What do you think of when you hear the word “burnout?” Maybe you imagine an overworked employee drowning in an endless heap of deadlines, or maybe you imagine a university student who stays up night after night studying until they inevitably reach a breaking point. What about parents? We don’t often talk about parenting and how much burnout it can lead to. While parenting can be a rewarding and life-changing experience, it also comes with a mountain of responsibilities and expectations that can leave one feeling utterly drained. Feeling drained doesn’t mean that you don’t love your kids or appreciate that they are healthy. Parental burnout refers to the intense exhaustion that a parent feels when they lack the resources needed to cope with the demands of parenthood at that moment (Mikolajczak et al., 2019). This state of exhaustion can cause parents to emotionally distance themselves from their children and to doubt their parenting abilities (Mikolajczak et al., 2019). Although most parents experience these feelings from time to time, parental burnout differs from ordinary parenting stress because it is chronic in nature (Mikolajczak et al., 2019). You don’t get a break from being a parent- not even when you are away from your kids. In fact, instead of helping you relax and rejuvenate, being apart and taking time for yourself can sometimes make you feel guilty and even more worried about your children.
Much like how career burnout can negatively impact the worker and company, parental burnout can have damaging consequences for not only the parent, but the whole family. Parents may experience various mental health issues, including sleep disturbances, brain fog, depression, memory impairment, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies as a result of burnout (Brennan, 2021). As parental burnout worsens, it can even lead to suicidal ideation and thoughts of escape (Mikolajczak et al., 2020). These thoughts can occur more frequently in parental burnout compared to job burnout, given that being a parent is a permanent role (Mikolajczak et al., 2020). Relationship problems, such as increased conflict and miscommunication, can also arise when one or both parents feel burnt out (Brennan, 2021). Recent research tells us that there is a circular relationship between parental burnout and neglectful parenting (Mikolajczak et al., 2020). Burnout can lead to child neglect, which in turn can lead to more parental burnout, and so on (Mikolajczak et al., 2020).
Who is most at risk for parental burnout? While anyone can experience it, certain risk factors make some people more vulnerable than others. For example, parents with perfectionistic tendencies or those with difficulty managing stress are more likely to struggle with burnout than those who are less perfectionistic and more skilled at managing stress (Mikolajczak et al., 2019). Additionally, being a stay-at-home parent, having a child with special needs, lacking support from a co-parent or from extended family, and not having enough time for leisure and relaxation can all increase the risk of parental burnout (Mikolajczak et al., 2019). Of course, when you throw in a global pandemic that forces everyone into isolation and blurs the boundaries between work and home life, these risks are exacerbated.
So, what steps can parents take to cope with this chronic state of exhaustion?
- Make time for self-care. Some parents have a misconception that taking some time away from their parenting duties to relax and engage in their own hobbies is selfish. This mentality causes parents to neglect their own needs, which puts them at risk for burnout and the negative consequences of burnout (Mikolajczak et al., 2020). Therefore, practicing self-care not only benefits you but your child.
- Talk to someone. Whether you choose to speak to your partner, a friend, a family member, or a mental health professional, letting others know what you’re going through can lift some of that weight off your shoulders.
- Exercise. Even if it’s just a short walk after dinner, squeezing some physical activity into your day can release those feel-good hormones and relieve some stress (Brennan, 2021).
- Stop trying to be the “perfect parent.” This one is easier said than done because our culture places impossibly high expectations on parents and social media makes it seem like everyone else is doing a much better job at parenting than you are. But the truth is that the “perfect parent” doesn’t exist, so by trying to be one, you’re only setting yourself up for failure.
- And finally, practice self-compassion. Shame and guilt are common in parents who experience feel burnout (Brennan, 2021). However, these feelings lead parents to hide their suffering and avoid seeking help, which only exacerbates the problem (Brennan, 2021). Parenting is one of the most taxing jobs out there and needing a break certainly doesn’t make you a bad parent.
Children often idolize their parents, viewing them as superheroes who can withstand all kinds of pressure with skill and ease, but it’s important to remember that parents are human too. Accepting shortcomings, talking about the pressures we feel, and developing healthy coping methods to manage stress can help prevent and alleviate burnout on our parenting journey.
- Brennan, D. (2021, June 28). What to know about parental burnout. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/parenting/what-to-know-about-parental-burnout
- Mikolajczak, M., Gross, J. J., & Roskam, I. (2019). Parental burnout: What is it, and why does it matter? Clinical Psychological Science, 7(6), 1319–1329. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702619858430
- Mikolajczak, M., Gross, J. J., Stinglhamber, F., Lindahl Norberg, A., & Roskam, I. (2020). Is parental burnout distinct from job burnout and depressive symptoms? Clinical Psychological Science, 8(4), 673–689. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702620917447