Parent Burnout Is Real, Yet Treatable
Parent burnout is real. It often starts small, and can lead to impairment in a parent’s ability to complete their responsibilities towards their children. It can make it difficult to balance work, social, and family aspects of your life. Unfortunately, if a parent feels distress, the children will too.
What Causes Parent Burnout?
Whenever a new child enters the world, things change for the parents. Your sleeping is disrupted. Your time commitments are different. Your typical routine and the pace of life that you share with your partner are completely different. Your finances, your work, your interactions with friends and extended family are all different. There are few things in your world that stay the same. Unfortunately, most parents must balance the needs of a job, school, pets, financial needs, relationships, and other family members with parenting their children. Balancing these needs can be even more difficult if the parent or child has special health needs of any kind, including mental health needs. Children also are notorious for requiring love, attention, patience, and lots of energy and work. Even when parents do things well, children can still tantrum, refuse to eat, or misbehave. Parents may have to manage job responsibilities, even when their children are sick or off school. It is no surprise that many parents feel like they are just getting by, and not doing a good job anywhere. They may feel that they are always spread too thin. These feelings, over time, can lead to burnout.
Are You At-Risk For Burnout?
Some parents have a higher risk of burning out than others. Ask yourself the following questions. If you answer “yes” one or more of the following, research suggests that you may be at risk.
- Are you the parent of an infant or toddler?
- Does your child get up throughout the night (often more than once)?
- Are you a single parent?
- Do you feel unsupported by your partner?
- Are you and your spouse parenting in split shifts, so you don’t have to rely on daycare?
- Does your child have special needs, such as illnesses or mental health conditions?
- Do you feel deprived of adult relationships or friendships?
- Do you or your partner have chronic physical or mental health problems?
- Are you lacking supportive extended family nearby?
- Are you under financial stress?
- Are you experiencing high environmental stress?
- Do you have a supportive workplace that provides time off when you or your child are sick?
- Do you feel good about the quality of your child’s daycare or school?
- Are you also involved in the care of your parents or your spouse’s parents?
Symptoms of Parent Burnout
Not every parent is the same, and not every parent experiences burnout. However, for many people, they find it difficult to recognize their burned out until their symptoms become unmanageable. As typical for many health concerns, it is better to recognize symptoms early to prevent more symptoms from occurring. Below is a list of symptoms that some parents experience.
- Sleep deprivation
- Sadness, tearfulness, or crying
- Chronic guilt about parenting, work, or relationships
- Frequent irritability
- Frustration toward your children and their needs
- Feeling inadequate a parent
- Withdrawal from your children
Treatment of Parent Burnout
Burnout can be like letting the toothpaste out of the tube. Once it’s out, it can’t be put it back in. Feeling better will not be instantaneous, but may take many months to feel normal again. However, it is possible to treat burnout and heal. When you feel better, you may realize you have a “new normal,” and that you are stronger and more compassionate. Below are some suggestions.
Use good self care to help prevent burnout.
If you are parent, particularly one who meets one or more of the high-risk criteria above, you will need to take good care of your physical health. Make sure you get a physical and keep your health strong. Make your physician a part of your team, and take prescription medication as prescribed. Take your vitamins (if needed), exercise regularly, and make regular, uninterrupted sleep a priority. Eat healthy, with lots of fruits, vegetables, and water. Try to resist take-out or eating out, as these foods are less nutritious and often have bigger portions and more calories than parents need.
Take good care of your emotional health
When you are a parent, nothing is more important than your emotional health. Make time every day for you. Take time to relax through yoga or meditation, and practice mindfulness regularly. Using self-compassion to help your manage your expectations and responsibilities can also be very helpful. In these situations, it can also be very helpful to seek mental health treatment. Having a person to talk with, support you, and help you manage your symptoms in a healthier way can be invaluable.
Parenting Doesn’t Have to be Perfect
It is important to remember that parenthood is messy and that that’s okay. We can’t protect our children from everything or prevent bad things from happening, and very few bad things our fault. We can’t control everything that happens to our children. It’s not our fault if our children have allergies or stomachaches or if they cry constantly for other reasons, even after we’ve tried everything we can think of to help. It’s not our fault if our child doesn’t go to sleep easily or wakes up screaming from day one. It’s not our fault that our child’s crying has brought us to tears too. These things do not mean that we’re flawed, weak, or ineffective parents. These things are part of the journey. Your journey as a parent. Your child’s journey. You’ll get through it and you and your child will be okay. You and your child are okay. For many years researchers have studied people who experience traumas or terrifying life events. Some people who go through terrible things don’t end up with many symptoms of anxiety and distress afterwards, but many continue to struggle a great deal with uncontrollable anxiety, fear, and panic. Those who continue to struggle after traumatic events tend to have lingering feelings of responsibility and guilt. They feel like they did something to cause the event, or that they failed to stop it from happening. Even with events like tornadoes or hurricanes people may look back and say things like, “I should have moved twenty years ago when I had the chance.” When we look at the event from the outside, none of us would blame the person for a tornado for hitting their house. We never know when natural disasters will occur, of course. It’s human to feel guilty or responsible when something goes wrong. These feelings are subtle and can be hard even to recognize. It’s important to realize that guilt will not make you parent better or help your child more. If you blame yourself, you are more likely to feel frightened, hopeless, or defeated, which will in turn make it more difficult to take care of your child.
Forgiving Our Imperfections Helps
Forgiving ourselves can be very difficult. It takes a lot of self-compassion and self-acceptance to allow ourselves to be human, but it is important to try. By forgiving ourselves, we give ourselves the emotional space to move forward so we can be better people and therefore better parents. As my son’s first grade teacher often told him, “perfect is boring.” We form friendships or other relationships with people when things are challenging or difficult, not when everything is going perfectly. I met one of my best friends over twenty years ago in a very stressful, very competitive graduate class. We would have never passed the class if we hadn’t connected and studied together, and surviving that class together helped us form a close bond. In the same way, understanding and responding to burnout may help you and your child connect in real, powerful, and perhaps deeper ways than if things had gone perfectly.
Author: Cindy Anderson
Dr. Anderson is a Board Certified Clinical Child Psychologist. She also owns Hope Springs Behavioral Consultants. Dr. Anderson has achieved a high degree of specialization in working with children and families. She holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and completed APA Accredited internship and postdoctoral training in Clinical Child and Pediatric Psychology. She prides herself as a life-long student and tries to learn something new every day.
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