Parental Burnout When You Have a Child with Mental Illness
Once again I’m going to admit something that’s difficult to bring up because that’s what « Life with Bob » is all about–transparency and honesty. So here goes: sometimes I feel burned out parenting a child with mental illness. I have found ways to cope, but parental burnout has still lodged its way into my life and my family’s lives. It’s affected the relationship I have with my son and the relationship I have with myself. What is parental burnout, and what can you do about it when you have a child with mental illness?
Parental Burnout Makes Raising a Child with Mental Illness Even Harder–But Not Impossible
« Parental burnout » means exactly what it sounds like–parents get burned out being parents. Symptoms include:1
- feeling exhausted from parenting
- emotionally distancing from the kids
- believing you aren’t good enough at raising your children
No wonder parental burnout can make raising a child with mental illness even more difficult. Being around my son feels almost impossible sometimes. I feel too anxious and irritated and tired to be his mom. Giving him a bath, let alone negotiating his next tantrum, may take the last shred of strength I have in me. Then I feel guilty. Then I feel pretty certain that I’m irreparably screwing everything up.
Sometimes I wonder if I love my kid enough or if I can handle raising a child with mental illness. I ask myself a hundred questions a day. Am I mean to my little boy? Do I yell at him too much? Am I compassionate enough when it comes to his attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? Am I making his condition worse? Do I spend enough time with him? Am I enjoying his childhood the way I should?
I’ll agonize all morning only to feel emotionally and physically drained all afternoon, parking my son in front of PBS so I can hide somewhere and try to pull myself together again. Or I don’t try, and I take a way-too-long nap instead (if my little boy lets me). It’s a cycle that can take over too many of our days together.
It hasn’t taken over everything, though. Every day my son gets bigger, smarter, and more independent. Obviously, I’m doing something right (or at least not wrong). So what have I learned to do about parental burnout so I can raise my child with mental illness the way he needs me to?
How I Handle Parental Burnout While I Raise a Child with Mental Illness
Part of the reason I’m burned out from parenting a child with mental illness is I exhaust myself trying to do it perfectly. Then I beat myself up when I can’t do it perfectly. Trying to be perfect has made me less perfect, so I’ve had to accept having bad days and making mistakes and being human.
Being a perfect parent isn’t as important as having fun. After all, that’s all my kid really wants to do. When I feel particularly burned out and emotionally distant, I try to do something fun with my little boy. That might mean simply sitting down beside him and really listening to the funny, insightful things he has to say. Sometimes it makes me feel better. I definitely don’t feel worse.
Sometimes I have to rearrange my priorities when I’m burned out. I can’t take a break from parenting a child with mental illness, but I can put other parts of my life on hold. Maybe I can work only 40 hours a week instead of 46. Maybe I’m spending too much time on housework or writing or other people’s problems when raising my child needs more of my time and energy.
Being the mother of a child with mental illness demands self-compassion. I have to be patient with myself. I know when I’m burned out. I know what happens when I get like that, so there’s no point in being too hard on myself. All I can do is try to keep a somewhat positive attitude, drink a little precious caffeine, and get through one 24-hour day at a time.
These days I don’t spend as much time wondering if I love my little boy, either. Of course I love him. I’m genetically predisposed to love him. I love him so much that I have to go numb to it sometimes. If I felt all the love I have for him all the time, it would overwhelm me.
Parental burnout makes raising a child with mental illness more strenuous, but not impossible. As long as we do our best to take care of ourselves and our loved ones, there’s always room to grow as parents and connect with our children.
Do you ever feel burned out parenting a child with mental illness? How do you cope? Share in the comments below. Also, find out why you should stop calling yourself a bad mom in my video, « Parental Burnout While Raising a Child with Mental Illness Doesn’t Mean You’re a Bad Mom. »
- Mikolajczak, M. « Parental Burnout: What Is It, and Why Does It Matter? » Clinical Psychological Science, August 2019.