Burnout when your child has an eating disorder

Burnout when caring for a child with an eating disorder

Today we’re going to hear from a mother who is suffering from burnout after more than two years of caring for her child with an eating disorder. She’s having trouble functioning and wonders what she should do. 

The letter

Dear Ginny, 

My child has an eating disorder that we’ve been dealing with for more than 2 years. In and out of treatment, trying different solutions. It’s all been a lot. And frankly, I don’t know how much more I can do. 

I’m totally overwhelmed and most days I don’t even know if I can get out of bed. But I have to because I have to get breakfast, lunch, and dinner prepared. I have to drive to appointments and track down insurance reimbursement. 

There’s no time for me, and I’m resentful and irritable as a result. I know this isn’t the way I should be. I know my child depends on me and I have to do better. But I feel like I have nothing left. Do you have any suggestions for me?

Signed, Katie

My response

Oh, Katie. I’m so sorry. I’m going to cut right to the chase: it sounds to me like you are burned out. So let’s talk about this a bit and find out what you can do to feel better.

Because while of course you are a wonderful mother and have been doing the best you can, it’s not sustainable for you to continue to operate on burnout while trying to care for a child who has an eating disorder. You need help. 

You know how on every plane, no matter where you are in the world, the instructions for handling an emergency always tell us we need to get our own oxygen masks on before we assist anyone else? That’s not a mistake. 

And they always show a picture of a woman assisting a child. This is because there are two things that are true. 

  1. Most mothers will sacrifice their own needs for the needs of their children. 
  2. That approach can be disastrous in an emergency. 

A mother who focuses on her child’s oxygen mask before getting one on herself is less effective and less likely to save either life: hers or her child’s. 

When we jump in and put our kids’ oxygen masks on before taking care of our own need to breathe, we’re acting on instinct. But when there’s an emergency, we need to act based on what is proven to work.

And here’s what I know: you’ve been facing a sustained emergency. And you’ve been acting based on your instinct. But I’m here to tell you that you’ve simply got to get your oxygen mask on first.

The only way to care for a child who has an eating disorder without suffering from burnout is to take action.

What is burnout?

Let’s start by understanding what burnout is. Here are the main symptoms:

Exhaustion: You feel drained and emotionally exhausted, unable to cope, tired and down, and don’t have enough energy. Physical symptoms include things like pain and gastrointestinal problems. 

Frustration: You find parenting increasingly stressful and frustrating. You may find yourself feeling cynical and may even seek to numb or distance yourself emotionally from your loved ones’ needs.

Reduced performance: You don’t want to do everyday things like cook, clean, shower, get dressed, and manage things like appointments, schoolwork, and more. You feel negative about your tasks, find it hard to concentrate, are listless, and lack creativity.

If any of this sounds familiar to you, I understand why. You’ve been facing years of chronic stress. 

Burnout is a natural and normal response to unmanaged stress when helping a child through an eating disorder. 

Burnout + an eating disorder

We experience burnout when we have a lot of pressure to perform and very little support to do it. This is why mothers are at high risk of burnout. Think about it. 

We face the pressure of raising happy, healthy children. Our behavior can have life-changing impacts on our kids. Meanwhile, we have few resources like affordable and trustworthy childcare, quality healthcare that can treat our child’s disorder, and community support.

And we don’t have much in terms of organizational support. Statistically, women in same-sex marriages carry the majority of the emotional and physical labor of raising kids even when both people work outside the home.

From what you’ve told me, you are suffering from burnout while caring for your child who has an eating disorder. And you’re not alone. So let’s take a look at how you can start to feel better. 

1. Recognize that you are burned out 

You may have suspected you are burned out. But what I’m going to guess is that being burned out feels like it’s simply not an option for you. You believe that you don’t have the luxury of being burned out. 

But remember the oxygen mask? You simply have to know that the first rule of saving your child’s life is taking care of your needs first.

This is the equivalent of seeing the oxygen mask when it drops down. Your eyes are going to look for your child’s oxygen mask first, but I want you to overcome that urge and see the mask in front of you. 

Because there’s no way you’re going to grab it if you don’t know it’s there. 

2. Make space for your needs

Burnout means that you haven’t even noticed there is an oxygen mask dangling in front of your face because you’re so focused on your child’s mask. 

So I want you to make space to put your own oxygen mask on starting now. Literally. I want you to take the time to breathe deeply and slowly each day.

