Parental burnout is real. In fact, it's a diagnosable mental health condition. And the pandemic has made it worse. A survey called “Stress in the Time of Covid-19,” conducted by the Harris Poll with the American Psychological Association, found that 46% of parents with children under 18 said their stress level was very high. Whether it's working longer hours, coordinating working from home with child care, adjusting to new sets of rules, making sure school-aged kids do homework assignments and get to sports practice on time, or just worrying about keeping them safe in the pandemic (and thankfully, the CDC has recently approved vaccines for kids aged 5 and over), there’s a lot on the minds of parents these days. In this article, we look at the research behind parental burnout and ways to mitigate it.
What are the symptoms of parental burnout?
Parental burnout is a distinct psychological phenomenon separate from parents feeling generally stressed and tired (and the latter is pretty normal). Parents typically don’t burn out overnight - it's a longer process - although those feelings of irritability and exhaustion may be early warning signs of something bigger. The World Health Organization recently recognized parental burnout syndrome in its International Classification of Diseases as an occupational condition linked to symptoms such as fatigue, changing sleep habits, and substance use.
To receive an official diagnosis of parental burnout, you need the following four specific symptoms:
- You feel so exhausted you can’t get out of bed in the morning
- You become emotionally detached from your children; you might even have trouble showing them how much you love them
- You take no pleasure or joy in parenting, and have become less productive in the process
- These feelings are a marked change in behavior for you
The science behind parental burnout
Much of the recent understanding of parental burnout came from a peer-reviewed, published study done at a Belgian university in 2018. Scientists there found that burnout is much more common than previously understood and that it is associated with four primary factors: exhaustion in the parenting role, contrast with previous parental self, feelings of being fed up with the parenting role, and emotional distancing from children. Primary researcher Isabelle Roskam, PhD, concluded that, “...Parental burnout can be very damaging. As regards to the parents themselves, it can give rise to suicidal and escape ideations, which are much more frequent in parental burnout than in job burnout or even depression. This finding is not surprising considering that one cannot resign from one’s parenting role or be put on sick leave from one’s children.”
A follow-on study done at the same university and published in Frontiers in Psychology, found that although mothers with parental burnout syndrome seem to share some of the same characteristics as postpartum depression, parental burnout differs in that it occurs in mothers with children over 18 months old, and the depressive feelings are not generalized, but experienced specifically in relation to one’s parenting role and tasks.
Ways to address parental burnout
The first thing to do if you are feeling symptoms of parental burnout is to talk to a qualified behavioral health professional. This condition is real, so take it seriously. They can help diagnose your condition and come up with a treatment plan that may include some combination of therapy and medication.
In addition, experts suggest the following:
- Try to reduce perfectionism. Ask yourself “do I actually have to do everything I think I have to do at this moment?”
- Set up a structure or framework for each day (although it can be flexible). Experts suggest talking with family members and prioritizing by dividing activities into 3 categories: absolute non-negotiables, things you want to see happen, and things you would like to see happen. In this way, everyone’s expectations are on the same page.
- Look for the positives - even if it feels as if you are forcing yourself at first. Gratitude has been scientifically linked to improved mood. One way to feel more effective might be to keep a journal in which you write down one thing you did well as a parent every day.
- Schedule time for fun and relaxation - for you and for your family. It's easier said than done, but engaging in activities, guilt-free, that are good for you, not just good for your kids, will make a big difference. Take a walk outside, call a friend, make time for the gym, or promise yourself one episode of a favorite show at least once a week.
If you or someone you know are experiencing symptoms of parental burnout, consider consulting a behavioral health professional
If you’re a client, request an appointment online or call our live support for assistance in scheduling care today. Our mental health professionals understand parental burnout and have experience treating it. If you’re a behavioral health provider looking to join our network, see all the benefits and learn how to apply here.