Parental Burnout: the signs, causes and how to avoid it

When we think of burnout, we’re likely to associate this type of exhaustion with excessive and prolonged stress that occurs when we feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, or unable to meet constant demands at work. For many years, burnout has been seen as an occupational hazard- but it’s not only reserved for the workplace…

Research has found that burnout is now often a feature of home life too. Known as parental burnout, Moira Mikolajczak, a professor of psychology at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, has been studying the condition for the past five years.

She says it is “an exhaustion syndrome, characterised by feeling physically and mentally overwhelmed by their role as a parent.” Moira’s research suggests cases are on the rise, with an estimated 10% of parents in the UK thought to be currently suffering symptoms of parental burnout.

“Oh you pretty things, don’t you know you’re driving your Mamas and Papas insane”

– David Bowie

Hardly surprising, as those of us who are parents will hold our hands up and admit that parenting is hard, and parenting during the time of the pandemic was undeniably challenging and exhausting. While some parents admit it’s okay to have a burnout, others feel guilty to acknowledge that they are stressed and tired, fearing that they fail as a parent by accepting this.

But no matter how much we love our kids, we don’t have endless wells of energy and we can’t keep going at lightning speed- especially if we’re running on empty.

If you’re a parent who is feeling the strain recently, burnout is a real condition that can affect any parent. You’re not alone feeling this way, so don’t hide how you feel as this won’t help you in the long run. If we are stressed and overwhelmed, we can’t be empathetic and patient parents, which is why acknowledging how we feel and taking steps to overcome parental burnout can help the whole family. 

What are the signs? 

During Mikolajczak’s research, she found the key signs of parental burnout to look out for, they are: 

  • Overwhelming exhaustion (related to parenting)
  • Emotional distancing from the child
  • A sense of ineffectiveness in one’s parenting role, causing feelings of guilt and shame

What causes parental burnout? 

Parental burnout is caused by an imbalance of stress/risk factors versus resources/protective factors, so if you’re experiencing high levels of stress with little resources, then you’re at risk of experiencing burnout. Stress factors such as: 

  • Little to no support from your co-parent
  • Financial strain
  • If you and your partner work 
  • A child with special needs
  • Limited support from your family and friends
  • History of depression and anxiety
  • Having perfectionist tendencies
  • Having an ‘I don’t like to ask for help’ attitude 

So what can you do if you feel like you’re spread too thin and are a poster child for parental burnout? Here are some ways to decrease parental stress, and what you can do to improve yours: 

Have self-compassion

Cut yourself some slack and give yourself a break. Raising a child is both rewarding and challenging. You will experience immense happiness at times, and there will be days you just want to run away from everything and be alone. It’s okay to feel this way, parenting is supposed to be hard and it’s okay to admit you’re struggling.

We tend to magnify our shortcomings, we beat ourselves up, set our expectations too high, and get caught in the spiral of negative thinking- but this just results in self-loathing. 

Instead, be mindful of the negative self-talk and take care of your three pillars of physical wellness- nutrition, sleep and exercise. Not making time to adequately care for yourself greatly increases your risk of burnout, and while taking care of yourself in these ways might seem like a “no-brainer”, you’d be surprised how many parents don’t place enough importance on them and their connection to burnout. 

Take some time out

Sometimes we need a time out more than our kids do. A relaxing break can help to reset your mood, thereby promoting positive wellbeing and reducing stress.

The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a deep breath and don’t be afraid to say “I need a minute”. Respite doesn’t have to be a spa day. It can be seeking the small moments of joy in the everyday in order to reset ourselves and build on our stress-management skills. 

You can do this by practising mindfulness, by being outdoors and enjoying nature. Just getting outside for some fresh air can boost your endorphins and provide you with a much needed change of scenery, putting you in a better mood. You might choose to say yes to the things that interest you, or listen to some music.

Remember that self-care is not just an act of doing but can also be setting boundaries with people and your time.

Reach out for help

Don’t wait for an SOS moment to ask for help. If you are finding things challenging, talk about your feelings and emotions with someone you trust such as a friend or fellow parent who will hear you out in an accepting and non-judgmental way- chances are they’ve been there too. Speaking about your feelings is an important outlet when feeling overwhelmed.

Why not delegate some of the responsibilities that can be shared and give yourself permission to do ‘just enough’ because you can’t do it all. Lower expectations of yourself so that they are more achievable- all you can do is your best, and your best is good enough.

Don’t be afraid to reach out for support from friends or family- perhaps they could help with some laundry, the school run or homework? Why not order a takeaway for dinner or have the shopping delivered to your home instead? That way you’ll free up some of your time and have one less job to do. 

You can’t pour from an empty cup, take care of yourself first

Parental burnout won’t disappear overnight, it takes time and an appreciation for self-care. Shutdown unrealistic expectations and make your mental health a priority so you can be the best parent you can be. On top of this, you’ll be setting a good example of self-care to your kids, which will teach them the importance of self-love and compassion- great coping strategies for life ahead. 

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