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Preventing and Recovering from Caregiver Burnout

Updated: Sep 29, 2022

Burnout is a response to chronic stress. Being a parent or other caregiver to a child with high needs can be a source of chronic stress. All parents experience stress from their role as parents and all parents need support, breaks, and space for themselves. Parenting stress is not the fault of any child. Our stress as parents is often due to economic and social factors and a lack of support.

For most parents, the first few years of parenting are intense, but as children age, the level of work requires shifts and changes. Children learn to do more for themselves, requiring less support from parents. Children become more safe at home as they age and no longer need 100% supervision in a babyproofed house. If you’re a parent with children who requires more support and supervision for longer, let’s talk. We weren’t meant to do this alone.

Caregiver burnout is a state of exhaustion that can also come with other unpleasantness like irritation, depressive symptoms, and resentment that results from being a caregiver without adequate supports. It’s also well-established through research that parents of children with various disabilities have higher rates of physical and mental health conditions of their own linked to chronic stress.

In some previous generations, multigenerational households were the norm providing built-in supports for the caregiving of children, older adults, and those with needs due illness, disability, pregnancy, or injury. Communal cultures are still likely to provide support to those who need it. In the US, we tend towards individualism, which can leave many people out, including caregivers and disabled adults. These are some of the contributing factors to why some parents and caregivers find themselves in a place where they need support and can’t get it.

Preventing burnout
It’s hard. It’s hard being a parent. It’s hard having a child or children that need you to be at your okayest all the time. I get it, friend. It’s better to prevent burnout from happening altogether than to have to deal with all of the challenges AND have to give yourself rest to recover from burnout. Here’s my simple (but not easy) recipe for preventing caregiver burnout.

I‘m putting this one first on the list because it’s the most important. When we are caregivers of others, we need support. That’s the same for caregivers of children, older adults, or disabled loved ones. By support I mean, you need others to take over care of your loved one so that you can have regular, sufficient, restoring breaks. This is a time when you can rest and relax or have fun. A “break” to go to work is not restorative. Breaks can be provided by other family or friends or by paid caregivers. Sources of support include those natural supports of trusted friends and family and well-vetted paid caregivers who are paid for by you, other family members, non-profits, or government programs.

Support can also include other ways to mitigate stress. If your child is having some behavior issues, for example, getting in to see a therapist for some resources and ideas that can help your child will also help you. Self-help books or online resources may also provide helpful tips and tools.

Boundaries are rules we make for what we will accept from others and ourselves. In this context, I want you to establish clear parameters around knowing when you need a break. This will look different for everyone. Maybe you notice you’ve yelled at your child out of frustration. Maybe you haven’t been taking care of yourself and notice it’s been a few days without a shower. Maybe you feel like you’ve lost your sparkle. Make a list of ways you know you’re approaching stage critical, so you can heed the warning signs and get support in place ASAP. These are the lines you want to notice you’ve crossed before things get worse. It's also helpful to establish reoccurring supported breaks with a partner, spouse, or co-parent.

Self-care is all the ways you keep yourself alive and well. My personal definition of self-care, which is included in my yet-to-be-published book on self-care and community-care, is any action that restores, maintains, or enhances your health or well-being without taking any collateral damage. There are ways to engage in self-care even without a break, but it works better when you have support in place first allowing you to let go all the way of your parent duties for the time. Whatever this looks like for you is perfect. I like to go to the movies and eat nachos or grab lunch with a friend when I can. I also watch Netflix and read before bed. Another critical aspect of your self-care is self-compassion, which is a warmth and kindness towards ourselves.

Experiencing moments of joy is an excellent elixir. Connect with your child. Laugh with your partner. Teach your dog a trick. Read books that make you feel happy. These. Moments really matter in getting through the hardest times. If you’re having trouble finding these moments, even when you are getting breaks, you may need to consult with a professional about getting help for these symptoms. Burnout can look like depression and can lead to depression as well.

Completing the stress cycle
If you want to learn more about Burnout, look for the book by Emily and Amelia Nagoski. It’s an excellent resource. One of the takeaways from the book (also summarized here or in a longer more in-depth version here) is the concept of completing the stress cycle. Stress lives in our bodies. The pent-up energy doesn’t do us any favors. Completing the stress cycle involved releasing the tension from our bodies physically. So exercise is an option. Hugging—getting a good dose of oxytocin by hugging someone for at least 20 seconds will give us a reset button. And getting sleep—a restful night will also complete that cycle.

Recovering from burnout can take time. The main ingredient to recovery is rest. The others are the ones you use to prevent burnout. You’ll want to continue asking for support, having good boundaries, engaging in self-care, experiencing joy, and working to complete the stress cycle, but you also must make time for rest in ALL areas of your life. It means doing less and easing into things that make you feel well and feel comforted. Rest looks different in different domains. Areas to consider applying rest to recover from burnout include physical, psychological, emotional (feelings), relational, spiritual, psychological, environmental, and professional. This will include allowing others to help and care for you, exercising boundaries and saying no to non-essential activities, and reconnecting with parts of yourself and with something outside yourself.

If you think you may be experiencing burnout, your first task is to reach out to someone you trust to help you and ask. If you are in crisis and need immediate support, you can also contact the National Crisis Line by calling or texting 988. You do not need to be suicidal to access this resource.

Stay tuned for my next blog post on burnout in Autistic teens and adults.

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