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How to Get Out of Parental Survival Mode

Heather Riggleman

Everything just felt “off.” I woke up instantly anxious, and irritable. I couldn’t put my finger on it as I frantically rushed to get the kids out the door and myself off to work. Later when everyone got home, chaos ensued. But then I realized what it was. I was in parental survival mode again.

Every few months something sends a shock through our household that throws us into survival mode. If your family is anything like mine, you're constantly juggling a dozen moving parts. And it only takes a slight deviation from normal for all the pieces to slip from your hands and shatter on the ground: One of your kids gets in trouble at school, gets sick, or possibly worse—you’re sick. Life can be overwhelming; we feel like we are out of control. We definitely aren’t thriving at those points, we are just hanging on, trying to survive.

Survival Mode is stressful, challenging, and discouraging. What exactly is survival mode? Survival mode is the short-term, mode you enter when your fight-or-flight response is triggered. It can be triggered by various things, lack of sleep, anxiety, trauma, loss, or changes in our life like having a baby. Both big and small changes impact us differently, and we may find ourselves acting, saying, and doing things we never thought we would. To the parent who is surviving instead of thriving, here’s the good news, it doesn’t last forever and it won’t always be like this.

What Does the Bible Say About Survival Mode?

We are called to thrive not survive. To thrive means to grow well or vigorously. The answer to trouble, according to the writer of Proverbs is, ‘The fear of the Lord’ (19:23)—that is, living in a relationship with God, trusting in him, respecting and honoring him. He writes, ‘The fear of the Lord leads to life.’ The kind of fear the Bible talks about is to be in awe of God and to fear life without his presence. The author of Psalms puts it this way: “He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper” (Psalms 1:3). 

Psalm 92:12 says, “Good people will prosper like palm trees, and they will grow strong like cedars of Lebanon.”Proverbs 11:28 says, “…but God’s people will prosper like healthy plants.” Other verses to examine are:  Romans 1:17, Proverbs 2:1 and Proverbs 2:5, and Proverbs 11:25. Have you noticed a theme yet? We are like well-watered plants that bend when the wind blows but doesn’t break. We are well established and deeply rooted in God’s word and presence as our source of life. We were created to flourish and bloom no matter what comes our way—even when we’re outnumbered by our ragamuffin offspring—which are God’s blessings to us.

What Are the Dangers of Living in Survival Mode?

The danger of living in survival mode is that we forget where we draw our strength, peace, patience, contentment, and joy. The danger of living in survival mode is we forget who we are and we forget our main focus: raising little humans to become healthy, well rounded adults.

The biggest danger is we lose ourselves. In survival mode, we spend so much time focusing on the stressors that we miss out on the opportunities around us. We miss the beautiful, messy, wonderful life happening around us. We’re too busy rushing, trying to prepare for the worst-case scenarios. Survival mode shuts off the part of us God designed for risks, to go with the flow, or a chance to use our imaginations and instead directs all of precious energy to the part us that too often demands control.

My go-to verse when I was parenting two toddlers, a special needs child, and working as a in home daycare center was Isaiah 43:1-4: But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, (for parenthood) he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

Notice how God didn’t say, you won’t have trouble. You won’t feel stressed and incompetent, and life will be full of rainbows, sunshine, with perfectly behaved children. Even when I was caring for six children all under the age of five, God was there to sustain me as long as I turned to him and not to the stress. We have a choice to make and it is downright freaking hard sometimes.

How Can You Get Out of Survival Mode as a Parent?

First, we need to realize we are in survival mode. Then we need to open our eyes to the triggers and kick it to the curb. You don’t need a magazine photoshoot ready living room. You don’t need to keep up with the Joneses and you certainly don’t need to live up to society’s pressure and expectations. The only person you need to please is Christ with all of your heart, strength, and mind—even when you’re negotiating terroristic standoffs with a three-year-old.

