Parent Recharge

Compassion Fatigue: it Happens to Parents, Too

Compassion fatigue has long been known as a risk for people who take care of other people, such as nurses, social workers, and firefighters. But it’s important to know that parents can experience compassion fatigue - and even develop burnout - too.

After all, parenting is the ultimate caregiving role. (And we can’t just say “I’m outta here!”)

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion Fatigue (also known as secondary traumatic stress) is a chronic condition characterized by:

  • Frustration

  • Emotional depletion

  • Exhaustion (physical and emotional)

  • Irritability, impatience

  • Feeling ineffective

  • Feeling isolated

  • Having little or no sense of personal accomplishment

  • Lack of empathy and compassion

  • Feeling joyless, and even hopeless

All parents have challenging days and experience some of these symptoms at some point in their lives, but having these symptoms frequently over an extended period can signal serious stress.

If these symptoms aren’t treated, they can develop into a mental health issue, such as depression and anxiety.

Could it happen to me?

Parents of children who struggle are at greater risk of encountering these problems. Studies looking at biomarkers in mothers of children with developmental and behavioral challenges found:

  • Cortisol (stress hormone) patterns that look similar to those found in combat soldiers who have been desensitized to danger due to chronic stress exposure.

  • Weakened immune systems, demonstrating a reduced ability to fight both bacterial and viral infections.

  • Shortened telomeres, which is associated with advanced cellular aging (by as much as ten years in some parents).

  • Poorer sleep quality, which can have negative health consequences.

Here’s how it happens:

Lack of support or validation

Many of us don’t have enough support and we’re hesitant to ask for help. We place impossible expectations on ourselves. Some of us try to keep our struggles private because we don’t want people to judge us or our kids. Some of us isolate because we feel like we’re under siege and the only thing to do is batten down the hatches. Going for days without getting a break is exhausting. Not having our efforts acknowledged and validated is discouraging.

Not seeing progress

We put all our emotional resources into helping our kids because we want them to thrive and we love them more than anything. But sometimes it can seem like all our efforts aren’t yielding any progress, or we get stuck in parenting patterns that aren’t effective. After a while, we start to feel despair. It can seem as if you’re pushing a boulder up the hill - over and over.

The “Giving Tree” effect

Parents like us often put everyone else’s needs before our own. Remember Shel Silverstein’s book about the Giving Tree? The tree gave the boy everything she had - apples, branches, trunk - until all that was left was a stump. Some of us feel guilty about taking care of ourselves when we could be doing “more” for our kids. We might hear about self-care, but actually practicing it seems indulgent - or impossible. We figure we’ll be fine “for now”... until the stress creeps up on us.

What you can do:

Watch for the signs

Pay attention to how stress impacts you. Try to notice if you have symptoms of concern. Are you drinking too much coffee to stay awake? Do you feel tired no matter how much sleep you get? Are you losing patience with your kids? Do you wish you could just be alone? Try to identify patterns in your thinking or behavior that signal the need to make a shift.

Reach out for support

Reach out to your partner or spouse, friends and family. Ask for, and offer, help. People just need to know what they can do. Build a support system for yourself.

Practice self-compassion

You’re not a failure because you experience symptoms of fatigue. It’s not a reflection on your character or your effort. It’s a reflection on the situation, and the fact that you have unmet needs. Catch your internal critic and turn it around. Treat yourself like a friend. You will feel calmer and stronger, and your kids will reflect that.

Cut back

Notice when you’re trying to do too much. Say no to over-committing yourself. Identify priorities and let the little things go. Give up on perfectionism.

Boost your self-care

Lots of self-care advice can seem out of reach to parents like us, but there are practical ways to replenish yourself. Daily self-care micro actions - like drinking enough water, taking deep breaths, finding things to be grateful for, and getting outside - are practical steps you can take to make a difference.

Gain perspective

Sometimes we get so caught up in the day-to-day, we forget to take a step back and consider the big picture. Remember: Our kids are doing the best they can. Not every challenge is as catastrophic as it might seem in the heat of the moment. (If it is, keep breathing and follow your emergency plan.)