Every parent and caregiver is familiar with the curious paradox: that parenting is the most energy-consuming and emotionally taxing role known to man – yet simultaneously – one of the most emotionally fulfilling and energy-giving roles imaginable, as burnout expert and clinical researcher Lisa Grey explains.
When all is well, the uplifting side of parenting outweighs the stressful and emotionally draining aspects – keeping a mostly positive balance between resources and demands. But when demands outweigh the emotional and physical resources on hand and the scale tips into a negative balance, parents can become overwhelmed and are at risk of parental burnout.
Much like workplace burnout, parental burnout is a state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion that leaves parents and caregivers feeling chronically fatigued, emotionally unstable, sleep-deprived, mentally foggy, and prone to illness. Signs of parental burnout range from; feelings of entrapment, anxiety, irritability, frustration, fatigue, and apathy to depression, insomnia, emotional detachment and feelings of inadequacy.
Parental burnout was first introduced to scientific literature more than 30 years ago and since then, research has evolved our understanding of this phenomenon. According to recent research, parental burnout arises when the rewards and demands of parenting become imbalanced.
The key to avoiding parental burnout is to balance the energy-consuming aspects of caregiving with attitudes and experiences that uplift, replenish and conserve energy.
Here are some helpful strategies for combating parental burnout. Choosing one or two to focus on is a great place to start:
- Know you’re not alone. Letting go of shame and guilt and accepting that how you are feeling is ‘ok’ is the first step towards recovery. Find ways to let go of self-blame and shift your energy to identify what you can change to improve your situation.
- Practice self-compassion. Self-compassion is a consistent attitude towards oneself of acceptance and kindness. Whilst self-compassion takes practice, taking this approach can help parents avoid the trap of needing to be a “perfect parent” and enable them to lean into the uncomfortable notion that we are all perfectly imperfect.
- Ask for help. This can be as small as organising a ride-share for your child to school/ or during lockdown a video call with their friends to allow some space for your own self-care. Or as big as reaching out for professional support from a counsellor. If you are struggling, and symptoms last more than two weeks, appear to be progressing and rest seems to be of little help, it might be time to seek out professional support.
- Establish a routine. Parents and caregivers can reduce burnout by setting clear boundaries, creating house rules and adhering to regular daily schedules. Decision-making is energy-draining and stressful for the human brain. Building routine into your daily life helps to alleviate some of the decisions we are faced with daily and free up brain-space for challenging and novel events that may arise.
- Practice daily self-care. Maybe it’s a short workout, 5-10 minutes of meditation using an app like headspace, or making time to do a face mask after your daily shower. Selfcare is far from selfish—in fact, self-nourishment enables parents to be more present for their families. Making time to reset and recoup may seem like a luxury, but downtime is a necessity for all of us and needs to be a regular part of daily life.
- Take a break. The physiological systems that govern our physical, emotional and mental wellbeing all need downtime to function properly. Rest is an essential tool for burnt-out parents – perhaps one of the most important.
- Fill your body with nourishment. Eating well boosts our mental health, lifts our mood and fosters good energy levels. Focus on eating nourishing meals at regular time intervals and reduce overstimulation from caffeine and processed foods. This helps to balance your blood sugar levels, keeping energy levels and our temperament stable. Eating regular meals abundant in nutrient-dense whole foods also helps to reduce inflammation, support good gut health and boost our immune system.
Lisa Grey is a burnout expert and lead clinical researcher at BePure. Since the beginning of New Zealand’s journey with COVID-19, Lisa has seen an increasing number of clients battling with stress and burnout. Having also gone through her own journey with burnout, she offers unique insight into practical tools to navigate stress and to find the path to recovery.