Special Needs: Prevent Parenting Burnout

You want to do all that you can for your family, but being a “superparent” to a child with special needs can come with a downside — burnout. It’s important to recognize when you might feel that mental and emotional burnout rearing its ugly head. Though it can look different for everyone, parental burnout is often described as a feeling of overwhelming exhaustion and ineffectiveness as a parent paired with emotional distance toward your child. Experts say this burnout may lead to general irritability and frustration; adopting addictive behaviors like drinking or smoking; the onset of sleep disorders and other health issues; and a higher risk of anxiety or depression. It’s easy to see how quickly parental burnout can affect not just one parent but the entire family. 

Parental Burnout

“Parenting is tough, and there is no instruction manual that comes with children,” says pediatric neuropsychologist and licensed school psychologist Amanda Slonaker, Ph.D., HSPP. “Children are a priority, but you as a parent are a priority, too. It’s important to prioritize self-care to be able to be at your best to care for your child.” 

When caregivers feel rested and less stressed, they can put forth their best effort toward their families. This might look like being more patient, having more energy to play, and being more present in the moment rather than distracted by stress.

When parenting responsibilities overlap with work, household chores and other life responsibilities, it can become challenging for parents to make time for themselves. “Most people have heard the saying, ‘You have to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others.’ What gets scheduled gets done,” Slonaker says. 

Tips for Battling Burnout

So how can you battle burnout? Start by scheduling time for self-care. People who prioritize themselves have more bandwidth to be able to help others later. Fortunately, there are many practical steps you and your family can take to fit in little bits of self-care in just five or 10 minutes a day!

  • Take 5 minutes before bed each night to listen to a sleep meditation. Free apps like Calm and Headspace are a great place to start.
  • Find an interesting podcast and listen to it when running errands.
  • Is there a book you just haven’t had a chance to read? Schedule 10 minutes before bed or make it a goal to read just five pages per night. 
  • Call a friend or family member while cooking or folding laundry, or simply take a moment to appreciate the quiet during simple tasks.
  • Take a walk outside.
  • Light candles for dinner.
  • Buy or pick fresh flowers and display them in the house.
  • Eat healthy food, or indulge in something special!
  • Place positive quotes or affirmations on a sticky note and place it on the mirror.
  • Keep a small journal and write three things you are grateful for each morning or night.

If you can manage to find a little more time than five minutes here or there, Slonaker suggests scheduling an “ideal week” on the calendar. Instead of thinking about how your week typically goes, pencil in all the things you’d like to see happen. “What do you have to get done and what would you like to do for yourself if you could? Exercise? Meditate? Have brunch with a friend or family member? Sleep for a full eight hours? Schedule it in!” she says.

Another helpful tip is to make a list of all the things you have to do in the next week or month. Is there anything on the list that you can choose to say “no” to? “By learning to say ‘no’ to activities and people that drain you, you create more time for yourself and those you love which is a lot more fulfilling,” Slonaker says. 

Creating a healthy habit can start by doing just one thing just for yourself a week, and then increasing it as you go along. “This might also mean enlisting the help of a partner, friend or family member,” Slonaker says.

Parents who struggle with self-care on a consistent basis may need to reach out to their support network. “This can be a friend, family member, partner, counselor/therapist, or small group within a church or spiritual community,” Slonaker suggests. 

“No one can push through parenting for years at a time without becoming completely burnt out and exhausted, or even resentful and upset, if they do not focus on their own health and self-care,” Slonaker says. “In reality, you can best take care of others when you take time to take care of yourself. Your children and family are worth it … and you are, too!”

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