Written by Dr. Sidney Langston
Certainly there is nothing wrong with parents having expectations of their children. Yet many times we find parental expectations unhealthy, and in the end they amount to nothing more than pressure to succeed. If this behavior goes unaddressed it will, over time, lead to burnout in children as well as in the parents.
Burnout happens any time a child’s energies are focused in one area of pursuit—to the exclusion of all other developmental tasks and interests. When this happens they will begin to lose their zest for life, to the point they may want to give up and not attend to the task of becoming an adult.
Parents can cause some of the burnout children experience when their expectations are too high or are inappropriate for the child. For example, some parents send subtle messages that they expect their children to be perfect in every arena of life. On the other hand, children may drive themselves to excel when they incorrectly interpret messages they are sent by significant others, society, school, etc.
Other causes of childhood burnout are: learning difficulties or learning differences that go unaddressed; childhood abuses of all types; prolonged or unresolved parental strife; natural disasters; acts of terrorism and over involvement in school and/or extracurricular activities.
Research has demonstrated that there are three stages of burnout. In the initial stage children experience increased disappointment in life. They want to tell someone about it but don’t know how, so they become very discouraged. Children act out this discouragement by becoming irritable, difficult and demanding. This kind of behavior is often confusing to parents, and it is hard for them to determine if the child is burned out or just dealing with a single painful issue.
The second or moderate level of burnout leads to clinical depression. The child will not be able to function very well and will want to sleep more to avoid dealing with the issue. There will also be problems with their appetite, and they will have difficulty completing their school assignments. They will become moody and their down moods will persist for longer than a few hours. They will be frequently tearful, and feel helpless and hopeless.
In the third or severe stage of burnout, everything stops functioning. The child, no longer just depressed with tearful episodes, literally can no longer function within the family and other systems in which they have been involved. At this point they withdraw from everything and everyone. When approached they are extremely rebellious and rage out of control.
Eighth-grade boys and sixth-grade girls are most vulnerable to burnout according to current research. At this age the children are trying to figure out who they are; why and what they need to learn; and how they can be true to themselves and please their parents, teachers, and society at the same time.
Recovery from Burnout
If you think your child is dealing with burnout, take the following steps.
Take time to listen. Encourage your children to express their feelings about what is going on in their lives, but don’t try to give them answers to all their dilemmas. What they need to know is that you care enough to listen.
Help them to cut back on their level of activity. Explore with them what they are doing, how much time their activities require and how much pressure this puts on them. Then carefully guide them to eliminate activities that are too time-consuming or stress-provoking.
Discover what you like best about your children and in a genuine, sincere fashion begin to share it with them. This will affirm and validate them and enhance their confidence and self esteem.
Be sure your expectations and attitudes are appropriate. Become thoroughly familiar with and encourage their interests and abilities.
If your child is experiencing difficulty in school, make sure the school really knows and understands your child and that the child knows he has an advocate in whom he can confide.
Begin to play and dream together as a family. Take day or weekend trips to places of interest. This will not only provide a recreational change of pace but will be rejuvenating as well.
Help children develop appropriate, obtainable short and long-term goals for themselves. Teach them to problem solve, and plan strategies with them that will assist them in meeting their goals.
For moderate burnout, therapy is necessary, and outpatient therapy is usually sufficient. If the burnout is severe, hospitalization may be indicated.
Burnout is painful. However, there is much that can be done to turn it around so that life becomes inviting and manageable once again.
Byrd, Walter and Warren, Paul. (1989). Counseling and children. Dallas, TX: Word Publishing.
Elliott, Medrich and Roizen, J. (1981). The serious business of growing up: A study of children’s lives outside school. Berkeley: University of California Press.
"Childhood Fears and Anxieties." (August, 1988). The Harvard Medical School Mental Health Letter, vol. 5, no. 2, 1-5.
©Copyright 1994, El Rophe Center, Inc.