Join CARE Counseling and My Talk’s Mom Show as we work to connect Minneapolis Mom’s to Mental Health and Counseling Resources. Special guests this week on The Mom Show includes staff members Shannon Henry and Heidi Bausch as they discuss the concepts of grief and loss.
New research demonstrates parental burnout has serious consequences.
Parents Admitting to Burnout: That’s New
New research published in Clinical Psychological Science suggests that parental burnout can have serious consequences. In two longitudinal studies, 918 and 822 participants were analyzed, respectively. The studies involved the completion of three online surveys per year.
Results indicated that parental burnout has much more severe implications than were previously thought. Burnout was associated with escape ideation—the fantasy of simply leaving parenting and all its stressors—as well as with neglectful behavior and a “violence” category that included verbal and psychological aggression (e.g., threats or insults) and physical aggression (spanking or slapping) directed at children.
The truly remarkable result of this study is that parents responded honestly at all. In earlier research on this topic, the researchers grappled with whether parents would ever respond honestly to questions related to burnout, and whether the construct has any validity if no one will admit to it. It’s human nature to avoid responding honestly to questions that make you look bad, even anonymously! We call this the impression management bias.
What is Burnout?
As defined by the study, burnout is an exhaustion syndrome, characterized by feeling overwhelmed, physical and emotional exhaustion, emotional distancing from one’s children, and a sense of being an ineffective parent. Freudenberger (1974) first coined the term in reference to staff workers. Proccacini and Kiefaver wrote about it in 1984, and then the concept kind of disappeared. Until recently, however, parental burnout hasn’t been systematically studied. I think that’s because the entire concept is taboo.
The thing is, parents aren’t supposed to be able to burn out! We are taught, both explicitly and implicitly, that parenting is so rewarding, fulfilling and wonderful that one smile from a beloved child will instantly fulfill a parent, that the task is so joyful that the occasional difficulties (Meltdowns! Dirty diapers. 2 AM wakeup calls. Dirty diapers at 2AM!) are barely noticed. That’s just plain untrue, and it’s a myth that can harm parents.
Imagine working for this kind of boss: The demands seem to exceed the capacity to satisfy them, and the standard for success is always shifting, with high stakes and a lot of emotional pressure, and no real standard for success. Tasks with no end-date, where the finish line is always shifting, and tasks you can’t escape – those are the perfect conditions for burnout. Teachers experience it. Entrepreneurs experience it. And parents definitely experience it, but they haven’t been able to talk about it.
Oh sure, parents can talk about how work-life balance burns them out, we can talk about the gender gap regarding the mental load of running a home and parenting kids, we can talk about how being a working parent is stressful. But until recently, we haven’t been able to talk about how parenting itself can burn the parent out.
It’s not accidental that burnout makes us think of a depleted battery. When we’ve burned through all of our emotional fuel, there’s no more left. We all know the “supposed to-s” and the “should-s”. Parents are “supposed to” love the act of parenting so much, it recharges them on its own. Parents “shouldn’t” mind being woken up at 2AM, coming late to work, being passed over for promotion because of split priorities, or being the target of teenage angst.
You Can’t Give What You Don’t Have:
It’s true. Our kids rely on us and are frequently helpless. The parenting relationship is crucial to children’s psychological development. Attachment, or the lack thereof, can be damaging. That’s why it’s so threatening to even consider the possibility that parents can burn out. But if we can’t think about it, we can’t do anything to address it.
The thing is, we can’t give what we don’t have. If we’re disconnected from ourselves, we can’t give attachment, love, and nurturing. If we’re under stress, we can’t always respond with patience and model compassionate caring in the face of challenges. Since we are the parents, it’s up to us to know when that’s happening, when burnout is reaching critical levels, and what to do about it.
Neurodiverse Children and Burnout:
The problem is particularly severe when parenting a challenging child. In my practice, I treat parents and families of children with psychological diagnoses. When you’re parenting a child whose presenting problem is anxiety, OCD, ADHD, depression or an Autism Spectrum Disorder, the potential for burnout is so much higher. (For more on parenting a neurodiverse child, click here.)
The world misunderstands challenging children, and it’s up to us to explain them to everyone. Simple tasks, like getting our kids on the school-bus, to brush their teeth, or to eat dinner become massive jobs requiring Herculean effort. Homework time with kids isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time. Try doing homework with a child who erases every letter that isn’t shaped perfectly, or who can’t stick to a task for more than three minutes straight. Then multiply a few siblings, who just have the neurotypical struggles and life demands. Add in some soccer practice, maybe a boss asking for some at-home work and throw in a toothache for good measure. For some people, this would be a nightmare. For others, it’s just called “Tuesday.”
