Signs you could be suffering from parental burnout
Being a parent is a brilliant and rewarding experience, but it's also challenging and exhausting.
From newborn worries and the demanding toddler years to dealing with teenage rebellion, difficult periods are to be expected. But when chronic stresses associated with parenting become overwhelming, it could be a sign of something more severe.
Burnout is often associated with over-working and being constantly busy, but the mental health condition can also manifest in a parenting environment. Exhaustion, lack of motivation and depression are just a few of the more common symptoms which could indicate parental burnout.
WHAT IS PARENTAL BURNOUT?
Moira Mikolajczak and Isabelle Roskam, professors of psychology at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, explored parental burnout in a 2019 study. The professors described the condition as "an overwhelming exhaustion related to one’s parental role, an emotional distancing from one’s children, and a sense of parental ineffectiveness."
The charity, Action for Children, which offers support for parents showing symptoms of burnout, defines it as "feeling overwhelmed on a day-to-day basis", combined with a sense that "the pressure to be a 'good' parent is too much."
WHAT ARE THE SIGNS OF PARENTAL BURNOUT?
According to Mikolajczak and Roskam's research, there are four key signs of parental burnout to look out for. However, it's worth noting how many of these are present, the intensity and the frequency of them. These signs are:
The parent feels overwhelmed and chronically exhausted from carrying out their parental role.
This feeling is a marked change in how parents previously felt about their parental role and they are not enjoying their parental role or being with their children, as they used to.
The parent feels a sense of being trapped and fed up in their parenting experience.
The parent feels a sense of emotional distancing from spouses and children and recognises that they are not being the parent they would like to be.
The main signs can build up on top of each other, but they can also differ depending on the age of a parent's child or children.
"Parents of children in the early years tend to be more physically tired, while those with adolescents may experience emotional exhaustion because of greater conflict in the home," notes Dr Martha Deiros Collado, a clinical psychologist.
As symptoms progress, they can quickly worsen over time and burnout can feel inescapable. "If someone is at the start of burning out, they will talk about about feeling increased irritability, snapping at the children, feeling constantly rushed, a sense of brain fog, which can become too much with an absence of resources," Julianne Boutaleb, a consultant perinatal psychologist, explains.
"Over time, if this continues, you tend to see something much more worrying, such as waking up with a sense of dread in the morning and a real guilt and shame about not feeling like a good enough parent. At the very sharp end of that spectrum are feelings of being trapped, with thoughts of self-harm, suicidality or a want to just leave."
While it's important to be aware of these symptoms, Boutaleb warns that there is a danger of using parental burnout as a "catch all term" that may overlook the fact that parents have been through previous traumatic experiences. "We need to differentiate between something like depression and parental burnout as the help needed may be different for each person," she adds.
It's also critical to remember that suffering from burnout doesn’t make you a bad parent. "It makes you a human in need of support and validation," as Dr Martha puts it.
WHAT CAUSES PARENTAL BURNOUT?
Ultimately, parental burnout is caused by an imbalance of stress and resources.
Someone who is experiencing high levels of stress, for example, might not necessarily experience burnout if they have high levels of resources (e.g. a supportive partner, hobbies or strong sense of community). Where the balance between stress and resources leans towards the stress end, there is higher risk of experiencing burnout.
This balance became increasingly difficult to maintain during the Covid pandemic, when parents had to fulfil their professional roles while managing childcare, without the support of wider family and friends. Following two years of pandemic parenting, juggling work and home life continues to be a struggle for many. There's been a renewed desire to fulfil parenting experiences such as playdates, visiting family and going on holiday, but many parents simply don't have the energy as they continue to operate in survival mode.
"What's important here is that parents are often in a situation where they no longer have the resources to manage the stresses involved and a lot of that is not to do with the individual, it's to do with the wider system," says Boutaleb.
"Parents often hold very high expectations of themselves, but they often can't be realised given the lack of support available. It's important that parents understand it isn't down to them failing, it's about a wider system that just doesn't support parents enough."
HOW CAN YOU TELL IF PARENTAL BURNOUT HAS STARTED?
In a study of over 2,000 parents in October 2021, Action for Children found that 82% of UK parents demonstrated at least one of the warning signs of parental burnout as a result of the pandemic.
The most common red flags shown by parents included anxiety, disruption to sleep and feeling isolated. In addition, a study by Oxford University found that parents and carers reported an increase in symptoms of stress and depression, especially during the period from November to December 2020.
If a parent starts to notice these symptoms in themselves, it's important to take the time to assess what is going on and take the necessary steps needed. A good place to start is considering how long have the symptoms been going on for.
"Often parents brush off or dismiss earlier signs of burnout like sleeplessness or panic attacks, and keep going to the point where they feel stressed," Boutaleb explains. This means burnout may be experienced for quite some time before it is identified.
Secondly, is respite from caring for the children making a difference? If the answer is no, it's likely burnout has already started. "Ask yourself honestly if this is something more and can you speak to a trusted person about what you're noticing?" says Boutaleb.
Once burnout has been identified, finding mental health support is the crucial next step, whether that's from a GP, a parenting support worker or low-cost psychology services.
HOW CAN PARENTAL BURNOUT BE HELPED?
Making small changes to every day routines and opening up to others can make a big difference in helping a parent get back on track.
"Burnout can leave parents feelings isolated and ashamed, which can make seeking support harder," says Dr Collado. "It can help to know you are not alone - there are many parents affected by burnout and by talking about this we can remove shame and begin to normalise the effects that parenting without a village to support us can cause."
Sue Rogers, Head of Practice Development at Family Action, which provides community-based services and support for families, shares some tips for managing parental burnout below.
Talk - "Let someone know how you are feeling, such as a partner, friend or relative – they may not have noticed. Even telling yourself out loud as a starting point. Speaking thoughts and feelings out loud have a really positive impact on how we are dealing with things and how they may be weighing us down without even realising. Getting those heavy feeling out really helps. If you don’t feel able to talk to family or friends then you could try speaking to local support services, such as your Children’s Centre/Family Hub or GP. Family Action also provides FamilyLine, a helpline, text and email service that is there to listen and answer parenting questions or give guidance on family issues."
Write - "Try keeping a daily journal. This can just be words, a doodle, or paragraphs, aimed at just getting the feelings out, and lightening the load. Try writing a least one positive of the day and one thing to be grateful for in the day. When we are burnt out it can be harder to focus on positives, but this will really help you to feel lighter."
Routines – "Planning your days and writing this down helps, and it makes us feel more prepared for the next day. Try including things like meal planning, activity planning and planning to get exercise. Daily outside time such as exercise, a walk in the park or a visit to a friend’s house is helpful for our mood. If you find it challenging to go out, you could try to buddy up with someone. It is important for children too to be outside, run around, get fresh air and explore their environment."
Achievement – "We all succeed in something every day, but when do we tell ourselves that? Try to tell yourself 'well done' for things, and try telling others too. Say well done and give praise when the children achieve something and really take notice of how this makes your body feel. Then adopt the habit of telling yourself."
If you need further help or support, contact your GP or find a therapist to talk to here.
Resources and parenting coaches are also available on Action for Children.
You Might Also Like