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Parental Burnout: What It Is, How To Spot Signs, and How Parents Can Cope

| What is Parental Burnout? | Parental Burnout During Pandemic | Symptoms | Impacts | Causes | How to Recover From Parental Burnout |

Raising children can be a wonderful and rewarding experience, but parenting is one of the most demanding and taxing jobs. It requires continuous effort, attention, and thoughtfulness.

Having a child can place a great deal of stress on the parents from birth. 

Children bring with them daily hassles (e.g., schoolwork), acute stressors (e.g., sibling fighting), and chronic stressors (e.g., behavioral problems). 

When parents lack the resources to handle chronic stress, they become at risk of burnout​1​.

burnout mom talks on phone while holding baby and toddler pulling her arm

What is Parental Burnout?

Parental burnout occurs when chronic parenting stress severely overwhelms the parent’s ability to cope. There is an enduring imbalance between the demands on parents and the resources available to them, resulting in parental exhaustion syndrome.

Parent burnout differs from ordinary parenting stress in that it goes far beyond that​2​.

Stress is inevitable in parents’ lives from time to time, and that’s perfectly normal. 

But parental burnout is a state of overwhelming exhaustion brought about by the chronic depletion of inadequate resources. This serious condition has severe consequences for both parents and children.

Parental Burnout During Pandemic

Parenting is challenging, even at the best of times. But the recent worldwide lockdown made it worse, a lot worse.

The closure of daycares, schools, and nonessential businesses caused significant disruption to families’ everyday life.

Working from home while simultaneously parenting and homeschooling was a new challenge for parents.

Many people had financial concerns as they lost their jobs or experienced reduced income. They were unable to pay their bills since they did not have emergency savings to cover basic living expenses​3​.

Chronic exposure to overwhelming stress escalated to the level of parental burnout for many parents during this difficult time.

Although the media focused a lot on maternal burnout, parenting burnout is not exclusive to mothers.

Studies have found that mothers and fathers who experience parental burnout exhibit the same symptoms and antecedent conditions​4​.

Parental Burnout Symptoms and Signs

Symptoms of burnout in parenting are similar to those of job burnout, but they are unique in the parenting context. Here is how you can spot signs of burnout in parents.

Physical and Emotional Exhaustion

Burned out parents experience intense fatigue. They feel exhausted and are tired of parenting.

Parents may have physical symptoms such as increased somatic complaints and decreased sleep quality.

It is exhausting for them to get up in the morning and face another day with their children.

Even the thought of their role as parents drains them. They feel they are at their wits’ end​5​.

Emotional Distancing From Their Children

To conserve their energy, burnt-out parents emotionally distance themselves from their children.

When parents are depleted, they are less engaged in their children’s upbringing and do the bare minimum in child care. 

They detach themselves emotionally. Their interactions are limited to functional aspects, such as feeding, to the detriment of their relationships and emotional connections​6​.

Does Not Enjoy Being A Parent

Contrary to how they used to be and wanted to be, burnout parents no longer enjoy spending time with their children or even want to be parents.

They disengage emotionally and further decrease the possibility of having a positive relationship with their children​7​.

Tired parents may feel guilty because they think something is wrong with them. They also feel ashamed for wanting to abandon their parental roles and worry that people will view them as bad parents.

Loss of efficacy of parenting

Exhausted parents have doubts about their abilities being parents.

They feel a lack of personal effectiveness. Compared to how they used to be, the parents are not able to deal with problems calmly or effectively. These parents believe they are ineffective parents and are not the parents they wanted to be​8​.

Impacts of Parental burnout

Any parent can occasionally experience burnout symptoms. But it is the severity and frequency of symptoms that make parental burnout such a worrying psychological condition. 

As burnout symptoms become more frequent and severe, their severity directly correlates with burnout’s pervasive effects. 

Here are the effects of burnout on parents​9​.

What Causes Parental Burnout

Parental burnout develops when parental resources are insufficient to meet the demands of parenting. We can find out what causes parental burnout by identifying the demands (risk factors) and resources (protective factors).

Risk factors can increase parents’ vulnerability to burnout.

Parents are at a greater risk for burnout when they

  • Aim to be perfect parents
  • Are more neurotic, less conscientious, and less agreeable
  • Lack emotional regulation skills
  • No emotional or practical support from the co-parent 
  • Poor child-rearing practices
  • Disabled children or children with special needs that interfere with family life
  • Work part-time, stay-at-home parents, or single parents
  • Lack of social support

Protective factors are resources and strengths parents can draw upon in tough times. They help to significantly decrease parental stress​10​.