Self-Care IS Child Care:
So many times, when I’m teaching parenting classes, I ask the participants what their self-care was that week. I get responses like this:
Self-care? Who has time for that? I am so consumed dealing with my son. Besides, he needs so much. How can I justify taking time away from something he needs, just to pursue something I like?
Based on this research, I ask parents how often they have escape fantasies, and all agree that they fantasize about their parenting load being lightened. Because this is an interactive class, we’ve already all spoken about the times that stress has led to less-than-optimal parenting strategies, like yelling, or a harsh consequence. (To learn about strategies to predict child behavior, click here. To learn more about using science to inform parenting, click here. To learn more about effective parenting strategies, click here.)
I point to the cell phones recharging on my power bank.
Every parent in this room has a cell phone currently recharging on that power bank. Just like we all know that the cell phones need to be recharged, so do we. When our batteries deplete, we have to refill them.
Personally, I ask myself each week about certain “banks” that need to be filled. Before others can recharge from me, I need to fill up my banks.
I tell my own children when my “cuddle bank” is empty, and I want them to come to me to help refill theirs. I have a “play” bank, a “nurturing food” bank, and “engaging/interesting pursuits” bank, a “sleep” bank, and an “unscheduled time” bank. When one of these banks is running low, I’ve learned to refill it. Let’s not call that self-care. Let’s call that the highest form of child-care – being present. Ironically, it’s that sense of a present parent, that connection, and that attachment, that is associated with the healthiest outcomes. The scariest finding in the research above – burnout prevents parents from being emotionally present with their children. (To learn more about being present and using mindfulness in parenting, click here.)
In 1953, child psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott spoke about being a “good enough” mother. Ironically, in the pursuit of being a “perfect” parent, we tend to burn ourselves out. Social media, with all the images of bento box lunches, Pintrest boards of “fun” braided hairstyles, and moms who brew their own homemade keffir don’t help. Let’s not be “perfect,” or even “great.” Let’s serve peanut butter and jelly for dinner, but have the energy for a cuddle! Let’s be real, because we can burn ourselves out on the path to ideal.
The authors of the study, published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, looked at the correlation between toxicity in the workplace and symptoms of insomnia, a common symptom of clinical depression. They wanted to know how, or via which mechanism, incivility in the workplace negatively affected employees’ sleep quality, as there has been limited research into this factor.
What Is Workplace Incivility?
Workplace civility, as described by McKinsey and Company, is “the accumulation of thoughtless actions that leave employees feeling disrespected—intentionally ignored, undermined by colleagues, or publicly belittled by an insensitive manager.” It has also been defined as “low-intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm the target, in violation of workplace norms for mutual respect.”
Why Quality of Sleep Matters
Sleep is a critical factor in our overall well-being, including our work performance. It has long been established that poor quality of sleep has significant implications for both our physical and psychological well-being.
For example, insufficient sleep increases a person’s risk of developing serious medical conditions, including obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Additionally, lack of sleep over time has been associated with a shortened lifespan.
Effects of Negative Rumination
In examining the indirect effects of workplace incivility on symptoms of insomnia and thus overall health, the determining mechanism was found to be negative rumination, or the mentally replaying of an event or disturbing interaction with a co-worker long after the workday has ended.
“Workplace toxicity leads to adverse effects in part by stimulating people to ruminate on their negative work experiences.” according to the authors. “Negative rumination represents an active cognitive preoccupation with work events, either in an attempt to solve work problems or anticipate future work problems.”
Given that most of us spend the better part of our days and our energy at work, increasing hostility in the workplace doesn’t bode well for our emotional or physical well-being. Research over the past 20 years has associated toxic work environments with increased depression, substance use, and health issues among employees. Further research has shown that organizations are suffering as well. Some of these adverse effects include decreased productivity, lower levels of employee commitment and increased turnover.
Coping Techniques to Reduce Effects of Workplace Incivility
The good news is that sufficient recovery or coping techniques may be able to mitigate the negative effects of a toxic work environment on employee well-being. In particular, relaxation and psychological detachment. The ability to psychologically detach from work during non-work hours and relaxation were shown to be the two mitigating factors that determined how workers were affected or not by a negative work environment.
Employees who were better able to detach psychologically are able to relax after work and sleep better even in the face of workplace incivility. Below are descriptions of these recovery experiences and how they were shown to reduce the negative effects and enable employees to thrive in the most toxic of work environments.
