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5 signs of parental burnout and what you can do about it, according to an expert

5 signs of parental burnout and what you can do about it, according to an expert
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Feel like you need a timeout? Don’t feel bad. Parents need to protect their mental health too.

Happy parents, happy kids, and not the other way around, says Dr Geraldine Tan, a psychologist and director of The Therapy Room in Singapore.

We want to ensure our child’s mind is always in its optimal state. But as parents, do we even give time to protect our mental health as well?

Learn from a psychologist why the two go hand in hand.

Parental mental health

Saying that parenting is challenging is an understatement. It has its own joys and the rewards are definitely priceless, but it can really take its toll on someone – physically and mentally. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US, our mental health as parents and that of our children are connected in multiple ways.

Parents who have their own mental health challenges, such as coping with symptoms of depression or anxiety, may have difficulty providing care to their children, compared with parents who describe their mental health as good.

Moreover, a study revealed that children whose parents are reported to have poor mental health are more likely to have poor general health and mental, emotional and developmental disability. Meanwhile, mentally healthy children are able to function well at home and in school.

Sharing more about the relationship between parents’ mental health and their child’s, Dr Tan pointed out that the parent is the driving force of the child’s mental health. Therefore, it is essential for the parent to take good care of their mental health first.

“Happy parents, happy kids, and not the other way around! Parents came before children. So the children take cues from their parents,” added Dr Tan.

Is being a parent taking a toll on your mental health?

But because of the endless responsibilities and things we need to check off from our to-do lists, taking care of our mental health can seem to be the last thing on our minds as parents. More often than not, we are so preoccupied with thinking of our family’s needs first before our own.

Not only that, some of us even have to juggle our parenting duties with having a career and working from home. The stress and anxiety of ensuring our children are safe and protected during this pandemic have also added to our mental load.

And if you are a mum or a dad who lacks support or resources in this area, then the stress will indeed have a negative effect on your mental health.

Dr Tan stressed that some parents also have to bear the added burden of caring for a child with special needs, which can take a toll on their mental health.

"Caring for children can be very fulfilling, yet at the same time, it requires a lot of energy. It shifts the parent's lifestyle, especially if the child has needs," she said.

"Parents of children with needs may find it difficult to let go as they understand that the world may not be equipped to deal with their children.

"Hence, the children are left vulnerable in the world. The protective role of the parent is then continued for a prolonged period.

"This would impact the parent as they are unable to dedicate time for themselves. Parents are also in a constant state of flux and alertness in order to be there for their children," she added.

Signs of burnout for parents

Well, no one said that parenting was a walk in the park, right? But how do you know if you’re almost on edge and you need to take a break before your mental health suffers?

A study from Clinical Psychological Science defines parental burnout as "intense exhaustion in parents resulting in feelings of detachment from their children and uncertainty about their ability to parent". It can result in negative consequences affecting both the parent and the child.

When your mental resources are stretched to the limit day after day, with caregiving responsibilities, juggling home and work life, and the additional mental load of protecting your child from an infectious disease, burnout cannot be far away.

But, as Dr Tan pointed out, parents need to look after their own mental health before taking care of others. Ideally, we need to do it before we experience burnout.

The psychologist points out the five signs of burnout that parents often miss:

  • They are on high alert all the time

Are you having difficulty relaxing and always anxious about what may happen to your child if you are not around or available for them? Are you easily angered by your child’s tantrums, or do you panic right away if something does not go as planned? Then you may be amid parental burnout.

  • Social life is cut down or non-existent

Our children mean the world to us, but does our world need to revolve around them?

If you are not getting any support from friends and other family members, or you do not feel the need to have other people around you aside from your child, you may need to do something about it and reach out to someone.

  • The exhaustion is dismissed

So much to do, so little time? If you’re tired but feel like you cannot rest because of all the work that you have to do, chances are you may be taking on too much.

  • Their own health suffers

Your fatigue can exhibit many physical symptoms, such as chronic tiredness or sleepiness, headaches or dizziness. Meanwhile, anxiety results in changes in appetite and sleeping habits, increased heart rate, palpitations, chest pains and even digestive disorders.

Parents should watch out for these physical signs as this may indicate that the mental load is already having a detrimental effect on their health.

  • They feel that there is no way out

Do you feel stuck, helpless or alone in your role as a parent? Like the responsibilities just keep piling in, and there is no one around to pull you out of the rut you are in? Then it might be your mind’s way of telling you that you need to take a break.

How to care for your mental health as a parent

The pandemic has certainly affected our ability to socialise – which, let’s be honest, helps us cope with the challenges of being a parent. However, that does not mean we cannot do anything to improve our mental health. 

Reminders for parents

Dr Tan suggests the following things for parents to remember:

  • Be kind to yourself.

Cut yourself some slack. You do not have to be perfect, and we all make mistakes. Remember, what a child wants most is a happy parent.

  • Relieve the burden of care to resources.

If you feel overwhelmed, do not be afraid or ashamed to ask for help. So go ahead and leave your child to a sitter or a trusted friend and relative, and give yourself the break you deserve from time to time.

  • Trust the process.

It will not always be hard. As your children grow and become more independent, you will find that some things will become easier. So stop being anxious.

  • Allow yourself to be pampered.

Whether it’s just a warm bath or a cup of tea after a long day, savour it. Do not feel guilty for doing something for yourself. Self-care is a necessity, not a luxury.

  • Look for a community for support.

You are not alone in this, and plenty of other parents out there are experiencing the same thing. There are great parenting groups on social media where you’ll find mums or dads who get what you are going through. So do not hesitate to reach out.

How to support parents in their mental health journey

Moreover, Dr Tan gives the following suggestions for other family members to help parents look after their mental health.

  • Do not blame the parents. Instead, ask how you can help them.

  • Do not put a lens of judgement on them.

  • Do invite them out and arrange childcare arrangements or a conducive environment where their children can be around.

Parents, look after yourself. That’s one of the best gifts you can ever give your child. If you think you are experiencing parental burnout or are worried about your mental health, don’t hesitate to reach out to a psychologist.

ALSO READ: Children or parents' mental wellbeing - which comes first?

This article was first published in theAsianparent.

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