Parents are more protected from burnout when they

  • Have self-compassion
  • Are more conscientious, agreeable, and extraverted
  • High emotional intelligence or stress management skills
  • Good parenting practices
  • Spend time on leisure
  • Positive co-parenting
  • Supportive social environment

How to Recover From Parental Burnout

Replace Perfect With Good Enough

Humans are not limitless. No one is perfect or can do it all. 

Even those who seem to have it all have sacrificed something. With limited resources, we have to prioritize.

A perfect parent, if such a thing exists, is not in our children’s best interests. 

It is more important to be a good enough parent for our children. Our imperfection allows our children to comprehend and adjust to the realities around them​11​.

Practice self-compassion by allowing yourself to make mistakes and be imperfect.

Relationship First

Close relationships and open communication can lessen parents’ burnout, whether with their children, spouse, or co-parent.

That means spending more quality time with our children instead of focusing on nagging them to finish their homework or chores. 

Make time for your spouse rather than hustling all day.

Meditation and Mindfulness

Meditation is the most common form of practicing mindfulness.

Mindful parenting can help parents stay in the moment rather than ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. Parents’ emotional regulation can be improved, resulting in a reduction in stress​12​.

Do Not Compare

Parents of school-aged children often compare their children’s performance with those of their peers. Sometimes they also compare themselves to other parents.

Whether you compare yourself with other parents or your child with other children, comparing only serves to stress or depress you.

By being mindful, you can catch your unconscious comparing thoughts and stop them.

Get Enough Sleep

Sleep disruption and stress form a bidirectional vicious circle: sleep disorders decrease the resources needed to cope with stress, and stress adversely affects sleep quality and quantity​13​.

Having enough rest is critical in preventing parental burnout. Seek medical attention if you have trouble sleeping.

Self-Care

Parents often feel guilty about taking time away from their children to care for themselves, as if they are cheating them. Working parents may find it difficult to find spare time for themselves.

But a healthy and happy parent is essential for a child’s development and success in life.

Maintaining your mental health may seem a luxury, but it’s essential. 

Take some time for yourself to do something fun and relaxing. Take a walk daily, pick up a hobby, or do something enjoyable with your children.

Ask For Help

Parents of children with disabilities are more likely to suffer from social isolation. Reach out for social support and ask for help. It does take a village.

If you are experiencing burnout, seek help from mental health professionals as soon as possible.

References

  1. 1.
    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
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    Brianda ME, Roskam I, Mikolajczak M. Hair cortisol concentration as a biomarker of parental burnout. Psychoneuroendocrinology. Published online July 2020:104681. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2020.104681
  3. 3.
    Griffith AK. Parental Burnout and Child Maltreatment During the COVID-19 Pandemic. J Fam Viol. Published online June 23, 2020:725-731. doi:10.1007/s10896-020-00172-2
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    Roskam I, Mikolajczak M. Gender Differences in the Nature, Antecedents and Consequences of Parental Burnout. Sex Roles. Published online January 21, 2020:485-498. doi:10.1007/s11199-020-01121-5
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    Roskam I, Raes ME, Mikolajczak M. Exhausted Parents: Development and Preliminary Validation of the Parental Burnout Inventory. Front Psychol. Published online February 9, 2017. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00163
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    Hobfoll SE. Conservation of resources: A new attempt at conceptualizing stress. American Psychologist. Published online 1989:513-524. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.44.3.513
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    Hubert S, Aujoulat I. Parental Burnout: When Exhausted Mothers Open Up. Front Psychol. Published online June 26, 2018. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01021
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    Mikolajczak M, Raes ME, Avalosse H, Roskam I. Exhausted Parents: Sociodemographic, Child-Related, Parent-Related, Parenting and Family-Functioning Correlates of Parental Burnout. J Child Fam Stud. Published online October 7, 2017:602-614. doi:10.1007/s10826-017-0892-4
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    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
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    Le Vigouroux S, Scola C, Raes ME, Mikolajczak M, Roskam I. The big five personality traits and parental burnout: Protective and risk factors. Personality and Individual Differences. Published online December 2017:216-219. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2017.07.023
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    Mikolajczak M, Gross JJ, Roskam I. Parental Burnout: What Is It, and Why Does It Matter? Clinical Psychological Science. Published online August 20, 2019:1319-1329. doi:10.1177/2167702619858430
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    Nelis D, Kotsou I, Quoidbach J, et al. Increasing emotional competence improves psychological and physical well-being, social relationships, and employability. Emotion. Published online 2011:354-366. doi:10.1037/a0021554
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    Aunola K, Sorkkila M, Tolvanen A. Validity of the Finnish version of the Parental Burnout Assessment (PBA). Scand J Psychol. Published online June 15, 2020:714-722. doi:10.1111/sjop.12654

About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University). Learn more

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