Psychological detachment represents an avoidance of work-related thoughts, actions or emotions. Some of the items used in the study to measure employees’ levels of psychological detachment in the evenings including the following: “I didn’t think about work at all” and “I distanced myself from my work.” Those who were able to detach themselves mentally from this cycle do not suffer as much sleep disruption as those who are less capable of detachment.
Detachment can be fostered through a variety of specific activities, including exercise. Planning future events such as vacations or weekend outings with family or friends are examples of positive distractions outside of work.
It should come as no surprise that prioritizing work-life balance was shown to be another effective buffer against the detrimental effects of workplace incivility. Relaxation has long been associated with fewer health complaints and less exhaustion and need for recovery.
As hypothesized by the authors of the study, relaxation during non-work time served as an important moderator of the relationship between negative work rumination and insomnia symptoms. Additionally, it has been identified as a moderator between work characteristics and occupational well-being, between time demands and exhaustion, and between job insecurity and need for recovery from work. Relaxation provides an opportunity for individuals to halt work-related demands, which is critical for restoring individuals to their pre-stressor state.
Some activities outside of the office that can foster recovery include volunteering, meditation, taking a walk, listening to music, and spending time with friends and other positive social supports.
How Organizations Can Address Workplace Incivility
Based on the results of the study, the authors suggest the following interventions that companies can address to reduce workplace incivility.
- Raise awareness
- Ensure protection for employees
- Ensure accountability
- Train and model appropriate behavior
- Train supervisors on aggression-prevention behaviors
- Improve emotional resilience skills
- Offer training on recovery from work, mindfulness practices, emotional/social intelligence skills
A Word From Verywell
You may not be able to control certain events during work hours or the characteristics of your workplace environment. However, what you do have control over is how you choose to cope. Most importantly, finding time to relax, spending time with friends and family, and engaging in activities that will shift your focus away from work during non-work hours.
If you find that you are still experiencing distressful symptoms and that they are interfering with your functioning, it may be a good idea to speak to a therapist who can help you learn additional strategies for coping.
If despite having done all you can still nothing has changed, it might be time to consider the possibility of removing yourself from the toxic environment and looking for a new, more fulfilling and less distressful job. Your health may depend on it.
I am fascinated with self-development. I see it as an art in itself, and one that takes a lifetime of practice to master.
That said, here are 10 things you can do in your daily life to improve your personal development.
1. Read about what you want to improve.
Do you want to get better at a certain skill? Read about it. Be more meditative? Read books that explain that in detail. Want to be more productive? Spontaneous? Outgoing? Confident? All these topic areas are covered by books upon books that you can study–and by reading about it, it’ll always stay top of mind.
2. Find a mentor.
A mentor can be anyone from a peer who knows something you don’t, and you want to learn, all the way up to someone vastly more experienced who is willing to take you under their wing (in exchange for your working in some way for or with them). Mentorship is by far the fastest path of learning.
3. Reflect at the end of each day.
If you really want to take self-development seriously (and not just, you know, talk about it), you need to be constantly aware of how you can improve. And the only way to know how to improve is if you reflect and ask yourself where and how you still need some work.
4. Create a strong practice regimen.
It’s your habits that unfold the results, not the other way around. You can’t live one life and expect to one day have another. You have to put in place the daily habits that will allow the things you want to change to change.
5. Find others to push you and train with.
Self-development is not just a solo game. In fact, the best self-development is done with others in some capacity. Spend time with people who are working on similar things as you, and you’ll find yourself growing with them at a faster rate than if you had tried to do it all alone.
6. Create a reward/punishment system.
This is necessary for people who need to break bad habits. Sometimes, it’s a reward (or a punishment) that makes the difference between immediate and rapid change, and ongoing fleeting promises.
7. Stay honest with yourself.
No amount of talking about it will ever instigate true change. This is the hardest part for people. It’s far easier to buy a book on self-development, carry it around, and say, “I’m working on being more present,” while staying constantly on your phone to text your friends about how you’re trying to be more present. You have to really be honest about it with yourself. You are your own judge.
8. Find role models you can look up to.
Again, self-development is not easy, so it’s helpful to be able to look to others for inspiration, motivation, or even just daily reminders of how you can continue moving forward on your journey.
9. Measure your progress.
One of my mentors taught me, “If you can’t measure it, don’t do it.” Took me a long time to understand what that meant. Regardless of how ethereal the thing that you want to work on is, you have to find some way to measure your progress. It’s the only way you’ll really know if you are moving in the right direction–and when/where to pivot as you go along.
