How to Recognise the Signs of Parental Burnout (and What to Do About It)

How to Recognise the Signs of Parental Burnout (and What to Do About It)
Photo: True Touch Lifestyle, Shutterstock

If you have parented children — especially young ones — during the past two years of the pandemic, you are likely feeling, shall we say, tired. All parents have felt the enormous stress of trying to raise decent, well-adjusted humans while fear and isolation skyrocketed, the structures and resources we rely on became ever-more inaccessible, and our own emotional, physical, and sometimes financial well-being suffered.

While the pandemic was stressful for all parents, the challenges have been particularly acute for those who work outside the home. Between unpredictable daycare closures, virtual learning (with kids who can’t sit still or read, much less type), and COVID tests and quarantining at the onset of every cough, our ability to hold down and perform a paying job has been severely tested. Patience has been stretched to its final tendrils as we try to conduct meetings and meet deadlines while siblings squabble and toddlers whine at our feet. (Then struggle with the guilt of ignoring or snapping at them so that work can get completed.)

Now, there’s a term for the next-level weariness many are experiencing. A new report conducted by Ohio State University has found that 66% of working parents meet the criteria for “parental burnout.” (The report, based on an online survey of 1,285 working parents was conducted between January 2021 and April 2021.) The report summarises, “Many parents, especially working parents whose children were sheltered at home with them for more than a year, feel the experience has taxed or broken them in some way.”

What is parental burnout?

How is parental burnout different from plain-old exhaustion? The study acknowledges that parental stress is normal, but defines parental burnout as: “when chronic stress and exhaustion occur that overwhelm a parent’s ability to cope and function. Burnout often results from a mismatch between perceived stressors and available resources and results in parents feeling physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted, as well as often detached from their children.”

The study found that females were more likely than males to have parental burnout. Sixty-eight per cent (68%) of females reported burnout verses 42% of males.

While you won’t find parental burnout as clinical diagnosis included in the DSM-5, the diagnostic tool published by the American Psychiatric Association, it is increasingly becoming recognised by psychologists as a subtype of work-related burnout recognised as a syndrome by the World Health Organisation.

Signs of parental burnout

Dr. Jennifer Yen, a psychiatrist at UTHealth Houston told the New York Times, “As with burnout, parental burnout is defined as physical, emotional and mental exhaustion due to the ongoing demands of caring for one’s children.” While many parents would simply describe this as “bedtime” or “Saturday,” Yen advises parents to be on the lookout “for signs like fatigue, irritability, changes in sleep, appetite and mood, or aches and pains. What sets parental burnout apart is how severe those symptoms are, as well as how much they affect daily functioning.”

Dr. Yen also noted other red flags that are specific to parental burnout, like feeling angry or resentful about having to care for your children, and starting to isolate from them physically or emotionally. Parents with burnout may also feel trapped or fantasize about leaving, she added.

How to determine if you have parental burnout (and why it matters)

In addition to general feelings of fatigue, anger, malaise or resentment, the OSU report, written by Kate Gawlik, associate professor of clinical nursing and Dr. Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk, university chief wellness officer, includes a working parent burnout scale, by which parents can measure where they stand. The scale asks working parents to rank statements like, “I lose my temper easily with my children” and “I feel overwhelmed trying to balance my job and parenting responsibilities” on a scale from “not at all” to “very much so.”

The study authors found that, “Burnout was strongly associated with depression, anxiety and increased alcohol consumption in parents, as well as the likelihood for parents to engage in punitive parenting practices. Parental burnout is associated with children’s internalizing, externalizing and attention behaviours.” (For example, feeling sad or unhappy (internalizing), fighting with/teasing other children (externalizing), and inability to sit still/trouble concentrating (attention).)

If you’re seeing an increase in these behaviours from your child, parental burnout may be at least partially to blame.

What to do about parental burnout

The study authors offer the following evidence-based strategies to cope:

Self care: Even a five- to ten-minute recovery break a couple of times a day to enhance your well-being or engage in something that brings you joy does wonders (e.g., drink a warm beverage slowly; do a five-minute meditation; get some physical activity, such as dancing to your favourite music or walking up and down the stairs.

Be kind to yourself: Don’t set expectations too high. Don’t overcommit or feel guilty for saying “no” to something. Forgive yourself; everyone has strengths and opportunities for improvement.

Talk to someone you trust about how you are feeling: Stay connected to family and friends.

Build your mental resiliency and coping skills: This can include practicing mindfulness, developing cognitive-behavioural skills, practicing gratitude and self-affirmations and deep abdominal breathing.

Ask for help: If your level of burnout, anxiety and/ or depressive symptoms are interfering with your ability to function or concentrate, talk to your primary care provider or seek out mental health help. It is a strength to recognise when we need help, not a weakness.

A note of caution

While the burnout scale is, according to the study authors, “an opportunity [for parents] to reflect on their own mental and emotional well-being…while potentially providing motivation to do something constructive about it,” it is not a substitute for getting treated for diagnosable mental health conditions like anxiety or depression. If you have other mental health concerns, seek the advice of your doctor or a licensed therapist.

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