Friday, June 1, 2012

Are You Suffering From Parent Burnout?

Do you find yourself yelling at your kids instead of calmly instructing them?

Have snappy, sarcastic words become a normal part of your vocabulary?

Do your children fear you, and I don't mean "fear" as in "respect"?

Do they hit the deck when they see that look in your eyes?

Are you ever afraid you just might lose it?

If you answered "yes" to any or all of these questions {FYI, I did}, then you just might be on the verge of parent burnout.

In my previous post, I mentioned that one chapter in James Dobson's Parenting Isn't For Cowards particularly hit close to home for me. When I read the book, I had been looking for insights into how to best discipline and deal with our two strong-willed children, but then I came upon the chapter entitled "Too Pooped to Parent" and my eyes were opened.

In this chapter Dobson sheds light on five different stages of burnout, offering encouragement to parents exhausted by the pressures of their job. 

The first stage he calls the "Gung-Ho" stage. These are the parents who read all the parenting books when they were pregnant, bought the latest gadgets and educational toys, and have taken every step to provide the best opportunities possible for their little darlings. However, in their commitment to little Johnny, they have neglected everything else: their marriage, their relationships with family and friends, even themselves. To the "super parent," these seem like only small sacrifices. But after years of putting life on hold for their offspring, they begin to crumble under the weight of their responsibility, and the energy exerted in the name of parenting finally reaches its limits. 

The second stage of parent burnout "is characterized by persistent doubts" and frequent irritations with the children that often leaves them screaming at their kids (114). The parents in this stage sense something is wrong but may not realize the cause of their distress. They generally feel fatigued and worn out; some parents even exhibit physical ailments such as upset stomach, neck and back pains, headaches, and hypertension.

If parents continue to give, give, give and not recharge, they will move into the third stage of burnout-- transition--which, according to Dobson, is "the most critical" "because decisions are usually made during this period that will determine the well-being of the family for years to come": either drastic changes will be made or the family will "plunge toward chaos" (118). The parents experience "indescribable fatigue, self-condemnation, great anger, and resentment" and will point the finger at their children as the source of their discontent (118).
"One of the reasons they were so excited about parenthood was their idealistic expectations of what children are like. They honestly did not know that little boys and girls can be, and usually are, demanding, self-centered, sloppy, lazy, and rebellious" (118).
The fourth stage of parent burnout involves pulling away from the family and becoming unavailable to the children. This parent may hide in her room to avoid dealing with the kids. Or she may begin drinking or popping pills to dull the senses. Minor things will set the parent off so that she will react violently out of frustration. At this stage, "child abuse is only an inch away" (119). These parents are filled with guilt and self-loathing, are disappointed with their lives, and are creeping closely to "chronic disenchantment," the fifth and final stage of parent burnout. 

Chronic disenchantment "is characterized by confusion and apathy. The individual at this stage has lost all meaning and purpose in living" (119). Thoughts of suicide or running away begin and the parent is in desperate need of counseling and a change in lifestyle. Fortunately, very few parents will actually get to this phase. 

I must admit that I have been in the third stage of parent burnout for awhile now although I didn't know it until I read Dobson's book. I thought having children would mean being smothered with love and affection, not disrespect, sassy talk, messy faces, and constant attacks on my authority. Plus, being a perfectionist hasn't helped either. I have found that I am perpetually fatigued and stressed, frustrated and annoyed, nagging and screaming at my children, and that is not how I want to remember my parenting years. 

So what's a Mama to do? 

If you too find yourself in any one of these five stages of parent burnout, here are some suggestions for leading a more balanced life:

(1) Reevaluate your parenting goals and expectations. Are they realistic? If not, consider how can you modify them so that they are. 

For example, I never imagined how difficult it would be for babies to learn how to sleep. I always thought that they knew how to fall asleep on their own without my help and so a big source of my frustration as a new mom was learning how to teach my child how to fall asleep and stay that way. My husband has called me "the sleep nazi" because I have gone to ridiculous lengths to help our children sleep, rearranging our plans and avoiding activities that might mess up their naps. I have put our lives on hold at times just to ensure everyone was well-rested, and when the kids have refused to sleep, I have felt tremendous guilt. I eventually came to realize that I cannot make my children sleep no matter how dark and quiet I make their rooms. While I still try to ensure good sleep, I am making a concerted effort not to stress on something out of my control.