10. Consistency is the key.
Self-development doesn’t happen overnight. It happens slowly and deliberately. Consistency is what creates truly meaningful change–and this is what makes the process so difficult for people. It’s not that you pop and pill and you’re done. You don’t do it once and you’re “fixed.” Self-development is a daily practice and lifestyle.
Juanita Jensen grew up in a gun family. She doesn’t hunt, but believes in the sport and is used to having guns around.
And as the parents of five children, Juanita and her husband were careful to follow all the rules for firearm safety: Keep the guns separate from the bullets. Lock up everything. Enroll their teen boys in gun-safety classes so they could learn to hunt responsibly.
But despite all of their precautions, they realized just how tough it is to keep guns away from someone who shouldn’t have one.
Most Americans are unaware that suicides — not mass shootings, other murders or accidental gun discharges — account for the majority of gun deaths in the United States, according to a recent survey from APM Research Lab. As many as three-fifths of gun deaths in the U.S. are the result of people intentionally killing themselves.
And in Minnesota, the statistics are even worse: 4 out of 5 deaths by firearms are suicides.
Four years ago, when Jensen’s second oldest was 19, he had a psychotic break and ended up in the hospital. (He didn’t want to talk to MPR News for this story and asked that we not use his name. We agreed to respect his privacy.)
The hospital kept him for three days — what’s known as a 72-hour hold — to see if he might hurt himself or somebody else. Hospital staff didn’t say anything to him or his parents about guns when they sent him home. And with the family’s emphasis on gun safety, and Jensen’s worries about their son’s health, it didn’t occur to her.
“They don’t send you home with … a packet, you know, that said, ‘Listen, the hold is over. We’re gonna discharge him. Here are some meds, just things are good,’” she said.
That was in the spring. By the beginning of the summer, Jensen’s son was worse. Her husband was so concerned that he quietly took the guns — and the ammunition — to her brother’s house in another city.
Then one night in June of 2015, one of their sons woke them up with a gun. “Please do something with this,” she says he told them. He told his parents his brother was upstairs “trying to take his life.”
The 19-year-old had gone to Walmart and bought a shotgun, they learned. His brother had found him just in time.
Red flag laws
Seventeen states have passed red flag laws, which let families petition to have peoples’ guns taken away if there’s reason to believe that they would hurt somebody. In Minnesota, red flag bills have come up in the Legislature a few times, but none have gone through. Some states have seen a drop in suicides as a result of red flag laws.
The night he tried to kill himself, Jensen’s son ended up in the hospital and eventually was committed. That means he was under a court order to follow certain rules, including one that barred him from having firearms. In his case, it was the first time any kind of oversight about guns kicked in.
Commitments are handled at the county level; they require an elaborate set of rules that guarantee the person due process, including medical exams and a judge.
The problem is even though the statute says clearly that a person who is committed may not have guns, it doesn’t say how to get the guns away from the person. So, people like Theresa Couri, who helps handle commitments at the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, are left trying to figure out what to do.
During the commitment process, her office sometimes finds out that the person has a gun or has access to a gun.
When that happens, Couri said, it’s important to get it away from the person. But doing that can be complicated.
“So, what my staff attorneys often do,” she said, “is contact a family member, they will contact a spouse, if it’s a young person, a roommate,” and ask them to go to the house — or wherever the weapon is — to retrieve it.
If they can’t find somebody close to the person, then attorneys call the local police and have them take the weapons.
“I don’t feel that doing nothing is appropriate, so our lawyers engage in activities that I think are consistent with the statute,” said Couri, who was not involved in the case of Jensen’s son. “The statute says a person committed is ineligible [to have a gun]. If we know there’s a gun, we should be taking some action, in concert with law enforcement, to do our best to effect that part of the statute.”
The other thing that happens when a person is committed, whether they are known to have access to a gun or not, is that the person’s name gets reported to the FBI. It’s then added to a confidential list that licensed gun dealers have to check before they sell somebody a gun.
Who can buy a gun?
Kory Krause, who owns the Frontiersman Sports gun shop in St. Louis Park, said would-be gun buyers are required to fill out a form that asks for the person’s identifying information. It seeks not just the basics like name, birth date and address, but also things like height, weight and race. And it includes a checklist of potential disqualifiers, including whether the person has been convicted of a felony or committed to a “mental institution.”
The gun shop submits the form to the FBI, which then has three days to respond, either giving permission for the person to buy, denying it, or asking for more time. The list is confidential so when a person is denied, neither the seller nor the buyer are told why. Krause said it’s rare that a person who knows he’ll be denied bothers to try buying a gun.
