Let’s face it: Parenting is hard. Even in the best of circumstances—when co-parents work well together, support is available, and the children are happy and healthy—raising a human being is a daunting task. So it’s no surprise that researchers have identified a syndrome known as parental burnout.
Like job burnout, parental burnout comes with a set of specific symptoms. But what makes the problem worse is that parents are often ashamed and guilty about being burnt out. There’s a stigma associated with parental burnout. As a result, parents hide what they’re going through, and don’t reach out for practical and emotional support.
Parental Burnout Symptoms
One of the early signs of burnout is extreme physical and mental exhaustion. In addition, other signs of burnout in parents include the following:
- Suicidal thoughts and escape ideation; feeling trapped
- Increase in addictive behaviors
- Health issues
- Higher risk of anxiety and depression
- Emotional detachment
- Irritability and frustration
- Sleep disorders
- Increased frequency and intensity of conflict between parents
- Feelings of inadequacy; loss of a sense of accomplishment related to parenting
- Higher risk of neglectful and violent behavior toward the child or children.
“Parental burnout is a state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. It leaves parents feeling chronically fatigued, often experiencing sleep and concentration problems, and it can lead to depression, chronic anxiety, and illness.”
—Neil D. Brown LCSW, author of Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle
The Underlying Cause of Parental Burnout
The concept of parental burnout was introduced into scientific research more than 30 years ago. However, new studies are expanding our understanding of this phenomenon. According to recent research, the root cause of parental burnout is an imbalance between the demands of parenting and the rewards.
All parenting involves stress and challenges. However, the positive aspects of parenting ideally outweigh the negative ones. But when the scale tips the other way and parents experience more stress than rewards over time, they are at risk for burnout. “As soon as the balance leans on the negative side (i.e., risks outweigh resources), the parent starts experiencing most burnout symptoms every day,” wrote the authors of a 2018 study.
Moreover, while “mom burnout” is more common as women continue to be the primary care providers for children, fathers are also at risk for burnout when they are involved with parenting. In one survey of 2,000 parents, 63 percent reported they have experienced some form of parental burnout.
Risk vs. Resources in Parenting
Parenting both gives energy and consumes energy. To avoid parental burnout, the key is to balance the energy-consuming aspects of caregiving with attitudes and experiences that boost energy. For example, stress-increasing factors include
- Having a child with physical or mental health challenges
- Perfectionism: feeling you need to be the “perfect” parent at all times
- Lack of support from co-parent
- Both parents working outside the home
- Financial concerns
- Not enough support from outside the family (childcare, extended family, etc.)
- Finding it hard to ask for help
- Overscheduled kids
- Parental history of attachment disorders.
Factors that decrease stress include
- Parental self-compassion
- High emotional intelligence
- Prioritizing downtime for parents
- Positive co-parenting experiences
- External support from family, friends, etc.
Parenting That Never Stops = Burnout
In the age of technology, teens and young adults can stay in continuous contact with their parents. Even when their child is at school or in college, parents may be called upon at any time of the day to help avert a crisis or support a kid who’s having a hard day. Sometimes that’s a good thing. But it can also contribute to parental burnout.
In addition, parents are spending more time with their kids. American mothers now spend twice as much time with their children compared with women 50 years ago: an average of 125 minutes per day. And since 1965, fathers have tripled the time spent with their kids, to an average of about an hour daily. That’s a good thing, but it can be draining for parents.
Five Strategies for Counteracting Parental Burnout
Ask for help. It might be as simple as setting up ride-sharing for a child’s after-school activities. Or it could be something big, such as exploring residential treatment for a teen struggling with depression, anxiety, or another mental health challenge.
Know you’re not alone. As research shows, parental burnout is common. Release shame and guilt—it’s not helping. Letting go of self-blaming will free up emotional energy that can be used to shift what’s not working.
Practice self-compassion. Self-compassion involves a consistent attitude of acceptance and kindness toward ourselves. Taking this approach can help parents avoid the trap of perfectionism.
Join a support group. In support groups, parents can talk to others who understand the challenges, emotions, and practicalities that they’re dealing with every day.
Establish structure. Parents can reduce burnout by establishing clear boundaries and house rules. This structure works best when it’s created collaboratively with teens, and based on open communication, trust, and unconditional love.
Front Psychol. 2018; 9:886.
Front Psychol. 2017; 8:163.
Front Psychol. 2018; 9:1021.