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Fighting Family Burnout During the COVID-19 Crisis

2-Jun-2020 9:00 AM EDT, by McLean Hospital contact patient services

Although we do not have current research on how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting families, most parents will tell you that the impact is profound. In a span of just a few days, millions of families around the world found themselves cooped up together in houses and apartments with nowhere to go. Many parents find it difficult—if not impossible—to strike a healthy balance between their work lives and family lives. Plus, their kids no longer have the needed outlets of school and friends and play.

As a result, many parents are experiencing “family burnout.”

What Is Family Burnout?

There are several symptoms of this condition. One is a feeling of exhaustion. With their kids at home 24/7, parents are so overwhelmed that they are having a hard time taking care of even the most basic duties.

Contributing to this problem is the clear and unsettling awareness that their lives are far different than they were just a short time ago. Some parents look at the contrast between their lives as parents pre-COVID-19 and their current role and feel deep frustration. In response, some parents go numb and distance themselves emotionally from their children.

Two kids hug dad

Not every parent dealing with the strains of the pandemic is experiencing family burnout, but there are several risk factors to be aware of. According to Lisa W. Coyne, PhD, parents who hold themselves to unreasonably high standards of parenting are at risk. The need to get it right every time can lead to burnout. “Similarly, those who anger easily or get frustrated quickly may burn out,” said Coyne. “Parents should take stock of their temperament and adjust as needed.”

Single parents or those who receive no emotional support are at risk. Also, individuals with children who have special needs or have physical, emotional, or developmental issues may find themselves more overwhelmed and frustrated than usual as the quarantine goes on.

Workers deemed “essential,” even if they work at home, may also be at risk for burnout. Working at home while caring for kids can be stressful on its own, but the added pressures of performing a necessary task in challenging times can take a serious toll on the health and well-being of a parent. For those who must leave the house for work and leave their children in the care of others, the pressures can be even more intense.

Preventing Burnout

All parents need to take steps to prevent family burnout or address the problem when it arises. Watch for signs of depression, lowered mood, addictive behaviors, sleep disruption, or conflict with your partners. “If you feel like ‘opting out’ of your parental responsibilities, or even neglecting or abandoning your children, it may be a sign of burnout,” said Coyne. “Serious warning signs can include thoughts of suicide and violent acts toward family members.”

As we move through the challenges of the COVID-19 outbreak, all parents need to be mindful of the risks and signs of family burnout. Fortunately, there are many effective ways to fight and treat the condition.

Dr. Coyne offers some strategies to help prevent burnout.

Start Where You Are

Family burnout affects everyone differently. So, take stock of your emotional and physical health and be sure to acknowledge how difficult it is to maintain a healthy family dynamic in these difficult times.

Challenging times can lead to family burnout, but Dr. Lisa Coyne has suggestions on how to keep this from happening

Let Yourself off the Hook

You do not have to reduce your expectations for yourself or your kids even though your circumstances have changed. However, you can shift those expectations and figure out what works best for you and your family. Remember: There is no such thing as a perfect parent.

Create a Safe Harbor

No one should navigate the challenges of the pandemic alone. Fortunately, no one has to. There are many peer-support groups available, both formal and informal. Reaching out for help and engaging with others will reduce your risk of losing your temper and feeling overwhelmed.

Take a Break

Parenting during a pandemic is a full-time job—with forced overtime! Be sure to take breaks. You need downtime and alone time. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to take breaks because of your duties as a parent. Try using a contingency statement, like “Mommy needs 15 minutes. I need you to (read, play, watch). After 15 minutes, we can do something fun. If you interrupt me before the timer is up, then we will have to start the timer again.”

Stay Healthy

Limit your use of alcohol, nicotine, and other substances. Focus on healthy eating and get physical exercise. This will give you much-needed energy.

Mindfulness and Acceptance

You cannot effectively manage stress by dismissing it. Like trying to push a beach ball underwater, it will keep popping up. So, remember that it is 100% OK to feel whatever you are feeling, including feeling angry. Learn to accept your feelings and address your stress as you engage in everyday tasks. Slow down your mind. Label your emotions.

The whole family can benefit from mindfulness exercises to cope with stress and anxiety.

Help Your Kids Help You

  • Model Behavior: Kids learn from what we do, not what we say
  • Label Emotions: Give names to the different emotions your children are feeling
  • Emotion Shifts: Make your children aware of your emotion shifts; for example, let them know that you were mad but now you are happy
  • Get Creative: With the kids home all day, find creative ways to keep them busy by engaging them in projects, chores, and educational activities

Step Back and Slow Down

As you engage with your partner or your children, step back from your thoughts. Slow down and take a moment to ask yourself what you need to do right now. Ask yourself: How do I want to view this moment looking back? How do I want my children to remember this? Doing this allows you to walk away from a potentially damaging situation or reframe your thoughts and actions. You may come to think that no response is best.

ABOUT McLEAN HOSPITAL: McLean Hospital has a continuous commitment to put people first in patient care, innovation and discovery, and shared knowledge related to mental health. In 2017 and 2018, it was named the #1 hospital for psychiatric care in the United States by U.S. News & World Report. McLean Hospital is the largest psychiatric affiliate of Harvard Medical School and a member of Partners HealthCare. For more information, please visit or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

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