SINGAPORE: When Simon Fernandez* gained full custody of his young kids after the court deemed his drug-addict wife an unfit mother, he had to make massive changes to his daily routine.
The single father got up at 4am to get a head start with his office work, woke the kids up a few hours later, got them ready, fed them, then dropped them off at school. He then travelled to work, but left early to send his kids to extra-curricular activities. All this while, Fernandez was on his phone managing his work obligations.
In the evening, he prepared dinner, helped the kids with their homework, put the kids to bed and finished up his own work before hitting the sack. Fernandez did the same thing the next day, and the next and the next. Upon his supervisor’s advice, who’d noticed he had become highly irritable all the time, the overworked father spoke to a family therapist. Shortly after that, he suffered a stroke.
US-based family therapist Neil D Brown shared this story to throw light on an epidemic many parents are silently suffering from ― parental burnout.
IS PARENTAL BURNOUT A REAL THING?
By now, we already know that parenting is stressful. Trying to get your little ones to cooperate, while taking care of their physical, mental and emotional needs, and juggling other roles is not a job for the faint-hearted.
“While most parents accept the hard work that goes along with the role, they gain satisfaction from it, even though it is stressful,” Brown pointed out. “Parental burnout, however, is a state where the satisfaction goes way down and parenting effectiveness goes down as a result.”
In other words, it’s a stress-related emotional state where parents experience exhaustion and feel futile about their parenting efforts. “So, all those tasks of getting cooperation, soothing feelings, teaching responsibilities and values seem impossible while parents keep putting in more effort just to keep things afloat,” Brown added.
IS THIS CONDITION MORE COMMON TODAY?
Brown, who worked with parents and families for more than 30 years, agreed that parental burnout is more prevalent today than in previous generations. One of the biggest reasons, he said, is the pressure to be the perfect parent.
“We know more today and so we have higher expectations of ourselves. Our connectivity has increased our knowledge of various conditions our kids have, so we have higher expectations to assess and treat our kids,” Brown explained.
Knowing a lot more about child and adolescent development has allowed us to be more informed and better at parenting. However, Brown warned that the many parenting philosophies that are proliferating can also be confusing and the pressure to be a perfect parent and have perfect kids can be destructive.
Another culprit is technology and social media. Rather than staying connected with each other when at home, electronic communication puts pressure on kids to stay engaged with friends, and parents to stay engaged with theirs. Being constantly connected and easily accessible via technology can also keep parents in work mode indefinitely. “This contributes to disengagement in families and makes it harder to connect and feel like a family,” added Brown.
MUMS VERSUS DADS – WHO SUFFERS MORE BURNOUT?
“In general, mothers tend to prioritise other people’s needs more than dads do,” noted Brown. So, they bring it upon themselves to make their children happier, while keeping the home clean and functional. This can undoubtedly add to their burnout.
Stay-at-home mums also suffer parental burnout differently than working mums. “Stay-at-home mums don’t have the opportunity to feel competent and get support and recognition the way working mums do,” Brown pointed out. “They can suffer from social isolation or a lack of recognition for what they do.
Working mothers on the other hand, will experience burnout from not having enough hours in the day to get everything done. “They can feel there just isn’t enough of them to go around. If their job is unrewarding, they can experience burnout in both areas and that could be devastating,” adds Brown.
SIGNS, SYMPTOMS AND CONSEQUENCES
Common tell-tale signs of parental burnout include exhaustion, depression, lowered parental self-esteem or the belief that your kids aren’t as good as other kids. You might also feel a sense of hopelessness ― that nothing you do will make a difference ― irritability and a loss of patience and perspective.
If left untreated, parental burnout will become chronic, affecting not only you, but also how you function as a mother or father. Chronic stress will undermine a person’s immune system and make them vulnerable to a variety of mental and physical ailments.
“When parental functioning goes down, kids won’t get the quality nurturance, limits or support they need and their functioning will go down as well,” Brown said. “Kids will be more susceptible to physical, emotional and behavioural problems. And both parents and kids can exhibit at-risk behaviour such as substance abuse or self-harming thoughts and behaviours.”
The good news is that parental burnout can be remedied ― easily. The first step is admitting to it. “Recognise that your burnout is a condition you are suffering from, it is not a statement of who you are. You can recover,” added Brown. “The most important thing to know is that you are not alone and you are not the only parent experiencing this.”
If you suspect you’re suffering, or on a brink of a burnout, apply these six simple steps to turn your life around today.
1. STOP STRIVING TO BE THE PERFECT PARENT OR RAISE THE PERFECT KID
All your kids need you to be is a good enough parent. Lower the expectations you have on yourself, prioritise specific things to focus on and let go of the other things. “Make small improvements and feel good about it, they will add up over time,” suggested Brown.
