Parental burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that parents experience due to the continuous demands and stress of parenthood. Burnout happens when chronic parenting stress becomes too much to handle, and parents feel that their resources are outweighed by the demands placed on them.1 Understanding the causes and recognizing the signs can help parents avoid the adverse effects of burnout.
- Is parental burnout a psychological disorder?
- Impact on children
- Impact on marriage
- How to deal with parental burnout
- Cultural context
Is parental burnout a psychological disorder?
No, parental burnout is not officially recognized as a psychological disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), which is the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals in the United States. However, burnout is acknowledged by the World Health Organization in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) and is defined as a syndrome caused by chronic work stress. Parental burnout is a type of burnout specifically due to the chronic stress from parenting duties. Therefore, parental burnout is sometimes called the depleted mother syndrome (or depleted father syndrome.)2
What are the signs of parental burnout?
Here are 7 signs that indicate a parent may be experiencing parental burnout.3
- Physical exhaustion – The most common and debilitating symptom of burnout is extreme exhaustion, despite adequate rest. Other physical symptoms include headaches, stomach problems, muscle tension or pain, and changes in appetite or sleep patterns.
- Emotional exhaustion – Feelings of sadness, frustration, and mood fluctuations, or unusually emotional without a clear reason, are symptoms of parental burnout.
- Parenting Aversion – A lack of energy and enthusiasm towards parenting responsibilities is common in parental burnout. The parent may be reluctant to spend time with their child, wake up with no anticipation for the day, or dread the activities they once enjoyed with their child. The parent may even feel they don’t want to be a parent anymore.
- Overwhelming Stress – Feelings of being overwhelmed, including symptoms of anxiety, irritability, or a sense of unease, persist even when they are not actively taking care of their child, can be a sign of burnout.
- Cognitive issues – Parents experiencing burnout can have trouble making decisions, staying focused, or remembering things, and often feel confused or on edge.
- Detachment or disconnection – Burnout parents may have a desire to withdraw or emotionally detach from their children or family. This emotional distancing can manifest as indifference or a lack of patience towards their child’s needs or emotions.
- Loss of parenting efficacy – Burnout can lead to a deterioration of their self-confidence. Parents may feel unfulfilled or inadequate in their parenting role.
What are the causes of parental burnout?
Here are 7 common causes of parental burnout.4
- Chronic Stress – The ongoing high-stress situations that parents face balancing work, family life, children, and self-care, can take a toll and eventually lead to burnout.
- Societal Pressures – The strain to achieve the unrealistic standards of a ‘perfect parent’ can place a heavy burden on parents, especially if they believe they are falling short of these unattainable standards.
- Lack of adequate Support – When parents lack sufficient support, whether from their partners, close family, or their community, it can quickly lead to feelings of being overwhelmed.
- Financial Strains – Ongoing financial pressures can contribute to parental stress and burnout.
- Work-Life Pressures – Managing multiple roles, including being an employee, parent, partner, and caregiver, can become overwhelming.
- Lack of Personal Time – Not being able to pursue personal interests or get recharged can exacerbate the feeling of burnout.
- Single Parenthood – Single parents often take on the full parenting duties alone, which raises the risk of them experiencing burnout.
Who experiences parental burnout?
Parents with the following factors may be more vulnerable to parental burnout, although any caregiver can face burnout when the demands of their role outweigh their available resources.5
- First-time parents – The lack of experience and dramatic life change of transitioning to parenthood makes burnout more common.
- Parents of young children – The early childhood years are demanding as children require around-the-clock care at times.
- Single parents – Without a partner to trade off with, the responsibilities fall solely on one parent.
- Parents of multiple children close in age – More kids equals more demands to juggle.
- Parents of children with special needs – Additional caretaking requirements lead to higher rates of burnout.
- Perfectionist parents – Unrealistic expectations of oneself as a parent can quicken burnout.
- Parents with inadequate support – Lack of social or family support contributes to fatigue.
- Parents struggling with their mental health – Pre-existing issues like depression or anxiety can be compounded.
- Work-Life Imbalance – Parents juggling demanding careers alongside parenting responsibilities may be at higher risk.
- Parents facing financial stress – Financial, job, or housing instability adds to pressures.
- Societal and Cultural Pressures – Parents who feel the weight of societal expectations or cultural norms may be more prone to experiencing burnout.
Do both mothers and fathers experience parental burnout?
Both mothers and fathers can experience parental burnout when their duties exceed their resources.
At what age in a child is parental burnout most common?
Parental burnout is most common when children are between 1 and 5 years old. This period tends to be the most demanding and intensive for hands-on parenting, including around-the-clock caregiving. Adolescence also presents its own set of challenges, including behavioral issues and emotional volatility, which can contribute to parental stress and potential burnout. However, parental burnout can occur at any stage of a child’s life, depending on various factors such as the parent’s support system, work-life balance, and individual’s stress tolerance.
What are the effects of parental burnout?
In a parent dealing with parental burnout, stress activates the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline within the brain.
These hormones prepare the body for a ‘fight or flight’ response, raising the heart rate, tightening the muscles, and increasing breathing.
Chronic stress in parents experiencing burnout results in a sustained release of stress hormones, which can impact their health in 5 ways.
- Sleep problems – High stress levels can interfere with their sleep patterns and quality of sleep or cause insomnia.
- Digestive issues – Stress can impact digestion, leading to symptoms like nausea, upset stomach, or constipation.
