The Heat is On

It happens in the work-place and it can happen in your home. It can pounce on you unexpectedly, triggered by something as trivial as an unmade bed, or it can build gradually, eating away your energy, your confidence, your patience, and your tolerance. It can undermine your self-esteem, scar your marriage, disrupt your family, and harm your kids. It's as common as the winter cold but rarely discussed; its sufferers are embarrassed, feeling as if they're weak or have in some vague way failed. Call it parent burnout. It's real and you're at risk.

burnout occurs any time any person is too intensely involved in any activity without relief, without support, and without reward. burnout happens to people of all ages and circumstances who keep all of their eggs in one basket, and then that basket breaks. They feel empty and angry--hopeless, frustrated, and futile. Parents burn out for many reasons, the most common being the nature of the job itself. Raising children is, by definition, a twenty-four-hour-a-day, three-hundred-and-sixty-five-day-a-year, all-consuming, thankless task. Parenting is a skill that can never be mastered and, once begun, it never ends. It may be the most important job you'll ever have but, even if you live long enough, you may never know whether you did it well.

Parenting means pressure. Pressure causes burnout. Sure, raising kids has its rewards. The silent satisfaction you feel, for example, as your toddler quiets in your arms. The smile that breaks through your fatigue as you watch your children sleep. The pride you feel when someone compliments your son or admires your daughter. Even the pat on the back you offer yourself when your teen makes the right choices. But these precious, private moments don't always outweigh the distress caused by those constant skirmishes over what to do and what not to do, where to go and where not to go, how to behave and not behave . . . you know the drill.

And support? What parent hasn't felt alone there on the frontlines doing battle with a defiant six-year-old at bedtime or going head to head with a determined teen over his curfew? Even if you have the good fortune to share the job with an active and supportive coparent, even if these very same battles don't drive a wedge between you and your coparent, real support can seem precious and rare. Far too often parents feel unsupported, and lack of support breeds burnout.

You may be a candidate for parent burnout if one or more of these things are true about you:

* You are or you feel like you are parenting alone. You either don't have a coparent or feel your coparent isn't fulfilling his or her responsibility. Or worse, you feel your coparent is actively undermining your authority with the kids.

* You are low on your own priority list. In an effort to keep the family going, you sometimes miss meals and sleep, forget to bathe, exercise, and otherwise take care of yourself. You believe your needs can wait when, in fact, your children need you refueled and available for them.

* Your child is your life. You and he are best friends to the exclusion of your more appropriate adult relationships and at the cost of your ability to set healthy limits. You have no job, no community ties or other adult connections, or these things are always second after your child's many needs.

* Your child is very assertive, strong-willed and/or defiant (better known these days as "spirited"). In theory you can see how these qualities might get him far one day as an adult, but for now you're tired of the challenges.

* Your child has a serious physical health problem, mental health problem, or learning difference. Advocating for your child's needs can be a full-time job full of frustration and parent-blame, particularly in this climate of managed health care.

* You yourself have a serious physical, emotional, or learning challenge and/or otherwise high stresses elsewhere in your life.

* Very little is secure and predictable in your world. This includes everything from housing to paychecks, from threat of violence to essentials like food, clothing, and medical care. Parents who live with alcoholism and drug abuse, domestic violence, and poverty are at high risk of burnout.


The short-tempered, hopeless parenting fatigue characteristic of burnout typically emerges slowly over time. In its earliest and most common form, you might feel apathetic and restless around your kids. You're distracted, and the quality of your family time together diminishes. In this "pre-burnout" state, you might be accused of having lost your sense of humor and you'll be less able to parent creatively.

This earliest sign of burnout is the feeling that parenting has become a thankless chore filled with nothing but responsibilities. You've lost the joy you once felt or expected to feel. You're still doing the job, but there's no pleasure in it, a state that can leave the kids feeling angry, scared, and confused.  

Without remedy, burnout quickly moves into its second stage, a state of near exhaustion and increasing defensiveness. You overreact easily and often. Your temper is short and your patience nonexistent. You feel like your buttons are constantly being pushed. Because you are becoming emotionally less available, the kids' behavior accelerates in search of your emotional presence, positive or negative. If this cycle continues, you might find yourself dreading time together.

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 protected]

The Subtlest Hurt of All
Parental Alienation

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?"  


Indiscreet Alienation

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.


The Consequences

Alienation rips children in two. In the short run, this kind of pressure and anxiety can appear in as many ways as kids are different: as fears of the dark or monsters, as fears of separation or of school. Some kids become angry and oppositional while others withdraw into depression. The worst outcome, perhaps, is for the child who feels honored to be taken in as mom's or dad's new ally and, in so doing, compromises her childhood.

Younger children may experience more immediate confusion, anger, and sadness in the face of alienating behaviors from caregivers. But they may also have greater potential to rebuild the damaged foundation later in life. Older children may have a sturdier foundation and may therefore be more resilient to those lesser parental skirmishes, but when they're finally drawn into the battle, the damage on self-confidence and -esteem and these children's capacity to engage in healthy relationships later can be profound.


What to Do?

Simply: Don't put the kids in the middle. Conflict is inevitable, but rather than allow those tense moments to become destructive, fight fair. Assume the kids can see and hear you unless its physically impossible. When they do overhear conflict, acknowledge that it's real and talk about their feelings. Don't make it a mystery. Offer reassurance at every opportunity.

If and when separation or divorce occurs, put aside the adult differences long enough to reassure the kids as the coparenting team you will always be: "The love between adults can break, but the love between a parent and a child can never break."

And when you believe your coparent is alienating the kids? First, go directly to the source: talk it over with your coparent constructively. Don't accuse, clarify. If the problem persists, avoid becoming defensive with the kids or retaliating in kind. Take the high road: help the children understand their feelings, always being the best parent you can be. If you can see the world from their point of view, you can help them to identify their emotions. "How does it make you feel to hear that, Billy?" "Maybe you should ask him what that means."

--B.D. G

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