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This Mother’s Day, reflect on how you can prioritize mommy wellness to avoid parental burnout

You can’t pour from an empty cup, and trying to parent when you’re running on fumes never yields positive results. We’ve roped in occupational therapist practising at Netcare Akeso, Lekutla Mphahlele to help you prevent burnout.

As we approach Mother’s Day, consider adopting a holistic approach to wellness, with a focus on prioritising self-care. While achieving a perfect work/life balance may not always be feasible, recognizing when to take a break is crucial. It’s possible that you have encountered burnout in the past, perhaps overlooking it because you had normalised the experience. So, what are the typical signs and symptoms that may indicate a parent is going through burnout?

“Burnout can be experienced differently but exhaustion, either physically or mentally, and feeling as if you are in “survival mode” all the time are some of the typical signs to be aware of,” says Lekutla. It’s important to note that some parents might experience intense shame and guilt, stemming from a sense of helplessness regarding the stress associated with parenting. “Other signs could include self-neglect and detachment from parental duties and responsibilities,” she adds.

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Glamour: How prevalent is parental burnout, and what are some contributing factors?

Lekutla Mphahlele: Parental burnout is widespread and varies dramatically across cultures. Parental burnout is often overlooked because people have normalised it as ‘common parenting stress’, but there is a difference between stress and burnout. It all starts as stress that is not well managed, and eventually this results in burnout. Some of the contributing factors are unhealthy parenting styles, unbalanced daily activity routines, and lack of spousal and family support.

Parenting works better when one has support, hence the saying ‘It takes a village to raise a child’. There are also socio-cultural factors that may contribute to this burnout, such as gender associated roles and religion- based stereotyping.

Glamour: Are there specific parenting styles or situations that might increase the risk of burnout?

LM: There are various approaches to raising children, and certain methods can undoubtedly heighten the risk of burnout. For instance, parents who are excessively involved and feel compelled to control every aspect of their children’s lives are more susceptible to burnout.

This parenting style aligns with what psychology terms as authoritarian, where parents find it challenging to “let go” and allow their children to explore independently. It often manifests as a rigid stance of “my way or not at all,” reliance on phrases like “because I say so,” and the use of punitive measures to shape behaviour.

Unfortunately, children brought up under such circumstances tend to exhibit more problematic behaviours, leading to increased stress, feelings of inadequacy, and guilt for the parents. Failing to address these emotions and seek assistance can ultimately result in parental burnout. In contrast, the authoritative parenting style is recommended as a healthier approach. Here, parents establish firm, healthy, and realistic boundaries to model behaviour, fostering an environment where children feel secure sharing their experiences. This, in turn, encourages children to become more responsible, allowing parents to carve out some time for themselves.

Situations such as poor financial management and a lack of teamwork between parents can also elevate the risk of burnout. Some children’s needs involve financial considerations, making it imperative for parents to be mindful of how financial factors can impact parenting.

Glamour: What are some effective strategies or coping mechanisms to prevent or manage burnout?

LM: Parents should cultivate the skill of practicing mindfulness throughout their parenting journey. Mindfulness empowers parents to recognise their emotions while maintaining composure in stressful situations. This practice is highly effective in managing anxiety and parental stress, which can otherwise lead to burnout.

A concrete example of mindfulness is taking a step back to attune to the child’s needs and respond thoughtfully, rather than reacting impulsively. Mindfulness fosters self- awareness, attentiveness, and helps prevent impulsive reactions during challenging parenting moments. Additionally, prioritising self-care is crucial, as parents need time to enjoy themselves and engage in activities that hold personal meaning. As an Occupational Therapist, I wholeheartedly advocate for a well-balanced activity routine that extends beyond childcare and addresses the parents’ own self-care needs.

Striking a balance between caring for the child and maintaining the parents’ wellbeing benefits both parties. Practical self-care activities include planned dinners with a spouse, taking walks, gardening, and implementing healthy boundaries. Weak boundaries may lead parents to accept stressful requests and demands from their children and families, contributing to burnout.

Parents, particularly mothers, often experience occupational injustices, where they are deprived and restricted from engaging in meaningful activities due to the constant demands of attending to their children’s needs.

Glamour: How can parents differentiate between normal parenting stress and actual burnout?

LM: There are typical challenges to raising children, which can be stressful but easy to cope with. That is, stress can still be managed and parents can still lead balanced lifestyles and continue with their day-to-day activities. In contrast, burnout is characterised by an imbalance in daily activities, poor emotional regulation and intense exhaustion both mentally and physically, which can cause detachment from parental responsibilities.

Glamour: Are there any long-term consequences associated with prolonged parental burnout on both parents and children?

