As librarians, this is always our busy season. Camps are winding down, families are back from vacations, children are getting restless and bored, parents are getting stressed out, and back to school is on the horizon. These pressures can really take a toll. While we are busy working with children during our work day, imagine those who have the job of caregiver both day and night. All staff can face the summer burnout, and as a manager I try to keep an eye out for stressed out staff, but I also look for signs in parents and caregivers as well.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison found that mothers of children with autism had significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol compared to mothers of children without disabilities. Such hormone levels have been associated with chronic health problems and can affect glucose regulation, immune functioning, and mental activity. It’s important to remember that repeated exposure to stress over time is known to cause diminished stress hormones. This turns even the most diligent parent desensitized to certain behaviors. While you may see an unruly screaming child with an “inattentive “or “unresponsive” chaperone, it might just be a child with a caregiver that is suffering from their own bout of burnout.
During your work day, look for the signs of caregiver stress and burnout:
- Anxiety, depression, irritability
- Feeling tired and run down
- Overreacting to minor nuisances
- New or worsening health problems
- Feeling isolated and helpless
How can we help? By continuing our work! Provide support, resources, and a safe space for those with physical, mental, or emotional disabilities. Develop a caregiver support program, with a corresponding children’s program happening at the same time. Allow parents time together to create supporting relationships. Invite local health care providers to present topical discussions. Start a yoga program. Provide stress management workshops. Do you have titles in your catalog that can help? A suggested reading list for parents and caregivers could be a great place to start.
Lesley Mason is the Youth Services Manager at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, the DC Public Library’s central branch. She is currently the chair of the ALCS’s Library Service to Special Population Children and Their Caregivers Committee. She earned her Master’s Degree in Library Science from Clarion University. She specializes in Early Literacy and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Smith, L. E., Seltzer, M. M., & Greenberg, J. S. (2012). Daily Health Symptoms of Mothers of Adolescents and Adults with Fragile X Syndrome and Mothers of Adolescents and Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42(9), 1836–1846. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-011-1422-7
 Saint Louis, C. (2014, July 29). When the Caregivers Need Healing. The New York Times.
I feel the absolute need to emphasize that an autistic child/a child with autism/child on the spectrum is a human being and not simply an object of a parent’s stress. Additionally, many library staff are adults on the spectrum or have disabled children.
While I do not mean to diminish this finding or these recommendations (stress and trauma are a huge deal to me), it is important that all parents have the support that they need. Depression in parents is something we should watch out for, too. SAHMSA recently put out a great toolkit here: http://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content/SMA14-4878/SMA14-4878.pdf
I would encourage libraries to offer parental programming that makes it clear moms with children with disabilities (and moms with disabilities too, because they do exist) are welcome, but also include mothers of able-bodied and neurotypical children. Studies have shown that when able-bodied and disabled children play and learn together, they both benefit (I can get this research from the people who created a program based on it (http://www.nwresdeiecse.org/typical-peer-program.html)); and the mothers may be surprised at how similar their struggles really are.
I realize in my eagerness to comment I left this unnecessarily gendered. I did not mean to exclude father’s or non-binary parents and I deeply apologize for that