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When Parents Burnout

Updated: Jan 17, 2021

2020 was a hard year for most of us. It stretched us in ways that we didn’t even know could be stretched. There was a perpetual hope that there would be a light at the end of the tunnel; that the end would come soon, but it just seemed never ending. I keep hearing about how 2021 is a fresh start that it is a new year and all will be okay. My son even said “the Corona virus is still here? But it is 2021”. It was like we thought that all the problems of 2020 would magically disappear, but the truth is we still need to take each day at a time.

I will always advocate for looking for the positives, for being grateful and challenging negative thinking. These skills will definitely improve our mood and build resilience, but we also need to know when we are drained and heading towards “burnout”. Studies have shown that when parents suffer parental burnout, they ironically become the parent they are wanting to avoid. They find that they distance themselves from their children in an attempt to restore themselves. Unfortunately this damages the relationships around them and causes more parenting struggles. The struggles then compound the parent’s burnout, and the pattern continues. The study also found that parental burnout can eventually lead to parental abuse and neglect (Moïra Mikolajczak, James J. Gross, Isabelle Roskam, 2019)

We know that to help our children to manage their emotions they need a calm adult to regulate with them and work through the difficulty together. We all know that when we have had very little sleep or we are at “breaking point” from over commitments, our tolerance levels are low. We become just as reactive as our kids and end up modelling the behaviour that we desperately want them to STOP.

What is Burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress. That was pretty much the definition of 2020. The stress can be from anything, work, relationships and even day to day parenting. The problem isn’t the intensity of the stress, it is the durations. When you feel like there is no end, you can only last so long before you burnout. The symptoms of burnout can vary. Most of the research has been related to work burnout, but there are some common symptoms that you may notice for any burnout:

  • Exhaustion: Burnout brings an intense exhaustion that no amount of sleep seems to cure. There is a heaviness that doesn’t seem to leave. The exhaustion seems to fill every part of your being; physical, mental and emotional

  • Low motivation/energy: You notice that your willingness to do things has gone. Activities that you use to do with enthusiasm now just seem too hard. An example of this for me was Christmas. I have always loved Christmas, I love decorating, buying or making presents, I love everything about it. But Christmas 2020 just seemed too hard. I had to make myself put up the tree and I found myself wishing for it to be over.

  • Becoming frustrated and cynical: When we are at our limit for stress our tolerance will become lower. You may find that you are snapping at people more often or that your view of the world has become darker. It is okay to have days like this, but if there has been a prolonged change in your mood then you are likely burned out.

  • Reduced productivity: when your motivation has gone you find that you do the bare minimum to get by. This can be with work but it can also be with relationships and parenting. When you don’t have emotional energy for yourself it is very hard to help your child with their often overwhelming emotions.

  • Reduced compassion: When we are depleted, there is literally nothing left to give anyone else. It isn’t that we don’t care, it is just that we can’t spare any more compassion for others. There is a numbness that comes with burnout. Things that once evoked a response now just passes us by.

All of these symptoms seem very similar to Depression. However, there are a few important differences. Depression will usually also include poor self-esteem, intense hopelessness and possible suicidal thoughts. Depression is a serious condition and needs to be treated by a professional.

So what do we do if we are heading towards burnout or we are already burned? Basically you need to do what helps you feel restored. A holiday is great but that is only a short-term solution. You need to put regular habits in place that help you feel better in yourself. Basically if it fills your cup, then do it because this will ultimately help you and everyone around you.

But there is another benefit of practicing self-care. By modelling self-care for ourselves, we are teaching our children that they too need to care for themselves. We are showing them that it is okay to say “no” to things when you are feeling overwhelmed, that you need to eat well and exercise, that we need to do things that make us “light up” make life enjoyable. Self-care can have the same effects in maintaining your child’s mental and physical health as it does for you. After all, surely we want our kids to grow into adults who know how to set boundaries, have health relationships, are able to care for themselves physically and emotionally.

Burnout prevention

  • Self-care: is more than just bubble baths and manicures, although though these can be good too. It is anything that helps us to feel restored rather than taking from us. What makes one person feel “refueled” will be different for another. For some having the house tidy is really important and they prioritise this. For others it’s having time to be creative and paint, it really is different for everyone.

It is so important not to neglect the basics. Sleep, eating well, exercise and having regular health checks are often overlooked when it comes to self-care. One of the best ways that we can care about ourselves mentally is to learn to say “no”. We need to recognise what are our boundaries that keep us feeling like we are coping well and stick to that. This might mean not answering the phone during dinner, not emailing between certain times of the day, saying no to extra commitments. You could be someone who recharges by going out with your friends. If you feel “human” again after a night out with your friends, then this your clue that you need to make time for this. Learning to relax and calm ourselves will benefit every aspect of our lives. You could do this by doing a few minutes of slow controlled breathing, it could be having a gratitude journal to help you to reflect on the positives in your life or it could be getting up before anyone else to have that time of peace and quiet.

  • Restore focus: Often it isn’t what we are doing that causes burnout, it is just the constant drudgery of it that seems to suck the life out of us. Sometimes if we take some time to sit back and think about why we are doing what we are doing, it can help us find the motivation we had lost. Constant parenting managing emotional outbursts, teaching and guiding is exhausting. But when we realise that our goal is to raise emotionally stable people, we start to see the purpose of it all again. If work or other commitments have sent you on the road to burnout, work out why you are doing them. Do you still have the same goals and values? Can you change things so that you have more purpose in what you are doing?

  • Find a Passion: When you are burned out, you need to reignite the fire somehow. This doesn’t mean a new job necessarily, it might be finding a new hobby or interest. What do you love and how can you do it more? If you are burned out you will probably have limited motivation for even this, but you know yourself. Do what you know you have always loved and wait and see if this will restore you to who you know you really are.

Burnout can create a downward spiral. If we are stressed and overwhelmed we can't be empathetic and patient parents. This can then cause us to feel guilty and down we go. Taking care of ourselves helps us to be the best parent that we can be. On top of this we will be teaching our kids the importance of self-care and gives them coping strategies for life.

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