You can call it meditation, mindfulness, yoga, or just breathing. Whatever works for you. Do it for at least 10 minutes each day. If at all possible, do it outdoors or at least with a view of nature.

Commit to a 10-minute breathing practice every single day. You need air in your lungs to survive this chapter in your life. You will not save anyone’s life if you don’t save your own. Your burnout will not help your child recover from an eating disorder, but caring for yourself will.

3. Consider the structures and support you need

Remember that burnout is what we experience when we have a lot of pressure to perform and very little support to do it.

The first thing I want you to consider is whether your partner if you have one, is showing up for you and your child.

Is your partner doing 50% of the emotional and physical labor involved in running your family? If so, great. If not, it’s time to change. 

Of course, this balance may be a little different during working hours if your partner works outside the home and you don’t. 

But even if you are a stay-at-home parent, your partner should be pulling their full weight outside of working hours. 

That’s right. We’re not living in the 50s anymore. The so-called breadwinner does not get to come home and plop down on the couch while the other person works an 18-hour day maintaining the home and family. 

You are facing your child’s health crisis, but now you are facing a personal health crisis as well. Burnout is a precursor to serious illness. It is a serious symptom that does not go away by itself. You need support. Make sure you’re asking for it.

Outside of your partner, who else can support you? How can you structure your life to feel as if your community is there for you? 

Think of all the hinges and sensors and tubes and mechanisms that make sure the oxygen mask drops down and provides oxygen when you need it. 

What are the small and large support structures and mechanisms that will give you access to the oxygen you need to survive right now?

4. Take care of yourself (really)

OK, so I said that, but if there is truly nobody who can help you – nobody who can reduce your burden – then I still want you to find a way to take care of yourself as well as your child. 

Carve out at least 90 minutes a day that is dedicated to your rest, renewal, and play. I know this may sound frivolous. This may sound impossible.

But the truth is that you will continue to be less effective – yes, it will get worse – if you don’t take the time to rejuvenate yourself. Just like the only remedy for low oxygen is an oxygen mask, the only remedy for burnout is daily rejuvenation.

Since we have a really hard time knowing what it means to rejuvenate ourselves, I’m going to tell you three things that are not helpful and five things that are. 

These three things are really common attempts to rest and rejuvenate, but they’re not actually going to fill your cup. They are tempting, but they will not give you more oxygen. These activities seem like rest, but they are really for checking out and numbing. They rarely provide you with the oxygen you need to feel rejuvenated. It’s kind of like reaching for the arm rest when there’s an emergency in the plane instead of the oxygen. Sure, its might feel a bit better, but it won’t give you what you need.

They are:

  1. Watching Netflix
  2. Scrolling through social media
  3. Drinking alcohol

On the other hand, these five things will fill you up and give you more oxygen:

  1. Talking to a friend
  2. Going outside
  3. Moving your body in a way that feels good
  4. Journaling
  5. Mindful meditation.

These are all active rejuvenators. While we often reach for rest through our phones and drinking, if we actually want to repair burnout, we need active rejuvenators.

How to get started

Most of us need some help even getting started with insisting upon getting functional oxygen masks installed in our planes.

Women are trained to accept what they get and sacrifice themselves first. That’s why airplanes have to carry the safety message that we have to get oxygen to ourselves first. 

Maybe you need someone who can help you remember how important your oxygen mask is. In many cases, that’s going to be a trusted friend or maybe a therapist or coach.

You need someone who you trust and respect to give you the safety reminder every time you board the plane. 

And I promise if you apply that oxygen mask to yourself first, you will be able to support your child through their eating disorder. Your burnout will recede if you have the structures and support in place to take care of your needs. And then you will be able to take care of your child and your family.

Katie, I know from personal experience how big of a shift this can be. And it’s even harder when you’re mid-emergency, trying your best to keep your child alive. I get it. And I also just want to give you the safety speech again. 

Place the mask firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. Although the bag does not inflate, oxygen is flowing to the mask. If you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask first, and then help the other person.

I’m sending you so much love and sincerely hope you get the support you deserve to recover from this burnout.

You can listen to this article as a podcast. Check it out and subscribe using your favorite podcast player.

Listen to the podcast

Published by Ginny Jones

My mission is to help reduce body hate, disordered eating, and eating disorders.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.