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self-care tips for parents and caregivers

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Parents and caregivers, you are superheroes. You are constantly juggling many different things: work, getting dinner on the table, caring for your kids and family, dropping off and picking up and so much more. Oftentimes the last thing you’re taking care of is yourself — which can lead to feeling burned out. 

Dr. Christopher Min, a pediatric psychologist at CHOC, helps define burnout and how it can affect all areas of your life. And, he offers strategies for parents and caregivers to prioritize self-care to prevent burnout and stay emotionally, mentally and physically healthy.

What is burnout?

Dr. Min defines burnout as a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. With it, comes the sensation of constantly feeling swamped — which can negatively affect your work and your life.

A burnout can be chronic, with feelings of exhaustion happening more days than not for a varying period of time. This exhaustion can affect a person’s mental, emotional and physical health.

Mentally, parents and caregivers may feel overwhelmed and unable to think, says Dr. Min. Emotionally, they can be apathetic and have a detached attitude toward people, with a loss of interest and meaning in their work. Physically, they may feel excessively tired and fatigued.

Feeling burned out may also lead to a lack of professional efficacy. Someone may have reduced feelings of efficiency. However, this does not only affect someone’s work life but home life as well.

What is not burnout?

Dr. Min wants parents and caregivers to know that burnout is not weakness; it is not an indication that someone is mentally weak. In mental health, psychologists have been fighting a stigma that mental health issues arise from lack of effort or not being strong enough. Additionally, there is a mental health stigma that tries to tell someone that burnout is a subjective experience that may be fabricated. That’s completely untrue, every person has a breaking point and limits to what they can handle.

Although burnout can be related to mental health difficulties, it is not a formal mental health diagnosis, says Dr. Min. However, it is possible that depression may be a significant contributor to burnout, and they may be closely linked.

What can cause burnout?

Dr. Min encourages parents and caregivers to pause and think about what is happening in their professional lives and personal lives that might trigger burnout. The following examples could potentially lead to burnout:

  • Stress from acute or chronic events
    • The death of a loved one or pet
    • Parenting a child with special needs
  • Transitions
    • Moving to a new home, neighborhood or city
  • Job stress
    • Working long hours at a demanding job
    • Difficulty with your boss

The COVID-19 pandemic may have caused these additional stressors for some:

  • Economic stress
    • Furloughs, income reduction
  • Family stress
    • Illness – families that have members who are sick or have died from COVID-19
    • For patients without COVID-19, getting access to medical care may have been difficult
  • Job Stress
    • Childcare issues — day cares being closed
    • Working from home while having to help kids with school

What are symptoms of burnout?

Since burnout is not a specific or formal mental health diagnosis, there are no formal symptoms. Therefore, the symptoms are highly individualized. Dr. Min says people have experienced some of the following burnout symptoms:

  • Loss of compassion – feeling like you have nothing more to give
  • Being callous toward people
  • Feeling emotionally hardened or drained — you don’t empathize well because you are having such a difficult time yourself
  • Feeling that what you’re doing — professional or personally — isn’t important

Burnout symptoms for caregivers:

  • Feeling as though challenges related to your child are hopeless
  • Feeling detached from your child or family
  • Decreased compassion and empathy for child – the care feels laborious
  • Loss of patience – snapping at family, feeling like there is not much more to give

How do I prevent burnout?

“Think like a psychologist,” says Dr. Min.  

Dr. Min explains that the No. 1 ethical principle that psychologists must practice is beneficence and non-maleficence: Take care to do no harm.  

Psychologists strive to be aware of the possible effect of their own physical or mental health on their ability to help those with whom they work. Therefore, psychologists must practice self-care to ensure that they aren’t doing harm to others. It’s an ethical issue, not an optional endeavor, says Dr. Min.

The same then should be true for parents and caregivers, he says. They must be well before they can help their children and families be well. It’s much easier to prevent burnout in their lives than to have to dig themselves out of a place of burnout.

For practically dealing preventing burnout, Dr. Min offers caregivers and parents the following tips:

Schedule, schedule, schedule

Build self-care into your routine; this time can be short, but it must be consistent. Dr. Min suggests these simple acts of self-care:

  • Take time to make and enjoy coffee in the morning
  • Take your dog on a walk
  • Look out the window and noticed the trees, people walking by or the sky

Get moving

Physical activity is a natural mood enhancer; this time can also be as long or as short as you want, but it must be consistent. Here are a few easy ways to add some exercise into your routine:

  • Walk around your neighborhood
  • Go on a family hike
  • Ride a bike along the beach
  • Stretch periodically during the day
  • Take the stairs

Prioritize your sleep

It’s been proven that sleep deprivation can lead to lower mood, irritability, anxiety, decreased focus and concentration.

To help you get some much-needed rest, Dr. Min suggests:

  • Strive to sleep for seven to eight hours a night
  • Keep consistent bedtimes and wake times
  • Avoid electronic devices within one hour of bedtime
  • Avoid caffeine intake after lunch
  • Sleep in a cool, dark room

Give yourself a break

This is a cognitive tip because unrealistic, inflexible demands for yourself can accelerate feelings of burnout. You may need to practice reframing your thoughts.

Instead of telling yourself, “I have to finish this report and go to the grocery store tonight to make dinner. If not, I am a failure.”

Say, “I am going to strive to finish work and if I have time, I will go to the grocery store to make dinner.”

The first thought was too black and white; the second offered less stress and pressure while you could still strive to do the things that you know you wanted to do.

Rely on those around you

Social support can help with sustaining a busy, demanding lifestyle. This social support can come from a variety of sources like:  

  • Family
  • Friends
  • School
  • Neighborhood
  • Religious organization

Reduce media consumption

Increased media consumption has proven to lead to increased anxiety and depression. We are living in the information age but having to absorb and process too much information at once can be bad. Instead, consider:

  • Limiting your exposure to news and social media
  • Scheduling time away from devices and news outlets
  • Transitioning the type of media you consume away from television and the internet

Reflect on yourself

None of the previous tips will help if you aren’t aware of how you are doing. Get into the habit of rating yourself on a scale from 1 to10.

  • 1= little to no stress, doing well, no crisis
  • 10= extremely stressed, doing poorly, many crises

Track your rating day-to-day and then if you need to, do something about it.

Access mental health resources, coping techniques and ways to relieve stress — some of these resources are child-focused, but most can be used for everyone.

CHOC’s Mental Health Education Programs offers free webinars to parents on a variety of topics. To view upcoming webinars, view the event calendar.

Get mental health resources now


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