LM: Research reveals that parental burnout can lead to addictive behaviours, substance abuse, suicide risk, trust issues, separation anxiety and difficulties forming and maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships in the children’s lives. This can result in what is known as childhood trauma, which can be difficult to resolve later in adulthood. Also, prolonged parental burnout can cause distress and conflict in their relationship, which can eventually lead to separation and detachment from immediate family members.

Glamour: How can a parent communicate their feelings of burnout to their partner or family members and seek support effectively?

LM: Expressing concerns about parental burnout to your partner and family can be daunting, as the accompanying feelings of self-inflicted shame and guilt are unfortunately not uncommon. However, this should not dissuade parents from discussing the challenges of parenting. It is essential to normalise conversations about children and seize the opportunity to check in on one another.

Some effective communication skills for parents addressing burnout include choosing the right moment to express emotions in a relaxed and calm manner while keeping it brief. Moreover, it is crucial to refrain from making judgmental statements toward your partner to encourage a non-defensive and supportive interaction.

Glamour: Are there societal or cultural factors that contribute to parental burnout, and if so, how can these be addressed?

LM: Yes, socio-cultural factors such as religion, social class, attitudes and gender can significantly contribute to parental burnout. Surprisingly, research shows that parents with individualistic values in “well off” westernised cultures experienced higher levels of parental burnout, unlike in most African countries where children are raised from collaborative efforts of a family and community. Other societal factors such as beliefs that “women are only good for raising children”, “men are not capable of raising children”, or “children must do what their parents tell them” actually lead to occupational injustices and communities have to work collaboratively with professionals, legislative bodies, and institutions to raise awareness and challenge such beliefs.

Glamour:What role can professional help, such as therapy or counselling, play in managing parental burnout?

LM: Professional help is crucial, and families should seek assistance from professionals upon observing any signs of parental burnout. Occupational therapists and other mental health professionals can support parents in establishing and implementing healthy boundaries, managing their emotions, and providing coping skills to navigate parenting stress. For example, play therapy is advantageous for both parents and children, as it offers a secure space for parent-child interaction and enables parents to address their children’s needs while reinforcing boundaries, thereby enhancing and fortifying the parent-child relationship. Burnout can be classified as a clinical diagnosis, and most medical insurance or health plans include coverage for its treatment.

Glamour: Are there any community resources or support networks available for parents experiencing burnout?

LM: Although there are a lot of online support groups on the internet, parents should be very careful about hopping onto these platforms for safety reasons and related cybercrimes. It is best to consult with healthcare professionals who would be able to link parents to legitimate and viable support networks. For professional help in a mental health crisis, Netcare Akeso’s 24-hour Crisis Line 0861 435 787 is here to help and can provide information about accessing care. Alternatively, institutions such as South African Federation of Mental Health (SAFMH) outlines a list of helpline contacts, professional and support networks for all mental health related services.

Glamour: How can parents create a healthy balance between their parenting responsibilities and their personal needs to prevent burnout?

LM: It is crucial for parents to maintain a healthy, balanced activity routine, placing emphasis on their own self-care. This involves ensuring proper nutrition, engaging in physical activity, and setting aside time for interpersonal connections. Raising children is a dynamic process, and parents’ responsibilities must be adapted to meet the evolving needs of their children. Therefore, it is essential for parents to remain dynamic and well-equipped to navigate this ongoing process. Achieving a perfect balance between fulfilling the needs of both parents and children is vital.

Glamour: Are there any specific warning signs that parents should be aware of that indicate they might be at risk of severe burnout?

LM: Some of the most obvious warning signs to look out for are self-neglect and poor emotional responses to your children’s needs. A parent headed for burnout will often neglect their own self-care and other Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADLs) such as managing their own health, financial responsibilities and housekeeping. Additionally, they would also find themselves feeling frustrated and helpless about their children’s varying needs, eventually distancing themselves from that responsibility.

Glamour: What advice would you give to parents who might be feeling overwhelmed but are hesitant to seek help or support for fear of judgement or stigma?

LM: I would recommend that parents leverage their family support network and assume responsibility for actively seeking additional information on parenting styles and tips. For instance, the internet offers a wealth of information and strategies that can empower parents to be more open in seeking assistance and support.

The fear of judgment plays a significant role in exacerbating parental burnout, but self-stigma can be even more detrimental. Unfortunately, parents frequently stigmatise themselves and subject themselves to harsh self-judgment when the challenges of parenting become overwhelming. It’s essential to remember that while parenting is undeniably challenging, with proper support and the establishment of healthy boundaries, it can also be immensely rewarding and meaningful.

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