Coping with Caregiver Burnout

Caring for a child is hard work. Caring for a child with a chronic medical condition or serious illness is even harder.

Published on in Health Tip of the Week

Sad woman sitting on a sofa in the living room In and out of the hospital or doctor’s office with a child, you may feel consumed by challenging emotions, including grief, anger and fear. You may worry about the future and feel overwhelmed by new and confusing information, including medical terminology and financial responsibilities.

And even though it feels like it shouldn’t, life keeps moving forward. There are still dishes to wash, laundry to do, and bills to pay. If you have other children at home, you may worry their needs are being neglected. The everyday demands of your job and household that you once balanced with ease might now seem impossible to meet.

Natalie Nageeb, PsyD, a psychologist in the Cancer Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), says that in the face of these responsibilities, many parents feel guilt or shame about taking time for self-care. The reality, however, is that beating yourself up can actually exacerbate caregiver burnout.

What is caregiver burnout?

Caregiver burnout is the result of ongoing physical, mental and emotional stress. As the caregiver of a child with a chronic medical condition, burnout is not only possible, but likely. Feelings of fear, anger, grief, helplessness and even resentment are common, normal emotional responses to your situation. The important thing is to know the warning signs of caregiver burnout and to seek help as needed.

Symptoms of burnout

  • Feelings of depression
  • Constant fatigue
  • Decreased productivity at work
  • Decreased interest in activities you enjoy
  • Social withdrawal
  • Changes in eating and/or sleeping habits
  • Frequent illnesses
  • Anxiety and/or panic attacks
  • Increased irritability
  • Thoughts about harming yourself or your child

Exercising, eating healthy food and getting enough sleep are all important ways to care for yourself, especially when dealing with ongoing stress. But the coping skills that seem to work for another parent might not be realistic for you.

Says Nageeb, “When it comes to caregiver burnout, acknowledging and communicating the need for support is the most important first step. Patience and self-compassion are key. As parents seek support and explore self-care strategies that provide the best fit for them, attending to what coping skills have helped during challenging situations in the past can be a familiar starting point.”

If you do experience feelings of burnout, it’s important to remember that you are not alone. Talk about your feelings with a close family member or friend, or reach out to a counselor or supportive community member. Remember that your healthcare team is always available to listen to your concerns and refer you to caregiver supports. Even if you feel like you don’t have any time or energy available for self-care, your healthcare team will help you identify an outlet that works for you.

Most importantly, if you experience thoughts about hurting yourself or someone else, it’s critical that you seek a professional evaluation right away. “Don’t wait,” says Nageeb. “Go straight to the emergency department and get immediate medical care as you would for any other medical emergency.”

Though it may seem counter-intuitive, caring for your own physical, mental and emotional needs is a vital part of supporting your child’s wellbeing.

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