What is Parental Burnout, and could you be at risk?

June 11, 2020
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Photo Credit: Sydney Sims | Unsplash

Burnout is a business buzz-word, but it can affect anyone, at any time. Could you be suffering from parental burnout, and what should you do if you think you are?

One of the truths eternal about parenting is that it is stressful. However, we’re not talking about the kind of stress that can be eased with meditation, deep-breathing, or venting to a sympathetic friend or partner. It’s important to acknowledge that you may be at risk of burning out and identifying the root cause.

According to research from Clinical Psychological Science, parental burnout happens when the stress of trying to “perfect” parenthood can morph into a vicious cycle. The increase in pressure leaves a parent feeling alienated from their children, dreaming of getting away from their family, and, in some cases, causing actual harm to their children.

Recognizing Parental Burnout

The current conversations about burnout tend to focus on those juggling their home and work-life balance. Connecting burnout to parenting is rarely covered.

Yet the 2019 research surveyed over 1500 parents and found that parental burnout is a very real thing. A parent experiencing burnout might feel overwhelmed, exhausted physically and mentally, and emotionally distanced from their children. Overwhelmingly the parent also felt like they were somehow ‘failing’ as a parent and feeling minimal self-worth about their family.

The results of parental burnout were felt across the family unit. Fantasies of “quitting” being a parent - otherwise known as escape ideation - were apparent in cases. Parents often unwittingly exhibited neglectful behavior. In some cases, verbal and psychological aggression was commonly directed at children.

Yet overwhelmingly, it wasn’t disinterested or indifferent parents who experienced burnout. Instead, it was parents who placed impossibly high standards on themselves who found that exhaustion was more likely to afflict them.

If you recognize any of the elements of parental burnout, it’s essential to acknowledge them. As an exhaustion based syndrome, discovering the root cause of parental burnout is the first step to managing it.

What to do if you're experiencing burnout

Explicitly and implicitly, the message given to parents is that parenting is always rewarding and fulfilling. The increased pressures of social media have done nothing to disparage the idea that it's possible to live in a house full of children that is always clean, tidy, and relaxing.

Parenting is also allowed to be fulfilling even when it's fraught with difficulties. The tantrums and inexplicable meltdowns. Dirty diapers and messy kitchens. Ongoing nights of 2, 3, and 4 AM wakeup calls, or fitful sleep worrying about your teenager. Managing social calendars, work calendars, nutrition, spiritual and mental wellbeing.

Acknowledging that parenting is challenging doesn't mean you're doing something wrong. It doesn't mean you shouldn't be a parent. The myths of parental perfection are just that: harmful myths.

If you find yourself experiencing burnout symptoms, first look for a cause or trigger, to work out what you need to help.

Some starting points:

  • Has your stress level increased because of a specific action or event?

  • Are you placing unrealistic expectations on yourself?

  • Do you have a support system in place that can help you if and when you might need it?

  • Are you reaching out and asking for help and support when you need it?

  • When was the last time you were able to give yourself a break?

The Bottom Line: Self Care is Child Care

When it comes to parental burnout, the specific challenge is that you can't just opt-out of being a parent to give yourself time to recover.

Instead, you must develop healthy coping mechanisms to get through stressful situations and actively practice self-care. Locate people or services that can help, and don't feel like you have to go it alone.

The goal of self-care is to get you back to a place where you can enjoy your parenting. It also helps teach your children a valuable lesson in looking after their mental health.