Forget those picture-perfect happy family photos on Instagram. For an alarming number of US parents, their reality is overwhelming exhaustion, prolonged fatigue, and feelings of distress and despair. Parental burnout is rife in our society. But what can be done about it? We explain the telltale signs to look out for and some simple ways to deal with parental burnout.
What is parental burnout?
Stress, overwhelm, and burnout have long been associated with the workplace. The World Health Organization definition of it even relates to “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” However, in recent years, there’s been a growing recognition of the syndrome amongst parents. That could be working parents or stay-at-home parents. Workplace burnout applies to the job of parenting, not just your paid job.
Parental burnout is now recognized as a medical condition. It occurs when the stress of parenting severely and chronically overwhelms a parent’s coping resources. We’re seeing particularly high levels of this amongst US parents juggling the many demands on their time.
What are the symptoms of parental burnout?
Parental burnout manifests in a variety of ways, affecting both physical health and mental health. The four stages and signs of parental burnout identified by the 2018 Parental Burnout Assessment (developed by Belgian researchers Isabelle Roskam Ph.D. and Moïra Mikolajczak Ph.D.) are:
- Overwhelming exhaustion – physical and/or emotional exhaustion
- Emotional distance from kids in order to preserve energy
- Loss of fulfillment and enjoyment in parenting
- Feeling ineffective or not the parents they were or wanted to be. In turn, this leads to feelings of distress, guilt, and shame.
Why do parents get burned out?
Lack of sleep
When you’re running on empty after a lousy night’s sleep, you don’t feel like your best self. You’ll be irritable, groggy, and unable to function fully. The temptation is to boost energy with caffeine and sugar, but that then affects sleep and becomes a vicious cycle. Sleep is vital for our health and well-being; without it, we operate in ‘zombie mode’, and our brain function is impeded.
Lack of support
The old adage “it takes a village to raise a child” still rings true. But often, parents don’t have a support network nearby. Many mothers have to return to work when their baby’s still very young, outsourcing childcare to professional caregivers rather than the co-parent or extended family. Trying to succeed professionally and parentally simultaneously can take its toll. And the feeling that you must dedicate any non-work time to your child is strong. But where’s the time to take care of yourself?
We’ve all seen the images of the ‘perfect parent’ on social media. They’re baking, crafting, learning new skills, and taking part in wholesome activities as families with smiles on their faces. This unrealistic picture of family life puts pressure on parents to achieve unattainable goals.
Research shows that the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated this further. Parents of school-age kids reported high levels of mental distress. Not only were parents juggling work and childcare at home all day, but they were bombarded with pictures of others baking sourdough bread, homeschooling happily, and learning languages on the side. It was easy to feel that simply getting through the day wasn’t enough.
Pressure to be productive at all times
As a society, we place a lot of value on achievement, productivity, and being busy. There’s a pressure to tick boxes, even in leisure. Have you read the latest bestseller, listened to a cool podcast, or been to must-visit destinations? Has your child attended myriad clubs and classes (resulting in your ferrying them around town to the various activities)? The list is endless. But there’s relatively little value placed on the activities that will improve your life, health, and wellbeing – rest being a key one.
6 ways to deal with parental burnout
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, depleted of energy, unfulfilled, or guilty, you could be suffering parental burnout. There are ways to improve the way you’re feeling. Here are a few tips.
1. Identify your stressors
What are the main factors that are triggering your stress? There are likely to be big and small stressors. Financial worries, lack of time to complete your to-do list, your child’s challenging behavior, and inadequate sleep – all of these stressors contribute to parental burnout.
By identifying your key stressors, you can take steps to minimize them. Researcher Moïra Mikolajczak recommends addressing changeable issues that contribute to your stress over time rather than just fixating on the big stuff. Pick the issues that you can control and manage first.
If your to-do list is overwhelming, farm out some tasks to your family or outsource them. If driving your kids to their clubs takes too much time, reduce those commitments or ask other parents to share the journeys. Being flexible and balanced is key, according to Mikolajczak.
2. Make time for self-care
There’s a reason we’re advised to fasten our own life jacket first before helping others in the event of an emergency. You need to be in a strong position in order to support and help your kids. Taking time for your own needs, healthcare, and relaxation isn’t a selfish act; it’s a necessary one.
By having some self-compassion and gifting yourself the time to partake in acts of self-care, you’ll be in a better position to help others. You’ll improve or avoid health issues – be they mental or physical.
Find the self-care activity that benefits you the most. It could be regular massage therapy to stimulate your nervous system and reduce muscle tension. Committing to weekly yoga sessions can restore your balance and provide much-needed strength to juggle your daily demands. Or simply taking time to unwind with a long bath and taking some deep breaths. Prioritize your own needs and time to restore your energy.
3. Find a quiet time
In order to give your nervous system a break, you need to create moments of peace and quiet throughout your day. It could be whilst you’re working at your computer, sitting in your car, or waiting for the kettle or coffee pot.
Taking a deep breath is a powerful act. Mastering how to breathe will reduce stress, calm the mind, and boost mental clarity. It’ll rebalance the central and peripheral nervous systems, improving your immunity. Implementing breathing techniques into your day is a transformative act.
Small acts of self-care and gratitude mount up. Stop to savor a blue sky or flower scent. Note down something that made you happy. Stand up and stretch out your body. Step outside and feel the fresh air. Stopping for a moment really helps.
4. Set clear boundaries
It’s ok to say no. If taking your kid to guitar lessons or dance practice on the other side of town is super stressful, find another solution. Quit the club, find someone to carpool with, or seek out an alternative closer to home. Empower yourself to say no to some of the incessant demands on your time from those around you.
Block out time for yourself. Be strict with your working hours and log off at the appropriate time. There’s always more to do, but it’s essential to ensure you switch off from work and have time for yourself, too. Commit to ‘you time’ whether once the kids are in bed or before they get up.
5. Be kind to yourself
Let go of that notion of perfectionism. It’s an unrealistic achievement that results in constantly feeling that you aren’t doing well enough. In today’s always-connected environment, parents are constantly bombarded with parental ideals, advice, goals, and images.
To reduce stress and avoid parental burnout, Professor Isabelle Roskam advises parents to “abandon the cult of the perfect parent and gain some perspective on all the parenting advice out there in order to choose what works for you.”
Give yourself the advice and kindness that you’d give a friend in your position. Admit your limitations, stick to your values, and recognize that you’re doing the best you can.
6. Ask for help
Are you getting the right level of support from your co-parents and loved ones? Parenting young children is relentless, and older children present another set of demands. It shouldn’t all rest on your shoulders. Try to build a support network of family, friends, neighbors, other parents, or professional caregivers. Don’t struggle alone.
Find people that you trust to confide in. A problem shared is a problem halved, after all. It works both ways, too – when you open up to somebody, they’ll often respond in the same way. Discovering that others recognize your feelings and can share their own experiences can be immensely helpful.
Know when to seek professional help. There’s no shame in admitting that you’re overwhelmed and fatigued. Mental health professionals are well-equipped to help you with talking therapies. Please do reach out and acknowledge that you need support to feel better.
We’re here to help
Experienced practitioner Beatrice Appay, health and wellness coach, can help you feel stronger and happier. Through breathwork masterclasses, massage therapy, yoga, and Qigong classes, Beatrice can help reduce your stress and start your healing journey. She will show you powerful techniques to benefit your mental and physical health.
Beatrice holds sessions and classes in person or online, whichever works better for you. Contact us to find out more.