What does happen, though, is people who want to hurt themselves will occasionally come in to buy a weapon. And if they’re not on the list, then it’s up to Krause and his employees to recognize the potential danger and stop the sale.
Krause said he’s never gotten any official training to identify somebody in a mental health crisis, and that he and his employees rely on experience and intuition. They might get suspicious if, say, an old man comes in and wants a revolver and only one or two bullets, or if the person physically can’t operate the gun.
He said if he thinks a person might try to hurt himself, he’ll refuse to sell and call the police to check on the person. But he knows a person who is suicidal will at times slip through.
“We know that when they walk out that door, what they do with it could be good or bad,” he said. “It’s an unfortunate component of the business.”
There are other loopholes or gaps that let people get guns when they shouldn’t, including private sales, which aren’t subject to background checks.
Juanita Jensen’s son is doing better, following the rules of his treatment and living on his own. He could eventually petition the state to be allowed to have guns again.
This reporting is part of Call to Mind, our MPR initiative to foster new conversations about mental health.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingofSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.
If you or someone you know has had guns taken away because of mental health concerns or if you have tried unsuccessfully to get guns taken away from somebody because of mental health concerns, we’d like to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-290-1061.
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Cultivating resilience can lead to greater confidence, autonomy and mastery.
There is a consensus among professionals that ‘mental health’ is a positive state where an individual is flourishing, thriving and meeting their full potential in life. There are many cognate terms for ‘mental health’ including subjective well-being, quality of life or simply happiness.
Another term commonly used in relation to positive mental health is ‘resilience’. This phrase is actually borrowed from engineering, where it refers to the ability of a physical material to withhold external stress. A resilient material thus has hardiness, flexibility and strength.
What is Mental Health Resilience?
In psychiatry, the phrase is used similarly, referring to the ability of an individual to handle stress and adversity. It is sometimes referred to as ‘bouncing back’ and can be particularly important after people have experienced difficult circumstances such as losing a job, divorce or bereavement.
Research on resilience indicates that it is not a fixed attribute, but can change over time. Indeed, individuals can cultivate resilience, though this can require time and effort.
In fact, the road to resilience often involves pain and struggle, as does the mastery of any new life-skill. For example, learning to ride a bike often involves falls, cuts and bruises, but results in a new-found ability and autonomy. The same can be said for the resilience-enhancing strategies described below.
Evidence suggests that the acquisition of new skills can play a key role in enhancing resilience. Skill-acquisition helps develop a sense of competency and mastery, which can be deployed in the face of other challenges. This can also increase self-esteem and problem-solving ability.
Skills to be learnt depends very much on individual circumstances. For some, this will mean learning cognitive and emotional skills that may help everyday functioning, for example active listening. For others it may involve pursuits, hobbies, or activities that involve the mastery of new competencies.
This is explored in the insightful documentary below, detailing how the acquisition of art skills enhanced resiliency among a group of people with mental illness. Interestingly, skill-acquisition in a group setting maybe especially effective, as this gives an added benefit of social support, which also fosters resiliency.
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Much research indicates that the setting and meeting of goals facilitates the development of resilience. This helps develop will-power, as well as the ability to create and execute an action plan. Goals may vary in size, depending on individual circumstances, but often involve a series of short achievable steps.
For one person, it may be related to physical health, for example exercising more regularly. For another, it may be related to social or emotional goals, such as visiting family and friends more frequently. Goal setting that involves skill-acquisition, for example learning a new language, will have a double benefit.
Interestingly, some research indicates that goal-setting involving a sense of purpose and meaning beyond the individual self (e.g. volunteering or religious involvement) can be particularly useful for resiliency. This may give a deeper sense of coherence and connection, valuable in times of trouble.
This involves the slow and gradual exposure to anxiety-provoking situations, thus helping individuals overcome debilitating fears. Numerous studies indicate that controlled exposure can foster resilience. Controlled exposure can offer a triple benefit when it involves skill-acquisition and goal-setting.
For example, public speaking is a valued skill that can help people advance in life. People who are fearful of public speaking can acquire this skill through setting small goals involving controlled exposure. They can start with an audience of one or two friends, progressively expanding their audience over time.
A controlled exposure action-plan can be self-initiated, or developed in tandem with a therapist trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Again, successful efforts will result in increased self-esteem, as well as an enhanced sense of mastery and autonomy. This can be harnessed to surmount future challenges.
An amassed body of research suggests that resilience can be developed and cultivated over the life course through simple (though challenging) self-initiated activities. This often involves discipline, will-power and hard-work, but the results will be bountiful: greater autonomy, mastery and confidence.
Try it and see for yourself.