Counselors, social workers, doctors, nurses, teachers, pastors and many others who work in care-oriented professions are often thought of as being compassionate people, and among those who readily identify with the compassion of Christ. What about parents? They also feel and experience the call to compassion when it comes to raising their children.
Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines the term compassion as a, “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress, together with a desire to alleviate it.” It comes from the Latin word, compat, which means to “suffer with.” Much of the research on this subject underscores the critical importance of helping relationships, and parents are frequently in close proximity to the emotional turmoil and resulting grief of their children. Herein lies both a potential problem (increased stress and burnout), as well as a wonderful opportunity (to faithfully steward what God has entrusted for eternity’s sake).
How do parents sustain joy along the way? When the unexplainable, the unpredictable, or traumatic event takes place, theological rulebooks are often inadequate when a response of compassion is required. There are day-to-day issues parenting brings that require our guidance and help. Sometimes, the impact and sheer level of distress confronting us can overwhelm even the most capable and mature parents. A primary challenge for parents is the simple reality that self-care is something we tend to focus on when it pertains to our kids, but not necessarily when it comes to looking in the mirror at ourselves. A question to be asked is, “Not only how do we finish the race God has ordained for us, but how do we finish well?”
The Lord gave me a helpful life lesson a number of years ago while flying overseas to speak with nearly a thousand pastors on, of all things, stress and burnout. It had been a particularly chaotic and harried week leading up to my departure. On top of that, making difficult connections in multiple airports due to weather conditions was not what I had in mind. When I finally boarded my last international flight, I managed to buy a newspaper and was ready to sit down and relax. If you travel frequently as I do, you may tend to politely ignore the flight crew as they go over airplane rules, seatbelts, emergency exits, and the like.
Here I was perfectly content in “tuning out” when the voice of the stewardess came across the loudspeaker and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I know many of you have already had a long day and that you are tired, but if you would be so kind as to set aside your reading materials and give us your attention for a few brief moments, we would like to cover some important safety information with you.”
This at least prompted me to pull the corner of the newspaper back a few inches and glance up into the aisle. To my surprise, there was a flight attendant standing just a few feet away smiling at me with that “look.” Here I was going to teach on stress and I was swimming in it at the moment. Of course, I put down the paper, sighed, and smiled back.
In the middle of the preflight announcements, I heard the following—which I have heard many times before, but am not always “listening.”
“If we should experience the sudden loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will deploy from the ceiling above you. If you are traveling with small children, please put the mask on yourself first and then assist the child.” The Holy Spirit immediately began to stir me regarding this profound truth. Why should parents put on their masks first? One would tend to think it would be more humane, loving, and compassionate to help the child first. However, because children are typically more vulnerable and less able to take care of themselves in the moment, then the most responsible course of action is for parents to make sure they are in a position to help and facilitate care. To do that, they need to be stable and breathing in the oxygen themselves.
As our children bring their hurts or deal with a crisis, they are simply less mature and don’t have the requisite life experience. Therefore, they tend to be less mobile, less resourced, more incapacitated and anxious, and perhaps less able to discern the voice of the Lord at the moment than we are. If we want to ensure we are “available” to the Lord and to them, we must take care of ourselves first—appropriately and in a balanced way—or we risk becoming ineffective and, at times, even a hindrance to what God may be trying to accomplish.
When you made the decision to become a parent, you probably expected to be successful. Most people do not feel passionately called by God to something only to fail. One common distortion is that many of us define success primarily by quantitative measures (e.g., how much my children accomplish) and not by qualitative measures such as those that make a difference in a child’s life by helping him or her become more Christ like. There can be a strong temptation to develop a comparative mindset. We can set increasingly unrealistic standards that have less to do with trusting God and walking in faith, and more to do with how we compare to the parents or families next to us. If we evaluated Christ using this paradigm as a sole criterion, some might deem His ministry to have been an abject failure.
Few other roles have such a broad range of “high expectation” demands. Here is an important principle when it comes to parenting: the individual expectations placed on us by our children might be legitimate, but the composite expectations can be all encompassing and at times destructive. It may feel nice to be affirmed by our kids, friends, peers, external family members, etc., but we cannot allow this to become our primary motivation or define our sense of identity. Otherwise, in seeking the applause of men, we may allow others to determine our calling and purpose as moms and dads.
Paul identified himself to the Corinthians as a “bondservant,” but note it was for “Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5). In other words, he was certainly there to serve the church—not primarily for their sakes, but for and to his Lord. If we do not recognize this dynamic, it will catch us off guard and we may accept the false narrative that we are not allowed to fail, hurt, or in essence, be human. The result can be a crisis of faith at both a personal level and within the parental role, because we have either not learned how to set reasonable boundaries with our children or we choose not to. The truth is that if we become over responsible for our children’s well-being, we become exhausted and they will never learn or grow. In time, we may become more desperate for relief.
In my work with parents over the years, I have found several common outcomes that are frequently set into motion once they realize they may not be able to live up to the unrealistic expectations set by themselves or others:
1. Developing a preoccupation with stress-producing people or situations. We remain in the intensity of the stress-filled environment and seek after adrenaline experiences—always moving, always busy, with the appearance of human doings rather than human beings.
2. Indulging in escape behaviors. For many of the same reasons others are—we are tired of being discouraged, lonely, or in pain and our chosen path is a way to “self-medicate” via certain substances or behaviors, although usually in an unhealthy manner.
