On Parenting Stress & Compassion Fatigue: Tips for Sustaining Momentum
Psychological science tells us that “parenting burnout” is indeed a thing. You don’t have to work too hard to convince any parent about the truth behind this finding nor do you have to provide them with the scientific evidence as they know its impact firsthand. The research is also there and it is plentiful. Burnout leads to feelings of chronic exhaustion, increased inflammation in the body, and an increase in negative emotions like sadness, anxiety, and frustration. Burnout can impact your physical and emotional wellbeing as well as your ability to perform your daily functions.
In addition, health psychology has coined the term “compassion fatigue.” Compassion fatigue results from the prolonged stress involved in caring for someone who is under some kind of chronic duress (physical, emotional, learning, or otherwise). Compassion fatigue can also lead to burnout.
Now, enter our current reality. All families are weathering the current pandemic and the impact of this pandemic is far and wide given the home landscape and individual circumstances around each family. It is not an equitable stress or struggle in any way. Still- in one form or another- every family system has been under a prolonged period of stress (and from a stressor that is quite foreign to them).
Many of us have been home for at least 6 weeks (some more). Our routines have been flipped upside down. We try to meet a multitude of demands and on some days we are more successful in doing so than others. We are tired. Our children are tired. Our nerves are tired. Our teens, especially our seniors, are grieving. Families with caregivers who are essential workers or on the frontline are physically exhausted and emotionally worn. Parenting burnout? Yes. Compassion fatigue? Sure. Or even better- “all of the above.”
Plenty has been written about the unrealistic demands of successfully navigating work, distance learning, and parenting amidst COVID-19. Our children are starting to buck at the work. We are struggling to balance the demands that normally involve a tribe of individuals to help meet the same goals (i.e., an educational system, a work organization, and a domestic home life).
So, what is the potential impact of all of this on our children? In part we know; in part we do not. There is plenty of research on parenting stress and its behavioral and emotional impact on children as well as its toll on the caregiver. Certainly the crux of these findings hold true today. There is also plenty of research on adverse childhood experiences and resiliency. However, it is research that will be published 6 to 9 to 12+ months from now that will inform us more specifically about impact of the current time.
There are some things we know to be true pandemic or not. During a time (any time, really) when our demands can exceed our resources for any given day we need to be extra mindful of our stress, frustration threshold, and ability to regulate our emotions for the sake of sustaining our momentum and safeguarding our personal health and the health of our families. This is no small feat and it will likely involve the conscious decision to alter and suspend conventional ways of thinking and doing things for the time being.
Children (even infants) take their cues for regulating their emotions from their primary caregivers. We are a walking example of emotional regulation and the language that will eventually yield their “internal script” or “self-talk" (i.e., the thoughts they adopt when they talk to themselves throughout the day). Children are highly observant and pick up on the subtleties of our interactions and nonverbal communication as well as our direct expressions.
We, as adults, are also human beings who on a normal day can be challenged to hold it together let alone during a quarantine and global pandemic. Thus here we are in this ripe storm.
What is the answer here? Compassion? Yes. Self-compassion? Absolutely. Mercy? Even better. Let us pause here. Mercy. Ah yes, we need to be merciful.
Mercy is a term that is found in traditions of faith and in the court of law and not so much in social convention or pop media. We hear about compassion. We hear about self-compassion. We hear about mindfulness. We don't often hear about mercy. To be merciful is tied to the idea that one needs to exercise compassionate leniency towards the behavior of another during time of suffering. Doesn't this sound like a powerful option? Compassionate leniency.
What does this mean for us as parents who may be straddling a burnout, are stressed, and overtired? Parents who are trying to keep their homes stable and their children physically and emotionally safe?
It means that we need to loosen up our expectations of what “success” and “productivity” look like in our homes. It means that we need to be merciful in our words and responses to children or teens that are showing stubbornness, resistance, or regression in behaviors and choices. It means we have to be merciful to spouses/significant others who co-parent with us. It means we need to be merciful in the ability to evaluate ourselves in light of what is being expected of us.
The answer is, was, and will continue to be: connection.
This is the bottom line.
If you want to maintain a sense of security in your home amidst an unstable time in the world the most important thing you need to focus on is on the quality of your connection with your children, spouse, and others. It is the singular most important medicine to soothe the anxiety, frustration, irritability, and fatigue of the time.
Remember that behavior is communicative and that changes in behavior offer information about your child's direct and indirect way of coping with change. Changes in food requests, sleep preferences, and in sensory preferences like clothing selection all communicate the need for comfort and soothing. So go ahead--soothe them.
If your children walk away from this period in their lives learning the power of human connection and the security yielded from unconditional love from another human being then they have learned the maximum life skill applicable.
How do we use connection to comfort our children and sustain our parenting momentum during this stressful time?
Hug and embrace them often.
Sing and dance with them.
Listen with extra empathy.
Try to find an opportunity to laugh with them each day.
Suspend productivity goals for relationship building activities on difficult days.
Reorganize the day's routine if need be.
Remind them of a time in their life when they showed great strength and persistence. Use that memory as evidence of how capable they are in dealing with difficult things.
Tell them how are proud of them every day and especially on tough ones.
Tell yourself the same.
Be merciful, friends. Be merciful. Let go. Simplify. Celebrate the small joys and don’t allow those moments to get swallowed up by the stressful ones. Love fully, openly, and generously. It will be your stability and your saving grace during this period.