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Research indicates that parental burnout is real and that caregivers had higher levels of mental distress during the pandemic, which can lead to parental burnout.
Abramson, 2021

Now that we finally seem to be on the path to normalcy after two years of functioning in pandemic survival mode, I want to take some time to reflect on caregiver wellbeing and mental health. As recently as February, I was reading a lot of headlines such as, “Parents and Caregivers of Young Children Say They’ve Hit Pandemic Rock Bottom” (NPR) and “Parents Reach the Breaking Point as COVID Drags On” (CNN). As caregivers, we are still reeling from the stress of our children’s schools moving back and forth between in-person and distance learning, COVID exposures, and subsequent childcare quarantines.   

I, like many of you, have gone through these experiences with my 6-year-old kindergartener and 2-year-old in childcare, while my partner and I continue to try to work. Along with those who stayed home with their children over this time, the weight of continued isolation, stress, and complex decision-making has proven to be heavy. Research indicates that parental burnout is real and that caregivers had higher levels of mental distress during the pandemic, which can lead to parental burnout (Abramson, 2021). Luckily, we know a lot about what factors protect against burnout, and now that we are in a different phase of the pandemic, this may be the time to do what we can to promote our wellbeing as caregivers.     

[W]e as caregivers need to take care of ourselves and have our needs met in order to be able to respond to the needs of our children.

Why Caregiver Wellbeing Is Important 

First, caregiver wellbeing is important because it impacts our young children. In early childhood mental health, we often use the metaphor of an airplane oxygen mask. In an emergency, a parent needs to put on their own mask before they can put on their child’s. In other words, we as caregivers need to take care of ourselves and have our needs met in order to be able to respond to the needs of our children. It can be so easy to let our own needs as caregivers fall by the wayside, but this is really doing a disservice to ourselves AND our children. Very young children depend on their caregivers completely, for every need (eating, diapering, sleeping, calming, etc.). Children up to 5 years old continue to depend on their caregivers for help with many tasks and with emotional regulation or calming. Because of this dependency on caregivers, young children are very attuned to our emotional state. When we’re stressed, they’re stressed. When we’re calm, they sense our calm.      

For example, you are stressed because you just found out your child has to quarantine AGAIN. You’re working to figure out childcare for the next five days, when your child comes to you fussing. It’s easy to snap at your child to, “Just stop!” and not notice why they are upset and help them calm down. A pattern of this type of interaction can lead to a shift in your parent-child dynamic that is stressful for your child and creates poor long-term outcomes.   

If, however, you are feeling calm and collected, you are able take a few deep breaths when you receive the stressful news of a quarantine and respond to your child’s needs before problem-solving your childcare issue. You can listen to what your child has to say, rub their back, and say, “That’s so frustrating!” while you help them solve their problem. This pattern of interaction will help your child learn to calm themselves by practicing it with you first.  

Lastly, let go of guilt.  No parent is perfect, and everyone snaps or is unavailable to their child at times. If you find you are stressed most of the time, however, it may be time to consider what you need to care for yourself.   

Promoting Caregiver Wellbeing 

What can caregivers do to promote their wellbeing? There is a range of answers to this question, and each person needs to tap into what works best for them. For one person, taking 20 minutes a day to exercise, while allowing some screen time for the kids, might be enough to generate the chemicals they need to feel calmer and more patient. For others, practicing mindfulness via a meditation app or connecting with friends for a good laugh could produce the joy they were lacking. 

Other caregivers might find these methods are not enough. Maybe you are a person of color who has experienced ongoing systemic racism. Maybe you have a mental health diagnosis. Maybe money is tight. Some people find it helpful to lean into communities in which there are people with shared experiences. Alternatively, are there people in your support network with whom you can be vulnerable and share your feelings? Could connecting with a religious or cultural community feel supportive? Is there someone who could watch the kids once a week while you simply take a break?  

If you are suffering almost daily from stress, and it makes it hard for you to take care of yourself or complete your daily tasks, it may be time to consider talk therapy or medicine. Many people have experienced trauma, loss, and grief over the last two years, and there are several treatment options you can access in the Twin Cities metro area. Now may be the time to reach out for that healing so you can meet your own needs and the needs of your children. If you’re not sure where to start this journey, talk with your primary healthcare provider. They’re familiar with this topic and can provide referrals and other resources. 

Programs through St. David’s Center 

St. David’s Center also offers several programs that can support caregivers of young children. Our Parent-Child Services offer Home Visiting and Parent-Child Therapy. Home Visiting works with families who have young children between 0 and 5 years old, and services can even begin prenatally with expecting families. Home Visiting offers emotional support to caregivers, connections to other resources, reflection on how the ways we were parented can impact our current parenting, and help identifying your support network. Home visitors work to create goals with families that could address topics like self-care practices. 

St. David’s Center Parent-Child Therapy programs are for families whose young children have experienced high levels of stress. This is sometimes from traumas the family has experienced or from disruptions in attachment (for example, removal from the home or placement in foster care). These programs use many evidence-based therapies that are specifically geared toward the caregivers of very young children.   

As we seem to be moving towards incorporating more normalcy in our lives, this may be a good time to consider what you need as a caregiver to heal from the stress we have all experienced. A recent article from the American Psychological Association, entitled, “The Impact of Parental Burnout,” states that “burnout is the result of too much stress and the absence of resources to cope with it” (Abramson, 2021). If you consider the ideas for self-care above and you’re not finding resources in your own network, you can reach out for support from St. David’s Center. Wherever you turn, we encourage you to put on your own oxygen mask first, so that you can safely put on your child’s. 

Abramson, A. (2021). The impact of parental burnout. American Psychological Association, 52(7). 

To learn more about St. David’s Center’s Parent-Child Services, go to  

Kimberly Gascoigne is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker who specializes in infant mental health and early relationships. Kimberly has been a home visitor with the Healthy Families program at St. David’s Center for 10 years. Kimberly also provides reflective supervision for home visitors. Kimberly lives in Minneapolis with her husband, two children, and two kittens. Kimberly enjoys reading, yoga, and the local food and drink that Minneapolis has to offer.

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