If your child has an eating disorder, then there’s a good chance you’re dealing with parental burnout. This describes a parent who is mentally and physically depleted. This depletion can lead you to feel like you are failing at parenting, and, unfortunately, parental burnout is associated with worse behavior from kids. This creates an unfortunate loop of the parent being burned out, the kids behaving badly, and the parent getting even more burned out, and on and on.
There are many reasons to address parental burnout when there’s an eating disorder, but the three most important reasons are:
- Parents who have burnout deserve care and support – they are no less important than their kids.
- Parents who are burned out are less able to support their child through recovery.
- Kids whose parents are burned out sense there is a problem and may act out more, making things even harder.
An eating disorder is a major family crisis, and a depleted parent will be less effective at getting through to the other side. But burnout is not your fault. It’s a failure in the systems that should be supporting you. I’m so sorry this is happening. I hate that we don’t have better systems of care so that you don’t have to be burned out. But this is where things stand today: if you have a child with an eating disorder, you are probably burned out.
So I’ll give you some ideas for what you can do to help yourself recover from parental burnout. But first, let’s get started with more about what parental burnout is and its impact on family life. I’m afraid that if you don’t fully understand the consequences of burnout you won’t get the care you need to succeed.
What is parental burnout?
Feeling stressed while parenting is normal and expected. But parental burnout goes beyond expected levels of fatigue and means that you are exhausted and overwhelmed. When you are burned out, you struggle to function.
When you become burned out, your ability to respond to both everyday and high-level stressors is reduced. Parents who are burned out feel physically and emotionally unable to connect with their kids, which can, unfortunately, lead to even more struggles with parenting.
A 2021 study conducted by researchers at Ohio State University found that parental burnout has reached dangerously high levels since the Covid-19 pandemic began, particularly for working parents. The study found that:
- 66% of parents report feeling burned out
- Women are more likely to feel burned out than men
- Parental burnout is increased in households with 2-3 children, plateaued with 4-5 children, and increased again with 6 or more children
- 77% of parents who had a child with ADHD and 73% of parents who had a child with anxiety reported parental burnout
- 72% of parents who were concerned that their child could have an undiagnosed mental health condition reported burnout
Basically, burnout is common and responsive to how many kids you have and whether your kids have mental disorders.
What is the impact of parental burnout on kids?
Parental burnout can make it feel impossible to drag yourself through the day and you may feel like a failure in every aspect of your life. I’m so sorry about that. Unfortunately, parental burnout also impacts kids, which typically means they get even harder to manage than before. This can feel like an impossible situation, but don’t worry: I’m going to give you some solutions soon!
Parental burnout is strongly correlated with depression, anxiety, and increased alcohol and substance use in the parent. Parents who are burned out are more likely to insult, scream at, criticize, and spank kids. All of these factors have significant negative impacts on kids’ behavior. In other words, when parents do these things, kids get even harder to handle, leading to even more burnout. It’s a vicious cycle.
Kids whose parents are burned out are more likely to exhibit attention issues, internalizing behaviors, and externalizing behaviors. Here’s what this looks like:
- Fidgety, unable to sit still
- Daydreams or zones out too much
- Has trouble concentrating
- Is easily distracted
- Feels sad or unhappy
- Is down on themselves
- Worries a lot
- Feels hopeless
- Seems to be having less fun
- Refuses to share and may take things that don’t belong to them
- Does not understand other people’s feelings
- Fights with other children
- Blames others for their troubles
- Teases others
Source: Journal of Pediatric Psychology
And while I don’t have direct data linking parental burnout to eating disorder behaviors, you probably recognize some of the above symptoms in your child. They are all signs of distress, and while there can be a lot of reasons that kids are distressed, having a parent who is burned out is a major stressor for any child.
Why is parental burnout common when kids have an eating disorder?
It’s probably pretty obvious why parents who have a child with an eating disorder are at high risk of parental burnout. The constant stress of having a child with a major mental disorder is exhausting, and it can feel as if you have no options. The healthcare system does an inadequate job of helping parents who have kids with eating disorders cope. In fact, many times there is no support for parents or the advice is ignorant and even harmful. It’s rough. I’m so sorry.
Based on the data available, we know that 72% of parents who worry their child has an undiagnosed mental health condition, 77% of parents who have a child with ADHD, and 73% of parents who have a child with anxiety report they are suffering from burnout. I think it’s safe to say that at the bare minimum 72% of parents who have kids with eating disorders have burnout, though I would guess it’s even higher based on my experience.
And it’s no wonder. Our healthcare system is not structured to adequately and comprehensively care for people who have eating disorders and their families.
Recipe for parental burnout with an eating disorder
Burnout was initially recognized in the workplace. Here’s the recipe for burnout when you’re facing an eating disorder:
- Lack of control: having a child with an eating disorder means you feel you are unable to influence their health, and you may lack the resources you need to parent effectively.
- Unclear job expectations: you are likely unclear about the degree of authority you have or what your child who has an eating disorder, their treatment team, your other children, your spouse, and others expect from you. It’s unlikely you feel comfortable while parenting, which is stressful.
- Dysfunctional dynamics: you may feel bullied by the eating disorder, micromanaged by your child’s anxiety, criticized by your other children, and undermined by your partner or spouse. This contributes to parenting stress.
- Extreme activity: parenting with an eating disorder is typically chaotic. The constant demands placed on you, combined with the fear and anxiety about your child’s disorder demand intense energy in order for you to remain focused on the task at hand, which can lead to fatigue.