(2) Reevaluate your expectations of your child. I think I was a pretty compliant child; however, our two older daughters are not at all. Therefore, it's hard for me to understand their need to assert themselves all day long. I have to remind myself that they were uniquely made, just like me, and to love them the way God created them even if it's challenging at times. 

Also, I have to remember that our girls are simply little girls, not teenagers and certainly not mature adults. When I expect more from them than they are capable of offering, then I am not only frustrated with them, but I frustrate them too. Consider what your children can do and only expect slightly more from them. Remember that they learning just like we are as parents. Reserve punishments for acts of blatant disobedience and disrespect, and patiently instruct them in those other childish accidents and mishaps.

(3) Make time for yourself away from the kids. Notice I said "make" not "take." It's easy to feel guilty about asking for help. I'm speaking from experience. The "super parent" thinks she is able to do everything and then beats herself up when the laundry hasn't gotten done, the dishes are piled up, and there are no groceries in the house. If you have parents or in-laws nearby who are available, ask them if you could drop the kids off for a couple of hours so you can clean the house or run errands. Better yet, go do something you enjoy. For me, that would mean reading or writing at Panera. It's a win-win: grandparents can spend time with their grandchildren and you can take a breather and recharge. If you don't have family or close friends willing to help, then hire a baby-sitter.

(4) Meet your own needs first. You know how on an airplane the flight attendant tells adults that in case of an emergency to put their own masks on first and then assist the person beside them? That's because if you don't have sufficient oxygen yourself, then you can't provide aid to others. Likewise, if you don't take care of your own physical, spiritual, and emotional needs first, then you will not be in top form to attend to the needs of your children. Again, you can't feel guilty for taking care of yourself. 

When you make time each day to shower, get dressed, and make yourself feel pretty, then you'll discover that you have a much better attitude towards your children than if you go for days without bathing and live in sweats. Trust me; I know!

That also means making time to exercise, pray, read God's Word, talk with a friend, whatever you need to do to meet your own personal needs.

(5) Remember the order of your priorities: God first, your husband second, yourself next, and then your children. Let your children see that God comes first and foremost in your life: let them see you on your knees in prayer and reading from your Bible. Let your children see you being affectionate to their Daddy, and give him your full attention in your children's view. Have date nights when your children stay at home while you and your husband go out. But also let your children know by your words and actions that they are loved unconditionally even though their wants and needs might not be met as quickly as they would like. Unless you want egocentric children, you must teach them that the sun does not set at their command.

(6) Seek professional help. If you believe you are nearing or in stage five of parent burnout, I would recommend seeing a Christian counselor.

Parent burnout is real. I have experienced it. In fact, I am working very hard each day to keep it at bay. Life is never the same after having a child, but I am learning that there is a much better way to parent that doesn't involve constant stress and frustration. 

I want to enjoy the short time I have with our children, but I know now that means having realistic expectations of myself as a mother and of our children as little women in training. It also means maintaining my relationships with God, my spouse, family, and friends and making time for myself. 

What about you? Have you experienced parent burnout?  

I would love to hear from you. Know that I am praying for you!

