Parent fatigue is real. While it often feels pretty lousy to manage our parenting responsibilities and compassion in a less-than-optimal manner, it likely occurs most when our resources are depleted. It can be particularly frustrating for our parenting values and to our kids when those resources are diminished due to stresses outside of parent-related tasks such as work, sleep, non-parenting interpersonal difficulties, etc.. Research relating to veterans, clinicians and direct care providers identifies this as ‘compassion fatigue‘, but it makes sense that we can generalize this to parents as well.
We can learn a lot from the strategies employed in professional fields and research concerning compassion fatigue. Let’s look at some of the symptoms and then we’ll explore how parents can increase their resiliency….
Commonly identified symptoms of compassion fatigue:
- Finding comfort through eating or use of substances
- Increased irritability
- Decrease in self-care
- Decreased desire to engage in items previously enjoyed
- Increase in blaming/arguing with others
- Chronic lateness or procrastination
- Diminished sense of personal accomplishment
- Over- or under-sleeping
- Increase in physical discomfort or pain
- Gastrointestinal complaints
- Difficulty balancing tasks
- Emotional or physical exhaustion
- Less ability to feel joy
- Low self-esteem
- Low self-efficacy
- Decreased ability to hear other people’s point of view
That is a pretty miserable list of feelings/behaviors. How can parents protect themselves around parenting/compassion fatigue? Often, caregivers can perpetuate compassion fatigue through ineffective behaviors such as yelling at ourselves, trying to ‘tough it out’ when we are really burnt out or residing in misery without trying to identify a way out. Let’s explore some strategies that can help protect us from parenting compassion fatigue (or find a way out if we are already there!)
- Watch that internal monologue! It can be really easy to find frustrating and negative things when we are experiencing compassion fatigue. Our brain can easily filter in negative thoughts or interpret neutral events as negative when we are emotionally and mentally exhausted. In the same way it is important that we are active listeners toward others, often our self talk can be a great barometer that can both indicate burn out. Fortunately, by simply paying attention and bringing our mind back to how we view/interpret things, we can often diminish the cycle of negativity and compassion fatigue.
- Create self compassion/kindness in your day – Self compassion doesn’t just happen….much like any other act, it is something that we can improve upon through practice and it needs regular attention and practice so we can access it in moments of fatigue. It is also a great meta-teaching tool for our kids. The more we practice self compassion and kindness, the more likely those skills will be accessed by our kiddos.
- Don’t wait, mediate! There are so many advantages and evidence-based research on mediation, that it could easily fit into any self-care article. However, the compassion fatigue antidote that meditation provides is the ability to be less reactive and create space between what we think/feel and how we act as parents. The best part about mediation is that it is free and only takes about 20 minutes a day, 3 times a week to create neurological changes in our brain that provide benefits that go far beyond parenting.
- Socialize (extra credit for hanging with positive people!) – Being with others can seem like the last thing that we want to do when struggling with parent compassion fatigue. However, having ongoing social time with friends or family, particularly when socializing with people that are more positive and compassionate themselves, can promote resiliency to burn out.
- Goldilocks sleeping – Few items can be more calibrating for mental or emotional exhaustion like a good night’s rest. The asterisk for the evening rest, though, is that it is essential to get the right amount of sleep without getting too many or too few z’s. Most research supports 7-8 hours for parents (which can be a challenge when parenting younger kids or older teens!) to help the body and brain regenerate resources for the next day. There are few things that can positive affect our mood than getting a few consecutive good night’s of sleep!
- Do something fun and impulsive – Sometimes emotional fatigue can be elicited by good old fashioned boredom. Do something out of your routine……if possible, bring your kiddo into your impulsive act. It will shake up the compassion fatigue and cause your child to wonder what happened to their regular parent!