- Lack of social support: most parents who have a child with an eating disorder feel isolated and unable to talk about what they are dealing with when talking to friends and family members. This lack of support leads to more stress.
- Imbalance: parenting a child with a mental health condition takes up so much time and effort that it seems impossible to invest energy in your own needs and pursue activities that fill you up. As a result, you can easily feel depleted.
How do you know if you have parental burnout when dealing with an eating disorder?
Many times you can sense that you are burned out. It’s completely fine to self-diagnose yourself. In general, be on the lookout for these symptoms of burnout:
- Changes in sleep and/or appetite
- Mood swings
- Feeling like a failure
- The sense that you are underwater
- Complete overwhelm
What sets parental burnout apart from regular stress is that it negatively impacts daily functioning. Basically, you are less productive and effective and struggle to accomplish tasks that used to feel manageable.
What can you do if you are burned out from parenting a child with an eating disorder?
I know you have a lot going on with your child’s eating disorder. And while you need to continue the work of helping your child recover, you also need to care for yourself. As you know, when parents are burned out, kids do worse, not better. So if your lifestyle right now is leading you to burnout, then it’s essential that you get the support you need and deserve to feel better. Recovering from burnout takes effort, which is cruel since the primary symptom of burnout is the lack of energy to do anything. But you need to invest in yourself to recover from burnout. The consequences of not recovering are serious, so please reach out for help!
Recovering from burnout is not unlike recovering from an eating disorder. It is essential to your health and wellness, and when you are burned out, everyone suffers. So this is not optional or selfish. You need to recover from burnout to operate effectively as a parent. Here are some ideas:
1. Do less
It’s time to “Marie Kondo” your life. You probably have a lot on your plate right now. And there are a lot of things that were previously enjoyable and wonderful that may not be bringing you joy right now. Look at your life critically and decide what you can stop doing. This is urgent. Can you stop driving the kids to school? Maybe your child can unload the dishwasher so you can stop doing it. Can your neighbor walk your dog? List as many things as possible that you can stop doing, and stop doing them immediately. This can be temporary for as long as you’re dealing with the eating disorder, but don’t skimp on this step, as it is essential! You cannot reduce burnout if you don’t reduce what’s on your plate.
2. Non-negotiable self-care
No matter how busy you are, you have to prioritize non-negotiable self-care. Seriously. You don’t have the option of not taking care of yourself, because taking care of yourself is essential to taking care of your child who has an eating disorder. Sleep at least 7 hours per night. Move your body for at least 10 minutes per day. Drink 6-8 glasses of water. Feed yourself at least every 3-4 hours. And, most importantly, connect physically and/or emotionally with someone for 10 minutes per day. This could be asking your partner to cuddle with you on the couch (just make sure you aren’t doing anything else like scrolling through your phone). It could be calling a friend to talk about a TV plot line or crying about how hard your day was. If you can’t fit these essential self-care steps into your life, then go back to step 1 and figure out what you need to stop doing.
3. Take breaks
Even a 5-10 minute break a few times per day will help. During these mini-breaks, listen to your body. What feels right? Consider staring into space, guided meditation, stretching, drinking a cold glass of water or a hot cup of tea, walking around the block, or maybe dancing to Rage Against the Machine or the Mama Mia soundtrack. Do whatever feels good to you at the moment – make sure it is something that only benefits you! It doesn’t count as a break if you’re doing it for someone else.
4. Give yourself more love
Most of us are really mean to ourselves, and it often gets worse when we are burned out. We would never speak to our friends the way we criticize and berate ourselves. Start talking to yourself as if you are your best friend. Be kind, thoughtful, and understanding when things aren’t working out for you. Practice self-compassion. Research shows that people who practice self-compassion perform at much higher levels than those who do not. But even if there were no productivity benefits, being nice to yourself is the right thing to do!
5. Talk about it
Stay connected to family and friends, and pick at least one person to whom you can talk about the eating disorder. Shame thrives in secrecy, so bring it out of the shadows and talk about your experience with the eating disorder. It can be tricky to figure out the boundaries here, but a good rule of thumb is that you get to tell your story of the eating disorder, but not your child’s story of the eating disorder (because that’s theirs). It may be helpful to tell your friend in advance whether you’re looking for advice or just a compassionate ear. Hint: most of the time you’ll just want them to listen.
6. Ask for help
I know it’s hard, but you need to expand your help networks. Ask for help with meals, childcare, driving, and everything else you are struggling to fit into your day. Reach out to family and friends, neighbors, and online communities. We are social creatures, and we’re not supposed to handle life alone. Think of how good it feels when a good friend asks you for help, and remember that when we ask for help our friends usually feel honored and will help if they can. When you’re burned out you tend to get tunnel vision, and you believe that you have to personally do everything. This is a cognitive distortion. Reach out and get the help your community can give you.
7. Get professional support
Dealing with an eating disorder is not a small undertaking. Most of our care systems focus almost entirely on the person who has the eating disorder, but that leaves parents in the dark and they become prime candidates for burnout. Find a coach or therapist who can work with you to help you understand the eating disorder, your role, and how you can help your child recover. You don’t have to (and you shouldn’t) do this alone!
If you are suffering from parental burnout while your child has an eating disorder, it makes perfect sense. Please get the support and resources you need to start feeling better!
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.