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  1. Been there, done that. :) My baby's a few months older than yours. Hang in there; things will get better.
    I definately remember those trying days of sibling adjustment, trying to get baby to sleep, and coping without enough sleep myself! I recently read that "the secret to more patience is a well rested momma." I've found that to be true! (But not easy!)
    And thanks for your post; I too struggle with perfectionism. The ways I've been trying to cope:
    1) Make it fun. I get less frustrated if I'm washing dishes "to give the children fun water playing time", then if I'm trying to "get these dishes washed". Getting a toddler dressed takes less time when I "waste time" and make a game out of it, then getting into a power struggle. This is not easy for me, but I'm trying. And when I succeed, I have fun too and I feel good about myself as a mom.
    2) I set my timer for 15 minutes and focus on interacting with the children. This stops me from, "i need to change the washer then I'll be back" only to start washing dishes and never get back to the children. When the timer goes off, I can go back to my work without feeling guilty.
    3) As Flylady @ says, "House work done incorrectly still blesses." I have to repeat that to myself everytime the children "help" and end up making a bigger mess than before. Perfectionism again...
    4) Be prepared. Know what you plan to do when disobedience/childishness occurs. I'm less angry when I anticipate and have an action plan. I'm still working on this, tho! Toddlers can tax you far more than Uncle Sam!
    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Paige, I appreciate your encouragement, especially your helpful coping tips! I really need to try the "fun water playing time" with my toddler although I know there will be a huge mess to clean up! I also need to work on giving my kids my undivided attention. Your timer idea would be good for me to try, too. Thanks for sharing them!

  2. WoW! I have to read the book you are reading! This definitely describes me and I have reached stage 5. Luckily, I am in counseling.

    1. Parenting is hard work. There are many days I want to throw in the towel, but thank God for His mercy and patience with me. He entrusted us with these children and they are a blessing, even though at times they don't seem like it.

      I will be praying for you.

  3. I am new to your blog. I was drawn to it because of this post. My husband and I minister to children through adoption. We have been blessed with13 children. I have/am definitely facing this.

  4. Wow, Shonni! You sure have your hands full. But what a blessing to minister to 13 children! Praying God's richest blessings on you.

  5. Oh, my goodness, this brought me to tears. You have SO described me. I would say I am in stage four. I have frightened myself with my yelling and many times have thought that if I was an outsider watching I would think it was child abuse. It's terrible.

    My biggest issue is that until a couple of years ago I have been a stay-at-home mom. Now an uncontrollable situation has forced me to work full time, I can't manage it all, and it feels like every moment I have at home is spent trying to get my five children to do their part in helping our family. Not exactly how I want to spend the few hours a day I have with them! I never realized before that if I'm not there to "nag" them they do nothing. I find it lazy, disrespectful, and selfish. Ugh...then I realize it's partly my fault because when I was home full time I guess I didn't do enough to foster independence and responsibility.

    I'm sorry, I didn't mean to go off on a monologue. I just wanted you to know you seriously touched me. Thanks for being willing to go first and admit you've been there, too!

    1. Lisa, I appreciate your honesty. You aren't alone either. I think most parents struggle with controlling their frustration, and it's difficult whether you are a SAHM or a working mom. As a SAHM, I always feel like I can't get everything done that I want. There are days when I am so focused on cleaning and cooking that I don't spend real quality time with my kids, and then they are frustrated with me. There just aren't enough hours in the day sometimes :)

    2. I feel for you! Don't beat yourself up too much; I'm sure you did the best you knew how at that time.
      I wonder if would be of value to you? On her website there is a page called "Babysteps", which helped me set up a simple morning routine that gets the have-tos done each day. She says that when we write down our routine (for ourselves, without breathing a single nag to anyone else) it helps the children realize what needs done.
      My routine felt weird at first, but after 2 months I am loving it. I hope things start improving for you!

  6. Hi,
    Thanks for the information, I will certainly take it on board. I have reached stage 5! I have 3 children. One is 18 and completely went off the rails nearly 2 years ago and our family is slowly recovering, one is 15 with Aspergers and ADHD and one is just entering teen years. I feel shattered emotionally, mentally and physically and have no extended family support so am now seeing a therapist to look after myself. It is a horrible place to be in, just surviving rather than really living. I hope many people take the advice in your article and catch it early as prevention, ESPECIALLY if they have kids with special needs because unlike a rebellious teen that situation doesn't change so we really need to take care of ourselves. Sadly, I also think that expectations that come within the christian culture and the subtle judgement that goes with it can contribute to parental burnout if things don't go 'according to plan'. I have learned a lot over the last couple of years and hope God can use my experiences in in some way in the future. One thing is for sure though, God has never allowed me to get to complete breaking point. He has provided His presence in some way, through a word of encouragement, scripture, other people praying or some other form of reaching out. He may not remove the cup but will sustain us though whatever journey we have. Thank you.