I stood in the bathroom, brushing my hair before an appointment. My son was having a hard day and I couldn’t stop thinking about how to respond, react, or help him. I kept playing out different scenarios in my mind and trying to come to a solution. I grabbed my hair and gave it a tug and said to my frustrated image, “Get out of my head!” I needed to think of the appointment in front of me and focus on it instead of on him.
When raising a child from a difficult place, we can develop what experts refer to as “compassion fatigue.” It is usually used to refer to professionals such as paramedics, nurses, counselors, and so on, who get overwhelmed with the input of negative second-hand stress. What about a parent raising a child who has come from a traumatic beginning or with developmental delays or a capital letter syndrome (ADD, ADHD, Sensory issues, on the spectrum, FAS, etd..)? Yes! Parents can and do experience compassion fatigue because parents can’t go home at the end of the day.
Psychology Today describes compassion fatigue as a type of Secondary Post Traumatic Stress. Compassion fatigue is a somewhat common phenomenon that affects medical workers, social workers, and even pastors. It stems from witnessing or hearing about traumatic experiences in the lives of other people and feeling helpless because you can only do so much to help.
Helpful practices to deal with compassion fatigue:
- Exercise. I cannot stress this enough. I know. It’s the last thing I feel like doing when I am stretched to my limits and experiencing compassion fatigue. I just want to fall into the sofa and watch Netflix mindlessly or read a book on my Kindle and ignore the world. Exercise helps. It does, even in small snippets. A walk around the yard, running up and down the stairs a few times. I used to do both of these when my children were all small. I didn’t have huge increments of time, nor could I leave them to do a full exercise routine. When it got to the point that I could, I often exercised at 10:30 pm, which a visiting friend told me was crazy! I needed to exercise so I didn’t go crazy. It released all the pent up frustration! “Need an emotional lift? Or need to blow off some steam after a stressful day? A workout at the gym or a brisk 30-minute walk can help. Physical activity stimulates various brain chemicals that may leave you feeling happier and more relaxed. You may also feel better about your appearance and yourself when you exercise regularly, which can boost your confidence and improve your self-esteem.”- www.mayoclinic.org
- Set limits to your activity with breaks. I struggle with this. I want to be productive. I want to get it all done. That’s a wonderful goal, but it isn’t the best goal. The better goal is to enjoy life. To set limits to activities so you can settle down in the moment and when it over, cherish it, not just move on to the next thing.
- Have a personal life apart from your child -It doesn’t have to be something that takes you out of the home every night, it could be as simple as a book club. It can be sewing, teaching a class or two, refinishing furniture. Not only does this give you something else to pour into, it let’s your child see you doing something meaningful and he will one day, want to follow suit.
- HAVE a SENSE of HUMOR- I have found that my children who have struggles with impulse control, behaviors, FAS, etc. (put yours in the blank) are not those things, they suffer from, but they are awesome human beings with a great sense of humor. I just had to stop trying to fix them and listen.
- Talk about it. Find an adoption/foster group where you feel safe sharing and talk. Don’t just listen. This sort of outpouring of your feelings is a good release. It’s a kind of confession that cleanses the soul that you can move forward.
- Determine your emotional limits and stick to them.
“The helpers’ symptoms, frequently unnoticed, may range from psychological issues such as dissociation, anger, anxiety, sleep disturbances, nightmares, to feeling powerless. However, professionals may also experience physical symptoms such as nausea, headaches, general constriction, body temperature changes, dizziness, fainting spells, and impaired hearing. All are important warning signals for the caregiver that need to be addressed or otherwise might lead to health issues or burnout.”-Psychology today
There is some discrepancy in the church body about this point. Some believe that you should pour yourself out without discriminating. Jesus kept boundaries. When the crowd got to be too much, he went away. If you have a family that you can’t serve or children that you cannot parent because you feel like you are drowning all the time, it’s time to take stock of your emotional limits. What stresses you out the most and how can you work through it or hand it off (if possible)? When one of my children was having some serious issues and I was doing everything I could every day. It was wearing on my physical and emotional well being. I was exhausted. My daughter took over doing some of the grocery shopping for me for a season. It was a blessing. It wasn’t forever, I wasn’t dropping my title of manager of the home, I was delegating. Delegate. It’s okay. Maybe (if your kids take a nap) you can sit down and read while they nap or watch one of your favorite HGTV shows. You don’t have to be “on” all the time.
If you feel as if you are suffering from compassion fatigue, don’t wait to start treating yourself. If your health fails, if you aren’t there for your family, then what? You need to take care of yourself. You are valuable. You are loved. You are worth it.