By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
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By Michelle LeBow
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By CP Staff
In its final stage, parent burnout can feel like full-blown depression. The idea of spending time with your kids feels like a burden and this feeling, in turn, generates its own anger, guilt, and confusion. The result can be disturbances of eating, sleeping, and concentration. Your temper may flare to the point of verbal or physical violence, or you may feel unable to get out of bed in the morning to face the day. When parent burnout reaches this degree, its time to turn to someone you trust outside of your home for help before someone gets hurt: your physician, clergyperson, or a qualified mental-health professional.
Every parent goes through some degree of burnout, and most experience it on and off to different degrees over the years. The varying stages and events in your child's development--anything from colic to curfew--will naturally contribute to the ups and downs of parenting. The remedy for the down times lies in the resources you have to bring to the job of parenting: your own maturity, your social and professional support, and the degree of emotional well-being that armors you against the assault. Which of the seven risk factors do you recognize as your own? Which of these can you tackle now, before burnout cripples your defenses? What supports can you enlist within your family? Your neighborhood? Your church or synagogue? Over the Internet and/or through special interest organizations?
Ask yourself what additional resources your child or family might need, knowing that you cannot be everything to everyone at all times. Would the additional support of a school counselor, big brother, coach, or team, would caretaking support from friends or family members help to meet his needs so that you feel less taxed? Would professional support through the school, the clergy, your pediatrician, or a mental-health professional help ease the load? Impossible job that it is, being a good parent often means being able to muster all the resources you need so you don't end up burned out.
Benjamin Garber is a clinical child psychologist, freelance writer and director of Practical Parenting Consultative Services in Nashua, New Hampshire. His two books, Raising Functiona Families and The Co-Parent's Companion are available for $12.95 each from Practical Parenting, PO Box 97, Nashua, New Hampshire, 03060. Dr. Garber welcomes your questions and comments at email@example.com
The Subtlest Hurt of All
In a healthy caregiving environment, a child's primary caregivers contribute loving, supportive, and mutually compatible emotional bricks to the child's growing self. The result is a strong foundation capable of supporting a tall and healthy self. The child raised in this optimal environment may be more likely to develop confidence in himself and be able to invest more emotional resources in exploring and learning about his world.
Emotional abuse, in general, occurs when a caregiver contributes flawed emotional bricks to the structure. Inconsistent, unreliable, demeaning, critical, harsh, and punitive caregivers weaken the structure. Other, healthier caregivers might shore up an abused child's emotional foundation, but such a child may always be prone to question himself, to hold back his feelings, to be self-critical, self-demeaning, and/or harsh and punitive toward others.
Parental alienation occurs, by contrast, when caregivers put a child in the middle of their adult conflict. Alienating coparents may each be able to nurture the child, but by demeaning one another they are implicitly undermining the child's fragile self. Caught in a war zone, the battle between the parents quickly becomes a battle within the child; a battle which can never be won.
Abuse by alienation occurs in many different ways, some worse than others. Although the clearest cases of alienation can be seen between divorcing and divorced parents, alienation is by no means specific to divorce. It's likely that far more damage is done to children who live day-to-day caught between parents who are constantly in conflict.
Indirect Acts of Alienation
Perhaps the most common form of alienation occurs when a child accidentally overhears or unexpectedly witnesses one caregiver's hurtful act toward another. Thinking that Billy is asleep, for example, his mother vents her fury at his father, calling him names. Although she tried to keep Billy away from her rage, the mother has inadvertently hurt her son. If Billy could put the process into words, he might think to himself, "I love my mom and my dad, but she doesn't love him so how can I love him?" and "Is it disloyal to my mom if I love my dad too?"
The same problem is all that much greater when conflicted caregivers make no attempt to keep their rages away from the kids. Although still not openly involving the kids in the conflict, these parents have made no attempt to hide it. Comments like, "Stay out of this!" "Its none of your business! and "Go do your homework!" do nothing to keep the child out of the conflict, and may actually backfire by piquing his or her interest.
Explicit Acts of Alienation
Worse still are those parents who openly engage a child in their conflict, actively inviting a child to take sides. Comments like, "Do you agree with me or your mother?," "Tell your mother I won't be home tonight," and "Whose side are you on?" force a child to make an impossible choice between two (or more) of the people whom he most loves. Somewhere inside, the corresponding choice between parts of himself is equally impossible.