Parenting can be exhausting no matter the age of your child. Infancy brings sleepless nights and toddlers’ tantrums can take their toll. You learn to navigate puberty, friendship trouble, dating drama, and teenage angst. Even when your chickens leave the roost, parents still want to make sure the kids are, as they say, “alright.”
Ask a busy parent if they’re balancing work and play, and most will feign total exhaustion. Often both parents are working long hours both inside and outside the home. Yet they feel less productive than generations before them. Researchers are coining the phrase, “parental burnout.” The term burnout is defined as a combination of exhaustion, inefficacy (feeling less productive and competent), and depersonalization (feeling emotionally withdrawn from people, work, and interests).
Parental burnout doesn’t happen immediately, of course. And nobody expects life to be perfect. It’s a slow burn that accumulates over time along with doctor’s appointments, extra-curricular activities, school functions, birthday parties, family events, work deadlines … and the list can on and on.
Getting a Handle on the Stress
We’re often told not to overschedule our children. Yet we find ourselves overextended at work and at home. Caregivers wear many hats and trying to be all things to all people is unachievable. Trying to do so takes a toll on our health, relationships, and productivity. While everyone has their bumps in the road, chronic stress can create real problems if not managed.
When an individual is in a perpetual state of stress, it can cause more than just insomnia, headaches, depression, irritability, or an upset stomach. Elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol can increase your blood pressure and create problems for the heart and blood vessels long-term, as well as your mental health.
Our bodies are not equipped to handle ongoing emotional stress. And while it may be subjective, changes in your physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being are hard to ignore.
If you find yourself experiencing constant fatigue, frustration, detachment, and a feeling of being overwhelmed by the majority of the time, it may be time to change. It starts with recognizing the ways in which you can shift both your thought process and perhaps changing your routine. Talk to your doctor about your symptoms for additional support in ensuring your overall health.
Parents find themselves taking on many roles while raising their children. And some are also caring for aging parents, working outside the home, or caring for children with special needs. Single parents and those living in poverty encounter additional struggles. The demands of meeting our children’s needs or even meeting our own expectations add to the burnout because parenting is a 24-hour job. There are no timeouts.
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Ask for Help
Asking for help and cultivating a support network can help ease the burdens of carpools, meal preparation, homework, and bedtime rituals. Planning ahead and delegating responsibilities with a spouse, partner, friend or other family member is not only helpful, but it’s also critical. It also may be well-received by someone who wants to feel more involved in your family or could use a helping hand down the road.
Set Realistic Expectations
Comparing yourself with others is futile. What may work for one family isn’t always realistic for yours. Although another person’s life may seem perfect, you can be 99.9 percent certain it is not.
Perfectionists take note – lose the “all or nothing” mentality. Whether it’s planning the perfect party, being the best as a homemaker, the best in your career, or leading every school bake sale and parent-teacher organization, know your limits. Setting unrealistic expectations for yourself may become the same unrealistic expectations your kids create for themselves. And so the cycle continues. After all, you are their role model, and many watch what you do – not just what you tell them to do.
Nobody is perfect and the bar is set only by what your children need – not what you think they need or even what they want. Don’t lose sight of the fact you also play an important role as an individual, spouse, friend, daughter, son, or colleague.
Talk to Your Family
Too often, physical and emotional stress is a result of individuals trying to do everything on their own. That’s because they think that’s what everyone else is doing. Keeping negative feelings inside and not asking for support can backfire and even compound an already stressful situation.
I encourage anyone who feels they are drowning as a parent to have candid conversations with their family. Make sure that everyone is on the same page and doing what they can to keep their lives running smoothly. It shouldn’t be all on one person to do everything.
Sometimes, too, talking to a counselor can put things in perspective and provide an individual the resources necessary to take control and learn how to decompress.
Help for the Different Roles You Play
Common labels – and solutions – for parents often include:
- Chauffer: Hauling your kids to and from sporting events, rehearsals, school commitments, and other social activities can use up a lot of time. Make arrangements with other parents and family members to ease the burden. If you’re waiting for your child, use that time to take a walk, read a book, or grab a cup of coffee. This is multi-tasking in a positive way that nurtures you.
- Counselor: Often we want to fix our children’s problems by giving advice. In other words, we take on our children’s emotional state whatever it may be in the moment. Safety aside, the best thing a parent can do is listen and ask open-ended questions. This helps kids learn how to problem-solve while also letting them know you care. Getting involved in every classroom issue or relationship drama eventually will exhaust you.
- Chef: Preparing nutritious, tasty meals is important. But you don’t have to be Martha Stewart to please your family. Also, you don’t have to make multiple meals in order to please every palate at the table. Your kids aren’t ing to remember last Tuesday’s dinner. But they will remember if you sat down with them and asked about their day. Meals should be savored and not rushed. Ask your children to help you plan or pitch in with the cooking. And once they are old enough, they can prepare their own breakfast and pack lunches. Again, it’s another opportunity to teach them self-sufficiency. You can always sneak a note in their lunchbox for that special touch.
- Coach: Whether you’re cheering from the sidelines or wearing a whistle around your neck, taking part in your children’s activities can be rewarding – unless it robs you of time for yourself. This can leave you feeling torn and drained. We don’t win trophies for being at every recital, game or event. And we don’t earn bad grades on our parental report cards for missing one here and there. If you’re depleted, give yourself a break and send another adoring fan. Take a nap or schedule a massage. You’ll feel recharged and be a better parent for it.
- Cashier: Everything costs money today. And with our children involved in more activities than ever, it comes with a price tag. Whether it’s classes, gifts, costumes, movies, dining out, uniforms, or enrollment fees, it all adds up. And it puts a financial strain on the budget. Aside from not giving in to every request and whim, plan family spend together. Whether your child earns an allowance, works part-time, or just wants the same things as his best friend, creating a plan and sticking to it will help everyone. They’ll see the bigger picture and remove you as the family bank account where only withdraws are made.
It’s OK to use the word so many see as offensive today – “No.” Prioritize what or who needs your immediate attention. And don’t allow yourself to get lost in the shuffle. If you forget about your health and well-being, you cannot provide any type of support for your family. It also sets you up for resentment toward the ones you love. Eliminate the guilt and live in the moment.
At the end of the day, parenting is stressful. And rewarding. And a blessing. And there’s no manual. Putting yourself back into the family picture as someone who deserves rest and reward will hopefully dampen the burned-out feeling. Eat well, exercise often, sleep enough, and incorporate personal interest into your busy routine. And never forget that slowing down to take a breath is a gift in and of itself.
Talk to your primary care provider about how to best handle your stress!
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About UPMC Harrisburg
UPMC Harrisburg is a nationally recognized leader in providing high-quality, patient-centered health care services in south central PA. and surrounding rural communities. UPMC Harrisburg includes seven acute care hospitals and over 160 outpatient clinics and ancillary facilities serving Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Juniata, Franklin, Adams, and parts of Snyder counties. These locations care for more than 1.2 million area residents yearly, providing life-saving emergency care, essential primary care, and leading-edge diagnostic services. Its cardiovascular program is nationally recognized for its innovation and quality. It also leads the region with its cancer, neurology, transplant, obstetrics-gynecology, maternity care, and orthopaedic programs.