- When parents suffer from burnout
Being a parent is not always all it’s cracked up to be. Now, it should be noted that I say this as someone who does not have children, and, to be honest, as someone who isn’t all too fond of children. But every parent I know (including my own, sadly) would agree with me on this.
Children are an immense responsibility and while you do love your children to death (as I am told), that doesn’t always mean you like them. Being a parent means always being switched on and putting your child’s needs first, which is a lot to ask of anyone and this need to be always switched on can often lead to burnout, especially at times like these when you have just bent over backwards to make the festive season memorable for your little one.
But is burnout, and parental burnout, a real thing? And what does it look like? Brunch spoke to Clinical Psychologist and Child, Adolescent, and Family Services (CAFS) Director Dr. Suhaila Shafeek-Irshard for a little more insight.
CAFS is a not-for-profit organisation that provides a holistic and inclusive approach to dealing with mental health and emotional difficulties. Its vision is for all children, adolescents, adults, and families to be able to access the care they need to enhance their mental wellbeing in an inclusive and secure space developed with love and care where children, adolescents, adults and their families experiencing mental health problems, stigma, and isolation can access high-quality care and support. CAFS accomplishes this by building on the concept of ‘HOME’ – a private, secure, and welcoming space where those who enter feel relaxed and at ease and where intimate issues can be discussed and worked through safely.
CAFS also does a lot of work on dismantling the stigma around mental health through awareness sessions and workshops across the country.
Noting that there isn’t a clear, one-size-fits-all definition for burnout, Dr. Shafeek-Irshard explained that burnout is, put very simply, physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion that affects how you behave in other facets of your life.
Burnout can zap the joy out of career, friendship, and family interactions. The most frequent cause of burnout is continual exposure to stressful situations, like caring for an ill family member, working long hours, or witnessing upsetting news related to politics and school safety.
Burnout is most associated with one’s career and being overworked, but it is in no way limited to work and career-building. It is, in essence, a side effect of extended emotional or mental pressure, which is why it is very possible that parents, especially parents of young children, can face burnout, especially around or after the festive season. This is because this is a time of year that sees a lot of pressure put on it to be “perfect”, especially if you celebrate Christmas and even if you don’t.
Reflecting on where the pressure comes from for the holiday season, and on parenting in general, Dr. Shafeek-Irshard shared that the pressure is largely top-down and comes from societal expectations. “Society puts so much pressure on the individual, and then the individual, in turn, puts so much pressure on themselves – the external voice turns internal and we begin assessing ourselves on somebody else’s scale without being mindful on what the best that we can do is,” she said, adding, “The capitalistic world we live in, that mindset of being better or doing better or being a part of that rat race instead of being mindful of what your capacity is and what is right for you and your family also contributes to this.”
And it is this pressure that can often lead to parents being burnt out and not just around the holiday season but at any other point of year too, because the expectations that come with being a parent are monumental, from being able to buy your child the best toys to sending them to the best school, to signing them up for the right extracurriculars (if not all of them).
The festive season heightens this pressure because the festive season is seen as a time that must be “perfect” (cue Arnold Schwarzenegger in Jingle All The Way and all his ridiculous antics to get his son the toy he wanted for Christmas. In real-life, Schwarzenegger’s character would absolutely be dealing with burnout following the holidays).
So what would parental burnout look like?
The tell-tale sign of burnout, Dr. Shafeek-Irshard warned, especially in the case of parents suffering from parental burnout, are exhaustion, irritation, anger, guilt, and the oscillation between so much love for your child and wanting to do your best by them and breaking down and feeling overwhelmed by the pressure to do so.
“Some parents suffering from burnout have told me they dread the company of their children, which is also a crucial sign of parental burnout. This is not to say they love their children any less,” Dr. Shafeek-Irshard stressed, adding: “But that they are overwhelmed and this feeling of dread is always followed by guilt because they love their children and then feel guilty for dreading spending time with them.”