Another thing to stop doing right away is to focus too much on raising perfect kids. See your children as individuals and not as entities to be moulded into some idea of perfection, Brown says. “I’ve seen families where parents stuck to a philosophy that was absolutely wrong for their child and that led to serious developmental problems,” added Brown. “There is no such thing as a perfect parent or a perfect kid, so we have to let go of that. It only hurts, it will never help.”
If you’re constantly trying to mould your child against his or her wishes or character the resulting parent-child and parent-teen control battles can add to your parental burnout.
2. RECOGNISE AND FOCUS ON THE POSITIVE THINGS
“This goes along with the idea of letting go of perfection,” noted Brown. Focus on your child’s strengths and have faith that they will continue to learn and grow in the areas that need improvement. The same goes for you, too. “Focus on the things you’re doing well and make small improvements for yourself,” Brown advised. For instance, if you’re good at being organised, recognise its importance in your life and work at setting limits with a more positive tone of voice.
3. FIND SUPPORT
It’s often hard to ask for help, although most of us are more comfortable giving help. So, take this as a challenge to give others the chance to give and yourself to receive.
“Support is critical to healthy parenting and come in many forms ― family, friends, spouse, community resources or a professional,” Brown said. It can also be as simple as having a friendly sounding board, someone who gives good advice or who is just there to bounce ideas off.
Look around you, there are people in your personal life who will support you in ways you haven’t thought about. “For instance, ask someone to spend time with your kids, so you can get a break.”
Also, don’t be afraid to ask more from your kids. “Often we are in a parenting rut where we are trying to get our kids to cooperate and not asking enough of them,” noted Brown. “Raise the bar for standards and expectations of your kids and let them reach that standard and be committed to it in order to earn their privileges.”
So, give your kids tasks to complete around the house before doling out screen time and other privileges. This can be as simple as taking out the trash every night, picking up and putting away the toys or watching over their younger siblings, so you have a minute to put your feet up. It will help ease your workload and teach them responsibility and how to cooperate with others.
“Adults need adult time, we need to feel like people, not just machines who work and parent. We need adult love, sex, and adult fun too.”
4. EXPAND YOUR PARENTING TOOLBOX
“Very often, parents can be more efficient and get much better results with far less effort,” noted Brown. Tools that will add to your efficiency include parenting books and resources, joining a parental support group in your community or speaking with counsellors and professionals who can help as well.
Be careful with the type of parenting resources you reach for, warned Brown, as many of them can overwhelming and add to a parent’s sense of inadequacy. Pick self-help books like the one Brown authored Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle, as they are written in a way that won’t give parents the idea that there is more than one right way to parent.
5. MAKE LIFESTYLE CHANGES
Start with small changes such as support, “me time”, and more efficient parenting. “Once a parent has recognised the state they’re in and has taken some steps on their own behalf, then they can evaluate the major changes they need to make,” said Brown. This can be something as big as changing jobs.
Another change you can make easily is to curb the use of technology, for yourself and your kids. Know that work can wait and be more present when your children are around. Resist the urge to answer every text, WhatsApp or e-mail. It may only take a minute, but it will eat into the precious time you have with your kids.
When it comes to kids, it’s important to have clear boundaries as well. “Parents need to have all the passwords and need to monitor devices, as well as set limits for the specific times they can be used, and a specific place where portable devices go when they aren’t allowed to be used,” Brown suggested.
6. STOP FEELING GUILTY WHEN YOU PUT YOURSELF FIRST
“Me time” is vital to our health. “We can’t give what we don’t have and if we aren’t happy and fulfilled, we won’t be able to help our children be happy and fulfilled,” noted Brown.
It’s like the oxygen mask that comes down on the plane. We’re instructed to put ours on first and then help our children. We aren’t good to anyone if we can’t breathe. “Me time” is that vital and not having it built into our lifestyle is a formula for mental health problems.
“When couples don’t invest non-parenting time into their relationship, the relationship will suffer and the partners will not get their emotional needs met together,” Brown pointed out. Emotional support, being listened to and understood, being validated, or simply to know someone knows and cares about what we feel is vital to mental health ― without it, burnout is imminent.
“Adults need adult time, we need to feel like people, not just machines who work and parent. We need adult love, sex, and adult fun, too,” Brown asserted.
So, go out with your girlfriends, pamper yourself at the spa or take that husband-and-wife-only vacation. The kids will be all right!
*Name has been changed to protect his privacy.
A version of this story first appeared in SmartParents.