3. Avoiding intimate relationships with one’s spouse or close friends and substituting fantasy over reality. True relational intimacy requires time and effort and when we are emotionally, physically and spiritually drained, we are less able to make the necessary investment. Sexual addiction, for example, is now a worldwide epidemic. It can be tempting to engage an image on a computer screen, because it is easy, there is an immediate emotional/physical reward, and there is little risk of failing or being rejected by that image.
4. Seeking to control everything and everyone as a means of coping. Many times, control is a survival tool that is embraced rather than a characterological disorder. If we come to believe we are powerless, perhaps from being repeatedly hurt and disappointed, a false conclusion is that if we can simply control our environments and the people in them, we will somehow be safer. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case, as most children do not respond well to excessive control.
5. Justifying actions by blaming other things and/or other people. Blame shifting is an attempt, albeit with unintended negative consequences, to avoid responsibility and accountability. If we can make the issue(s) primarily about someone or something else, then we can more easily separate ourselves from the emotional and practical aftermath.
6. Choosing to simply quit or leave the marriage/family. The enemy of our souls would like nothing better than to see us fail and give up. Sadly, the Body of Christ too often “shoots its own wounded,” and this grieves the Holy Spirit deeply.
So, what are the consequences of stress overload? Dr. Hans Selye, a Canadian endocrinologist who is considered the “father” of stress research, began to define the phenomenon during the mid-1930’s in terms of what he called the General Adaptation Syndrome. The normal pattern is for the body to cycle through a three-step process: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. He went on to define stress as the “non-specific response of the body to any demand.”1 Think about that statement for a moment. The implication here is that almost any demand placed on the body (including the mind, emotions and spirit), has the potential to create a stress response.
Stress can have both a psychosocial (within the environment) and a biogenic (within the body) orientation. Eustress, which is a normal part of every-day-life, is necessary for keeping us alert and active. It enables us to be productive, creative, and assists with decision-making activities. However, a chronically high level of stress becomes distress and results in a rapidly downward spiral for day-to-day functioning. The two primary stress hormones that begin this process are adrenaline and cortisol.
The stress cycle starts in the brain. When a stressor is detected as a threat, the amygdala, hypothalamus, and pituitary glands trigger the fight-or-flight stress response. The sympathetic nervous system activates several different physical responses to mobilize for action. The adrenal glands increase the output of adrenaline (also called epinephrine), cortisol and other glucocorticoids, which tightens and contracts the muscles and sharpens the senses. Five main systems respond to stress and can be compromised by prolonged stress: the cardiovascular system, immune system, nervous system, endocrine or glandular system, and metabolic system. The body also forms free radicals that are associated with degenerative diseases, illnesses, and an acceleration of the aging process.2
While the fight-or-flight (and sometimes the freeze) response is instinctive, it tends to compromise rational and balanced thinking. This is because adrenaline signals the body to move blood out of the brain and into the major muscle groups where it may be needed more (to prompt swift action and/or reaction). What happens is that a small gland called the amygdala, hijacks the messages from the neocortex (the thinking part of the brain), directs them into the limbic system (the feeling part of the brain) and makes calm responses vastly more difficult—think of road rage when someone cuts you off in traffic after an already demanding day at the office. As you contemplate the myriad of situations, decisions, and stressors most parents constantly face, is it any wonder that making wise, healthy, and balanced decisions can become a challenge after one’s resources (emotionally, cognitively, physically, and spiritually) are pushed to their very limits?
When excessive amounts of adrenaline and cortisol enter the bloodstream, the cumulative effects over time can be harmful. These include:
• a narrowing of the capillaries and other blood vessels leading into and out of the heart
• a decrease in the flexibility and dilation properties of blood vessels and their linings
• a decrease in the body’s ability to flush harmful (LDL) cholesterol out of its system
• an increase in the overall production of blood cholesterol
• an increase in the blood’s tendency to clot
• an increase in deposits of plaque on arterial walls
Although the research is still emerging, there is some evidence increased cortisol levels result in unwanted weight gain and the accumulation of fat cells around one’s midsection. This is why a number of dietary and weight control supplements currently available are designed to reduce these levels (e.g., CortiSlim, CortiStress, Cortistat-PS, Cort-Aid, etc.). According to the American Institute on Stress, 80-90% of all doctor’s visits today are stress-related.3 The American Heart Association further states that more than 50 million Americans suffer from high blood pressure and nearly 60 million suffer from some form of cardiovascular disease, resulting in over one million deaths each year (two out of every five who die—one every 32 seconds).4
Heart disease has been the leading cause of death each year since 1900 and crosses all racial, gender, socioeconomic, and age barriers. Finally, the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services recently reported 25% of all prescriptions written in the United States are for tranquilizers, sleep aides, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety medication.5
We have seen that parents are not only susceptible to increased levels of stress, but when combined with a call to love and serve their families, this can result in what is commonly referred to as compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is defined as a comprehensive exhaustion that takes place over time when one is constantly in the “giving” position and as a result, the person loses his or her ability and motivation to experience joy, satisfaction, or to feel and care for others.6Parents (especially single parents) frequently join the ranks of other caregivers in being among the most vulnerable of groups in this regard. It is sometimes referred to as secondary or vicarious traumatic stress associated with the emotional residue related to the cause of caring.
In order to address and manage the stress that comes with even normal parenting, mothers and fathers must be intentional and proactive in developing a comprehensive stress prevention plan. Part II of this series will explore the process further.