Bring Back the Necessities and Toss Out Everything Else

This means, bring back the basics: Jesus, food, water, exercise, and sleep. No matter what stage you are in terms of parenting, the basics are vital. If your schedules are packed and you don’t get home until eight at night, sit down with your spouse. Decide what activities stay and what goes. Your children do not need ballet, soccer, basketball, and piano to be well-rounded, they need connection and down time with their parental units. This includes dinner at home around the table, even if it’s mac and cheese.

The same goes for sleep. It is the one thing I cannot give up. Even when my kids were little and wouldn’t all nap at the same time, I would drive around town until they feel asleep and I would park the van and do the same. I will never judge a mom I see snoozing in the grocery store parking lot. Get sleep when, where, and however you can.

Also, when it comes to destressing, I turn to Jesus and Jazzercise. Now that my kids are older, I can get up early to spend time soaking in his word and then I hit the studio to release all the tension, stress and aggression that life sometimes builds. This will look different for every mom and the stage she is in. If you’re chasing toddlers and newborns, find a way to get fresh air and a chance to focus your thoughts on Jesus.

Let Go of Guilt and Judgment

In the words of Elsa, “Let it go, let it go.” Let go of the guilt and judgement. These two culprits will trigger survival mode if we aren’t careful. Take stock of what you are doing well and thank God he’s given you the ability to do it. If guilt is keeping you awake at night, dig deeper. There is a big difference between guilt and conviction. If God is convicting you to stop scrolling through Instagram, then put down your phone and focus on the present.

As for judgment, there is so much incredible pressure on parents today. More specifically mothers. Is it any wonder that our culture wants to crush, control, and subdue us? We were the crown of creation before Eve took that fateful bite. Ever since, we’ve paid for it with our bodies, our souls, and our time. We’re told how to look, talk, dress. We’re told how to be a good mom while working a full-time job. We’re told we aren’t contributing to society if we choose to stay at home. We’re told our children will be failures if we don’t keep our house spotless, teach them three different languages and have them potty-trained by the time they’re two.

God did say:

To dress ourselves in strength and to make our arms strong. Proverbs 31:17

To be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and honor our husbands. Titus 2:3-5

To love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Matthew 22:37

God did say for fathers:

To show compassion to his children. Psalm 103:13

To not provoke our kids to anger but bring them up in discipline and instruction of the Lord. Ephesians 6:4

To view children as a heritage and blessing from God. Psalm 127:3-5

Adjust Your Commitments and Expectations

This tip goes hand in hand with the previous two tips. The only commitment we have is to raise children to love the Lord with all their strength, soul, and minds. We are to train them up in the way our children should go, not what the latest trend and advice is on Facebook or Parenting magazine. Adjust your expectations. Yes, your child will challenge you. Yes, you will lose sleep. Yes, they will disobey and have meltdowns. And YES, hormones will turn your middle schoolers into cats who only come out of their rooms when they’re in search of food. On the flip side, you will also want to learn the art of saying, No.

No, you can’t meet up at the park because Elijah really does need to decompress. No, you can’t take on another work project if it prevents you from being home by five p.m. No, you are not signing your children up for any more activities because it would spend on family time. The precious word protects your sanity, your family, and your time.

Parenting is hard. It will push us in ways we never imagined. It will bend us until we break unless our roots are deeply rooted with the God who promises to sustain us. In the meantime, feed your soul and rely on the intuition God gave you to find what is right for you to get out of survival mode.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/evgenyatamanenko


Heather Riggleman is an author, national speaker, former award-winning journalist and podcast co-host of the Moms Together Podcast. She calls Nebraska home with her three kids and a husband of 21 years. She believes Jazzercise, Jesus, and tacos can fix anything and not necessarily in that order! She is author of I Call Him By Name Bible Study, the Bold Truths Prayer Journal,  Mama Needs a Time Out, and Let’s Talk About Prayer and a contributor to several books.  Her work has been featured on Proverbs 31 Ministries, MOPS, Today's Christian Woman, and Focus On the Family. You can find her at www.heatherriggleman.com or on Facebook.