- Weakened immune system – Chronic exposure to stress hormones can weaken the immune system over time, making them more susceptible to illnesses.
- Weight fluctuations – Changes in eating habits or metabolic rates due to stress can lead to weight gain or loss.
- Heart issues – Chronic stress increases the risk of hypertension and heart disease.
How does parental burnout impact children?
Parental burnout can adversely affect children in the following ways.6
- Emotional Impact – Burnout often leads to increased mood swings, negativity, and irritability in parents, which children may notice and even blame themselves for. This can cause the child to suffer from emotional distress, low self-esteem, and issues like anxiety and depression.
- Reduced Emotional Availability – Burnout can result in emotional withdrawal, making a parentless emotionally available for their children. Unmet emotional needs can affect a child’s emotional development and sense of security.
- Behavioral Issues – Children may display aggression and disobedience when they don’t receive adequate attention and regulation.
- Harsher Parenting Practices – Parental burnout may lead to harsher and less consistent parenting, which is linked to more behavioral issues and worse outcomes in children
- Health Consequences – Burnout is associated with child neglect and maltreatment and can also lead to health problems in children.
- Strained Parent-Child Bond – Constant stress and mental exhaustion may limit a parent’s ability to engage with their children, resulting in poor bonding and a strained parent-child relationship.
- Lower Academic Performance – Parental burnout can lead to reduced parental support, negatively impacting a child’s academic performance.
- Poor Social Skills – Insufficient attention and interaction may result in a child developing poor social skills, making it difficult for them to interact well with others.
How does parental burnout impact marriage?
Parental burnout can affect marriages in the following ways:
When a parent is constantly stressed and overwhelmed by caregiving duties, they may feel undervalued or unsupported in childcare responsibilities, which can lead to feelings of resentment and dissatisfaction in a marriage.
Exhaustion may lead to disrupted communication and misunderstanding in couples.
Parents suffering from burnout spend less quality time together as a couple, further affecting the romantic relationship.
The negative effects of parental burnout on mental health, such as depression and anxiety, can also indirectly impact marital satisfaction, placing extra strain on the relationship and exacerbating marital discord.
How to deal with parental burnout
Dealing with parental burnout can be challenging, but there are 7 ways to manage it.7
- Set Healthy Boundaries: Set healthy boundaries with your partner, children, and family, ensuring that you take the necessary time out for yourself.
- Build a Support Network: Reach out to a support network, whether it’s family members, friends, or fellow parents, to share your experiences and get help or advice.
- Practice Self-Care: Make time for hobbies or activities you enjoy that help you relax and that you get to enjoy outside of parenting.
- Prioritize Healthcare: Take care of your physical health by eating a balanced diet, staying hydrated, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep, significantly improving your stress management.
- Meditate: Practice yoga, meditation, guided relaxation, or other mindfulness exercises and relaxation techniques that help increase emotional well-being, mental clarity, and resilience.
- Embrace Imperfection: Acknowledge that everyone makes mistakes, striving for perfection sets unattainable expectations, and it’s normal not to be a perfect parent.
- Seek Professional Help: Seek advice from a therapist, counselor, or psychologist who can provide effective coping strategies and advice for severe parental burnout.
Does cultural context influence parental burnout?
The cultural context plays a significant role in influencing parental burnout in the following ways.8
- High Parenting Standards – In cultures that promote the ‘perfect parent’ image, parents might feel pressure to conform to these ideals, leading to chronic stress and eventual burnout.
- Cultural Influence – The culture a parent is in affects the help they can get. In places where family members often help raise kids, parents may be less likely to feel burned out because they have more support and less stress.
- Work-life Balance – In cultures where long work hours are the norm, parents may struggle to balance their work duties with their roles at home.
- 1.Van Bakel HJA, Van Engen ML, Peters P. Validity of the Parental Burnout Inventory Among Dutch Employees. Front Psychol. Published online May 23, 2018. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00697
- 2.Nadon L, De Beer LT, Morin AJS. Should Burnout Be Conceptualized as a Mental Disorder? Behavioral Sciences. Published online March 17, 2022:82. doi:10.3390/bs12030082
- 3.Roskam I, Brianda ME, Mikolajczak M. A Step Forward in the Conceptualization and Measurement of Parental Burnout: The Parental Burnout Assessment (PBA). Front Psychol. Published online June 6, 2018. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00758
- 4.Hubert S, Aujoulat I. Parental Burnout: When Exhausted Mothers Open Up. Front Psychol. Published online June 26, 2018. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01021
- 5.Sorkkila M, Aunola K. Risk Factors for Parental Burnout among Finnish Parents: The Role of Socially Prescribed Perfectionism. J Child Fam Stud. Published online October 10, 2019:648-659. doi:10.1007/s10826-019-01607-1
- 6.Blanchard MA, Roskam I, Mikolajczak M, Heeren A. A network approach to parental burnout. Child Abuse & Neglect. Published online January 2021:104826. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2020.104826
- 7.Mikolajczak M, Roskam I. A Theoretical and Clinical Framework for Parental Burnout: The Balance Between Risks and Resources (BR2). Front Psychol. Published online June 12, 2018. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00886
- 8.Roskam I, Aguiar J, Akgun E, et al. Parental Burnout Around the Globe: a 42-Country Study. Affec Sci. Published online March 2021:58-79. doi:10.1007/s42761-020-00028-4