sometimes it’s just hard, there are tasks at work and at home we just don’t like doing, but we know they need to get done for us to fully live. Embrace the discomfort, and realize it’s just a feeling, and on the other side of discomfort is accomplishing things that are important to me. 

When you make decisions ahead of time, and honor those in the moment, it allows you to begin trusting yourself more. If you’ve made decisions about when household chores will be done, and written or posted it somewhere, you can mentally take that off your list. You have the freedom of knowing they are as good as done. Delegating your mental clutter onto the calendar allows you to be present with yourself and your family. 

Figure out what you need, don’t overthink it, and write it in your planner. When you keep those commitments, you build your relationship with yourself. You can trust yourself to honor your decisions ahead of time. Ask your future self what you would need to remember to follow through on those decisions. It’s really important for you to remember your reasons.