After several months of stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many households are beginning to experience family burnout from spending so much time together.
Now that schools are out for the summer and millions of Americans are currently unemployed, partners, parents, and children who are together 24-7 may soon feel even more desperate for a few moments alone and a return to their pre-COVID-19 routines.
But the current rise in cases and the delay of reopening plans in several states may signal that families will need to remain together at home even longer than they realized.
However, households that are feeling togetherness fatigue can take steps to alleviate family burnout and ease the strain on their relationships.
How do you know if you’re experiencing family burnout resulting from COVID-19 togetherness?
Dr. Pavan Madan is a board certified child and adolescent psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry, the largest outpatient mental health organization in California. He explained there are three main symptoms to look out for. They are:
- feeling physically or emotionally exhausted
- not being able to handle usual tasks
- feeling annoyed easily
These are symptoms a large number of people may be feeling right now, with exhaustion being reported across the internet. Also, despite the fact that people are home and seemingly have all the time in the world on their hands, this inexplicable fatigue is becoming a common phenomenon.
In fact, Madan said, “Although no clear data is available, a 2018 survey found that half of all parents experience burnout — and this was prior to the pandemic.”
Given the heightened rates of family togetherness now, it stands to reason those numbers are much higher, especially for single parents.
For single parents still working, now depleted of their normal childcare assistance, the pandemic may mean more to do and fewer opportunities for self-care than ever before.
Prairie Conlon is a licensed mental health professional and clinical director of the telehealth company CertaPet.
She explained, “In a two-parent household, division of tasks allows each parent to have some relief, but single-parent households typically take on all of these tasks themselves, which can absolutely lead to burnout quicker.”
For single parents in a pandemic, there’s no partner to help share responsibilities and there are few, if any, opportunities to get away and breathe by oneself. The result can easily lead to family burnout.
“One of the earliest signs of burnout is having less patience,” Conlon said, “whether it’s snapping at your kids or making a microwave dinner.”
There are other factors that can contribute to family burnout in the time of COVID-19 as well.
“How demanding your job is or how the rest of your family is handling quarantine can further exacerbate burnout,” Conlon said.
Months together in quarantine can also be a strain on romantic relationships.
A recent Forbes article reported on a survey that found only 18 percent of respondents were happy with the communication within their relationships since the pandemic began. And in China, an unprecedented number of divorce requests were filed as soon as marriage offices began reopening.
Will we see similar numbers as our states continue reopening here in the United States?
“When one person in a relationship is experiencing burnout, the other can typically pick up the slack, but when both are, it can be a struggle to connect and feel your best,” Conlon said.
The impact on marriages and romantic relationships is considered part of the collateral damage of COVID-19. In times of high stress, it may not always be the best thing to be locked at home together, incapable of getting the space and clear head that’s often needed to work through marital discord.
It’s important to remember that amidst all this, adults aren’t the only ones experiencing burnout.
“Burnout in children often presents as anxiety, being irritable, poor academic performance, or staying isolated from peers and not expressing interest in playing,” Madan said.
A recent survey in Italy found that children are experiencing psychological impacts as a result of lockdown. They’re more irritable, having trouble sleeping, and many are regressing developmentally.
“Compared to younger children, teenagers may be more likely to experience burnout due to higher academic workload, greater need for peer interaction, and more frequent conflicts with parents,” Madan said.
But just because so many are experiencing burnout doesn’t mean it can’t be helped.
“Burnout can be prevented by having a better balance between family time versus me time,” Madan said.
When dealing with kids who may be acting out as a result of lockdown stress, he suggests parents try using encouragement and positive reinforcement over punishment techniques.
This gentler approach may be best for helping to redirect kids while also honoring the life struggles we’re all facing right now.
“Having a routine for sleep, meals, and study time can help children feel prepared for the next activity and avoid some conflicts,” Madan explained.
How can parents manage their own feelings of burnout?
“Parents must consider stress management techniques at work and aim towards a better work-life balance,” Madan said.
Conlon agreed, adding that those in two-parent households can help each other by giving one another time off from household obligations and child-rearing duties every once in a while.
Conlon suggested telling your partner to go out for a walk, or ask for the chance to sit in the tub with a book uninterrupted for the next hour. He explained that mini-breaks such as these can do both parents a world of good.
“For the kids, try to switch up their activities — take them bike riding, to the pool, or to the park,” she said.
It’s important to recognize there’s a difference between having a slightly shorter fuse and feeling like you’re actually on the edge of combusting.
“When burnout symptoms are moderate to severe, consider getting professional consultation with family therapy, individual therapist, or psychiatrist depending on the situation,” Madan said.
While it may seem as though COVID-19 has made seeking mental health help more difficult, that’s simply not the case. In fact, it may currently be easier to get that help than ever before, as many insurance companies have removed deductibles and copays for telehealth appointments.
“Parenting is not easy and burnout is fairly common,” Madan explained. “I advise parents to take care of themselves not only for their own well-being, but also to model good behavior for their children to emulate now and for the years to come, even when we are back to ‘normal.’”
Experts emphasize that it’s OK to honor your own needs and recognize you may require additional help right now.
Most mental health practitioners are welcoming telehealth visits, and with antidepression and anti-anxiety prescriptions both on the rise, you’re certainly not alone if you decide you need that additional assistance right now as well.
The most important thing is that you take care of yourself. After all, your family needs you to be healthy and whole.