With the stress of the pandemic, some parents are struggling with compassion fatigue. Here are some symptoms, causes, and expert-backed advice on how to handle it.

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After a grueling year of pandemic parenting, many parents are depleted from the never-ending roller coaster of anxiety. And now with the new school year, parents are also helping their kids readjust to in-person learning and trying to ease their fears about the Delta variant. On top of that, they're also trying to resume "normal" activities like taking kids to sports practice.

Amid this mountain of responsibility, parental stress is rising. A 2020 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association revealed that almost 50 percent of parents with kids under 18 were more stressed than before the pandemic began. In addition, 31 percent said they were struggling with mental health concerns. A separate study found that about 28 percent of mothers and 13 percent of fathers were experiencing pandemic-induced burnout.

Burnt out parents may feel tapped out and unable to tackle one more stressor, but some parents may also feel like their empathy tanks are running on fumes. This feeling, according to researchers, can be a sign of compassion fatigue, a health condition that has affected frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, there is a difference between compassion fatigue in frontline workers and parents, but there are similarities in symptoms.

An image of a mother holding her child.
Credit: Getty Images.

Symptoms of Parental Compassion Fatigue

Two hallmark signs of compassion fatigue are emotional exhaustion and feeling detached from your child's emotions. "Parents with compassion fatigue are often less patient with stressors that would usually sail past them," says Nina Kaiser, Ph.D., a child psychologist in San Francisco. For instance, comforting your child or taming a tantrum can feel like running a never-ending marathon. "Apathy towards your child's needs and suffering is also common," says Clarissa Simon, Ph.D., a health scientist at Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago.

Other symptoms can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Appetite changes
  • Withdrawing from loved ones
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Insomnia
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Exhaustion
  • Feeling irritable and angry

Causes of Parental Compassion Fatigue

Unlike caregiver burnout, which is brought on by constantly caring for others, compassion fatigue is typically triggered by witnessing trauma. "With the ongoing trauma of the pandemic, a growing number of parents are really struggling," shares Dr. Simon.

And when financial struggles, school closures, losing loved ones, and illness strike (sometimes all at once), the body's nervous system reacts, explains Kara Hoppe, LMFT, a psychotherapist and author of Baby Bomb: A Relationship Survival Guide for New Parents. The body jumps into fight or flight mode, and from a biological perspective, the gas is on, the psychotherapist explains.

Once trauma subsides, the body can recover, but the tragic-filled pandemic hasn't provided much of a break, especially for caregivers. "When the nervous system can't calm down, we become hypervigilant, always on the lookout for danger," says Hoppe. And this prolonged stress syndrome can make reasoning, having compassion, and problem-solving feel more taxing, she adds.

It's not uncommon for compassion fatigue to ignite feelings of shame, making parents feel like they're "bad" in some way for feeling worn out, says Hoppe. But what's important to know is that compassion doesn't disappear due to a lack of love; it's impacted by trauma, says Dr. Kaiser.

For healing to begin, there must be a sense of safety, which means the trauma must end. But when it comes to the pandemic, there isn't much predictability. "Parents are looking out for their kid's well-being and mental health, without enough time to take care of themselves," says Dr. Kaiser. "It's an emotional upheaval."

How to Address Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue can dim the light on hope, making change seem near impossible. But even when life feels out of control, there are still steps parents can take. The first step, say compassion fatigue experts, is recognizing the symptoms of this stress syndrome.

Taking this brief quiz may help you discover what symptoms you're experiencing. While this questionnaire isn't meant to diagnose compassion fatigue, your answers can provide insightful information about your overall parental well-being.

If compassion fatigue is weighing you down, there are plenty of expert-backed tools that can help. Taking action can prevent compassion fatigue from turning into a more chronic and severe mental health concern like depression, anxiety, or substance use, say researchers.

Here are tools that can help.

Self-care

Overcoming compassion fatigue starts with self-care, says Dr. Kaiser. However, finding time for yoga classes, dinner with friends, and new hobbies can feel downright impossible when you're working and taking care of your kids.

The key, according to Dr. Kaiser, is to adjust your expectations. "Look for micro-opportunities for self-care," Dr. Kaiser tells her clients. For example, perhaps there's not enough time for a bike ride, but you can check in with yourself and take a few deep breaths. If you're a new parent, putting the baby in the crib and hopping in the shower can help. Basically, take small opportunities to give yourself some space, Dr. Kaiser advises.

The psychologist adds these tiny self-care sessions are by no means a complete fix but taking action can shift how you feel. Suffering swells when we think it will last forever, but reminding ourselves that pain is temporary can bring relief, say mindfulness experts.

Exercise curiosity

Researchers have found that a specific type of empathy, known as "affective empathy," can increase the risk of compassion fatigue. Affective empathy is "feeling with" another person, such as experiencing your child's sadness or disappointment as if it were your own.

One way to tamp down affective empathy is to exercise curiosity. Instead of taking on your child's emotions, try to see the world through their eyes. For instance, you probably know how sadness feels to you, but how might it feel to them? Jodi Halpern, Ph.D., a professor and empathy researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, calls this "empathic curiosity." Her research shows this type of empathy can help reduce personal distress, as well as anxiety.

Practice self-compassion

Research shows mind/body activities like self-compassion can help heal compassion fatigue. For example, in one study, higher self-compassion scores were linked with fewer symptoms of compassion fatigue.

Psychologist Kristin Neff, Ph.D. recommends talking to yourself like you'd speak to your child or to a friend. Simply saying, "I recognize that this is a difficult moment," or naming your feeling can also soften suffering. In addition, the psychologist points out that exercises like journaling or asking a loved one for a hug can also help.

Ask for help

When parents are struggling with compassion fatigue, it's essential to ask for help, Dr. Simon says. Ask your partner, supportive family members, or emotionally available friends to pitch in, she advises.

Reaching out can be tricky, especially when you know other parents in your community are also struggling. Dr. Kaiser recommends strategizing with fellow parents. Create a pod or find simple ways to help each other. Perhaps you set up a meal exchange, so you don't cook every day of the week, or set up a carpool to help with the driving.

Of course, talking with a therapist can also help. If you're looking for a mental health provider, sites like Psychology Today and BetterHelp provide a directory of services. It might take a while, but with help, you will feel better. And as you embark on your new self-care program, remember that meeting your needs serves the entire family, says Dr. Kaiser.