Is My Child Suffering from Burnout?

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burnoutA few days after a glowing parent-teacher conference about our 10-year-old, maybe the best one we’ve ever had, she came down with a cold.

Her brother had it before her, and then it hit the two girls like clockwork on Sunday night into Monday. It was your basic runny nose, low-grade temperature, cold. Due to her symptoms, we had to bring her to the pediatrician to be tested for coronavirus and strep. Both were negative. For two days, she sniffled under covers on the couch, drank ginger ale, and ate chicken soup. She had full control of the television.

Despite feeling lousy, she stated how happy she was about being home and feeling cared for.

Aside from feeling ill, she began to express feelings of anxiety about going back to school. She was fixated on how overwhelmed she was in school, about how grueling this year has been, and how tired she feels.

Then, it dawned on me. This kid is burned out. She’s suffering from a long year with unprecedented restrictions and limited social life.

When she’s distance learning, she’s on a screen for hours at a time. When she’s in school, she’s got a mask on, and her activity and proximity to peers are limited. It’s been a year with almost no play dates. No seeing her best friend. She hasn’t hugged her grandparents since the summertime. It’s been winter with few places to go and little to do. And each week is the same. 

Aside from that, she has two younger siblings and more responsibility with higher expectations from her parents. We take for granted that she’s doing all that she needs to do, and she’s feeling that.

Being sick was an opportunity to step away and to relax. Maybe she even felt special. Despite all of our praise and feeling like we are loving, doting parents, perhaps she isn’t feeling it. 

In tandem with these stressors, she is standing at the precipice of puberty, with all of its changes. She is beginning to see the world through different eyes, and some of the magic of childhood is falling away.

The other day she showed me a new addition to a LEGO town that she created, and I told her that I liked it. She scolded me for not being more specific: “I need you to tell me honestly what you think; I want honest feedback.” So I told her that I didn’t like the design or color as much as another part. And she thanked me. Perhaps she’s getting wise to platitudes. We need to be less generally encouraging and more specific in our praise. In short, we need to notice her more.

Put it all together, and here is a child who is suffering from burnout. A child who wants to be little again on some level. A responsible girl who needs a break. Webster’s Dictionary defines burnout as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” As a psychotherapist, I see its impact daily with adults, but it’s hard as a mom to think that I am at this point with my own child.

We can try to implement some changes to make greater efforts, even when we are stretched thin ourselves. We will implement more mother/daughter outings and maybe read a chapter book together, even though she’s been reading on her own for years. I’m going to notice and give her feedback about details, not just meaningless “that’s great” praise. 

Do you have a child that may be burned out? What do you do to make sure your child stays grounded? How do you maintain a closeness in your relationship with each of your children when we are pulled in so many directions all the time?

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