A need for withdrawal or isolation or being very prone to losing your temper and flying into a rage over the smallest thing are also signs of burnout.
“Every parent goes through burnout at some point or another and Covid-19 has seen many parents get burned out because of the extra roles parents have had to play for their children through the isolation of the pandemic – being their parent, teacher, friend, and balancing their own careers and managing the home as well,” Dr. Shafeek-Irshard noted, highlighting that feeling burned out as a parent is something that has become more common in recent years, regardless of how many children one has and whether they are a stay-at-home parent or someone balancing a full-time job as well.
Managing parental burnout
Like all mental health issues, awareness is key to managing burnout healthily. The next is knowing yourself. “Being able to identify when your stress bucket is full, when you’re at tipping point and being able to realistically identify what is important to you and your family rather than comparing yourself to the social ‘normal’ and what other people can do is very important to avoid burnout,” Dr. Shafeek-Irshard explained, adding that in addition to being mindful about your limits, being able to reach out for support is also important, though this is not something every parent has access to, which is why it is important to build a support system, be it family or friends.
Dr. Shafeek-Irshard explained: “It’s also very important to cut yourself some slack without holding yourself to standards of black and white perfection and thinking: ‘If I don’t do it this particular way there will be a catastrophe’. Cut yourselves and your children some slack and understand that things don’t always have to be perfect.”
Handling your kids when you’re burned out
When you’re burned out, being able to do anything properly feels like a stretch, but at these times, more than ever, it is important to communicate with your children, even if it is just to tell them that you are not at your best.
“Even with the youngest children, you must be able to communicate at their level and explain that mummy and daddy need a break and then take some time out,” Dr. Shafeek-Irshard said. “It also helps to have support at these times. If you’re a single parent of a couple who lives away from family, this isn’t always possible, but you can still communicate with your children and let them know that it’s okay and that even adults get overwhelmed and need to take a little bit of time.”
This support system can even be comprised of other parents, if it’s just for a sympathetic ear, because, as Dr. Shafeek-Irshard explained earlier, all parents go through burnout at some point and sometimes all it takes is knowing you’re not alone and that other parents also face the same struggles.
Further, communicating with your children teaches them to also be more flexible in how they approach their own lives. “Whatever the age, there’s always a way to communicate with them and make them understand and show them that it’s okay to let something go when you’re reaching breaking point and that it is not a failure to do so, and that if you’re constantly trying your best, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed just because you couldn’t do something that one time around.”
Burnout is not just an adult problem
Moving away from the topic of burnout because of the festive season, Dr. Shafeek-Irshard also drew attention to a trend she has seen gathering increased momentum, especially now that schools are reopening traditionally again – burnout in kids.
“Currently, there’s this thing where parents have this checklist – their child MUST do X, Y, and Z extra-curricular activity and be part of this society and that club, resulting in both parent and child being completely overwhelmed trying to keep up,” explained Dr. Shafeek-Irshard, adding: “I’m not sure where this need to completely pack a child’s schedule with a million different things comes from, and yes, it is important to keep children engaged, but they, as well as you as a parent, need time to breathe, and by packing your child’s schedule like that you’re setting them up for failure.”
This phenomenon has even become a point of competition for some parents, comparing their child’s activities and how busy they are to other people’s children and this is leading to an alarming increase of incidences of burnout in children, with Dr. Shafeek-Irshard sharing that communication goes both ways and it is important to listen to your children when they are overwhelmed too.
“Overall, we need to learn how to be kind, especially to ourselves,” Dr. Shafeek-Irshard said. “Parenting is hard work and there is no such thing as being a perfect parent. It’s about being a good enough parent and doing the best you can do. We need to start by being kind to ourselves and knowing our own limits, what we can and can’t do, and being okay with making mistakes and learning from them. By doing this, we also teach our kids that it’s okay to be less than perfect.”