Parental Compassion Fatigue Is Real

When we care for others who are experiencing trauma, it can affect us, too. Learn more about compassion fatigue from an expert at Harbor Oaks Hospital.

As parents, we nourish, clothe, bathe, love, schedule, listen to, advise, counsel and support our children. Add in the coronavirus pandemic with online school and work, and the role of parent just took on the tasks of teacher, Wi-Fi manager, IT technician, troubleshooter and problem solver.

Layer in concern for the whole family’s overall mental and physical health, and it’s safe to say many of us are struggling. A relevant study published by the American Psychological Association found that nearly half of parents of kids younger than 18 report high stress levels related to managing their kids’ online learning.

When we absorb the stress and trauma of those we love, we are susceptible to something called ‘compassion fatigue,’ a set of physical and emotional symptoms often seen in medical professionals, social workers, police and EMTs.

“Compassion fatigue in parents and caregivers is related to secondary trauma that we absorb from someone else in the work we do,” explains Christina Burnett, director of clinical services at Harbor Oaks Hospital, a New Baltimore-based treatment center for those struggling with addiction, psychiatric and behavioral disorders. Burnett sees compassion fatigue in the counselors and behavioral health workers she supports.

Compassion fatigue can show up as irritability, mood swings, tearfulness or vague, pervasive hopelessness. “We also find that for people who tend to tell themselves that they can just deal with it, compassion fatigue presents as physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, tension in the neck and shoulders, sleeplessness, even chest tightness,” Burnett says.

The symptoms can happen all at once, or they can creep up. “A lot of people don’t realize it’s happening,” Burnett explains. “We tend to tell ourselves to just hold on, that we are having a bad day and to keep going.” But the pandemic, with its never-ending feel, make a bad day turn into much more. “We have a bad day, then a bad week, a bad month, a bad summer. We tell ourselves to keep pushing through,” she says.

The effect on parenting

When you suffer from compassion fatigue, you can lose your ability to effectively care for your children — and worse, it can have a negative effect on your children, too. “You may be cranky, irritable and yelling at your kids or avoiding them. They don’t understand that it’s not about them, but about the pandemic, about job loss or finances or stress. They think it’s about them,” Burnett says.

What’s different about today’s trauma and stress is the never-ending feel of the pandemic. “There’s widespread hopelessness and it’s real,” Burnett says.

So, how can we move forward? Burnett offers these tips for easing parental compassion fatigue.

Awareness and mindfulness

“Awareness isn’t just about recognizing the symptoms, but about recognizing what you have control over and what you don’t,” Burnett says. You do have control over what you have for breakfast and what you might make for your children for lunch. You do have control over what movie you might watch as a family.

Larger issues related to pandemic responses, online learning and whether or not your Wi-Fi is working smoothly — these are issues over which we do not have control. “At Harbor Oaks, we practice the art of staying in the present moment and accepting reality the way it is, rather than judging it or wishing it was different,” Burnett explains.

Gratitude

“Make a list before you go to bed. What are five things you are happy about or grateful for that day? Your kids didn’t fight over the remote? Great. That’s a win,” Burnett says. Maybe you were able to achieve a task. Consider it to be awesome.

“In cognitive behavioral therapy, we help people determine if their beliefs are helping or hindering them because when you talk about your life in a way that is possible, your brain starts to believe it,” she says. “It’s not about being positive, but about being realistic. When you feel better, you are more active and energetic and more capable and have more ability to cope.”

Journal your moods

“Identify what you feel and rate it on a scale of zero to 10. Are you anxious or nervous or angry? When you see yourself creeping up to eight or nine on the scale, that’s a good indicator that it’s time to take 10 minutes and get yourself down to a level where you can better manage,” Burnett explains. “It’s helpful and a nice way to increase self-awareness.” Being able to make these adjustments is empowering and puts you in a mindset where you recognize you don’t need to just push through, but step back and adjust.

Finally, consider talking to a therapist

“Trying to coordinate online school for kids and keeping them busy all day is exhausting and irritability and resentment are normal. If you have intrusive thoughts that don’t go away or happen often, it’s a good time to get some help,” Burnett says.

Harbor Oaks Hospital can offer referrals to resources that can help you cope. “We are here. If we aren’t the right fit, we can help you find what you need. We are happy to help you get connected,” Burnett says.

Learn more about Harbor Oaks Hospital at harboroaks.com.

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